By the time Phish arrived in Atlantic City last week, the Burlington band’s most rabid fans had worked themselves into a rapturous, pre-Halloween frenzy. For the seventh time since 1994, the group had promised to don a musical costume and cover an entire album as the second of three sets. In years past, they’d performed such classics as the Beatles’ The White Album and the Velvet Underground’s Loaded.
This time around, tea-leaf-reading fans on internet message boards had convinced themselves that Phish would bust out Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or the Allman Brothers Band’s Eat a Peach. Or, just maybe, Peter Gabriel would join the group onstage to perform Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
But Phish had different plans.
Rather than reach into the distant past, the band leapt into the future, covering an album that has yet to be recorded: their own forthcoming Wingsuit. Over 80 minutes, Phish debuted 12 brand-new songs, which guitarist Trey Anastasio told the crowd the band would begin recording within days.
As bewildered but ecstatic fans looked on, the quartet alternated between jam vehicles such as the aptly named “Fuego” and the bass-driven “555,” and a trio of acoustic compositions performed at center stage. Midway through a quirky cow-funk number called “Wombat,” the 92-year-old actor Abe Vigoda, who played Salvatore Tessio in The Godfather, emerged onstage in a giant wombat suit to dance.
The message was clear: Four weeks shy of Phish’s 30th anniversary, the band still has a few tricks up its sleeve.
“We had an amazing year together,” an ebullient Anastasio told the Atlantic City crowd as he wound down the Wingsuit set.
If anything, he was understating the case.
Even the band’s hypercritical fans appear to agree that 2013 has been Phish’s finest since its members reunited in 2009 after a five-year breakup — and some are even comparing it favorably to the banner years of the mid and late 1990s. From this summer’s 36-minute performance of “Tweezer” at Lake Tahoe to the group’s impeccable, 12-date East Coast tour this fall, Phish have made a persuasive case that they are entering their prime.
Bassist Mike Gordon attributes Phish’s recent musical accomplishment to a newfound sense of self-confidence the members feel after decades of working out their creative insecurities. Having stretched their muscles through various side projects, they have returned to a more democratic and collaborative Phish. And they’ve freed themselves from the distractions of an enormous infrastructure and a hard-partying culture.
“It’s kind of corny sounding, but there’s a lot of love between the band members right now,” Gordon tells Seven Days. “The fact that we’ve straightened out our lives — our personal lives and our creative lives — and that we feel so confident as individuals means that when we come together we have more to put on the table and to bounce off each other.”
On December 2, 1983, a band calling itself Blackwood Convention made it halfway through a semiformal dance at the University of Vermont’s Harris-Millis dormitory before they were jettisoned. Evidently uninspired by the group’s renditions of “Proud Mary” and “Scarlet Begonias,” dance organizers allegedly drowned out the band with a recording of “Thriller.”
“Michael Jackson was being played constantly,” explains Amy Skelton, one of the few fans to attend the first performance of the band that would soon rechristen itself as Phish. “If you were a mainstream college kid listening to Michael Jackson, Phish is just not what you probably wanted to hear right now while you’re drinking your Miller Lite or whatever.”
After a brief hiatus following Anastasio’s suspension from UVM and a couple of minor personnel changes, Phish crystallized around a four-man lineup when keyboardist Page McConnell joined Anastasio, Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman in 1985. Soon they were playing Burlington nightclubs Nectar’s and Hunt’s — and attracting more than just Skelton to their shows.
“The whole thing had a really great sense of humor, and it felt like you were going to your own personal little party,” she says. “I still think it feels like that.”
In an interview with the PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown this summer, Anastasio credited Vermont’s then-18-plus drinking age with creating an abundance of places to perform in Burlington.
“Every bar wanted a band,” he said. “We got really good at playing live. And I think if we weren’t in the right place at the right time, I don’t know that any of this would’ve happened.”
Nectar Rorris, who booked Phish on Sunday and Monday nights at his eponymous club, says the relationship was mutually beneficial.
“They were good to me. They played music young people like, and they were drawing young people in,” says Rorris, whose face graced the cover of the band’s 1992 album A Picture of Nectar. “When they started making a name out of state, there were more people coming in.”
But even as Phish began to build an audience, they “didn’t fit in” with Burlington’s music scene at the time, says Paul Languedoc. He served as the band’s soundman from 1986 through 2004 and still builds Anastasio’s guitars.
“They were the hippie band, whether that was deserved or not,” Languedoc says. “Everything at that time was new-wave kind of stuff and hardcore kind of music. The paper at the time, the Vanguard Press, sort of looked disdainfully at Phish. But they were popular. They drew big crowds.”
That dynamic continued into the early 1990s, Languedoc says, when Phish’s reach expanded well beyond New England.
“We would go on tours and be playing in 1500- or 2000-seat theaters and then come back to Burlington and play a 400-capacity venue — the Front, primarily,” he says. “Nobody had any idea in Burlington that they were drawing big crowds in Georgia or Boulder.”
But for some aspiring musicians back home, Phish’s improbable ascent was nothing short of inspirational.
“As a fan, you felt you were part of the journey and owned some piece of the greater collective,” says Reid Genauer, who first saw the band at the Front (located in the present-day Skirack), soon after he matriculated at UVM in 1990. “I think it was because they were such a part of the fabric of Burlington as people and personalities and musicians — and just because they were authentic as a band.”
When Genauer founded Strangefolk the next year with fellow guitarist Jon Trafton, they found themselves emulating Phish’s rigorous practice regimen, their focus on the live show and eventually even their homegrown music festivals, which Phish had pioneered.
“It seemed like the only logical way forward was to do it the way they were doing it — and that’s what we did,” Genauer says.
That’s the sort of impact Mike Gordon — who, like McConnell and Fishman, still lives in Vermont — hopes Phish has had on his adopted state.
“The biggest compliment is when someone’s inspired,” the bassist says. “And if there’s a younger fan or musician that feels like, ‘Well, Phish had some success outside of Vermont, so we can, too.’”
Grace Potter, perhaps the biggest live act to come out of Vermont since Phish, says she still remembers seeing the band when it played at Sugarbush, near her Waitsfield home, in 1994.
“I was 10, and my parents said I was too young to go to the concert, but me and a couple friends hiked through the woods and listened. I was hooked,” she recalls.
As Potter was getting started, learning how to play Phish songs “was kind of a rite of passage,” she says. Now that she’s in the big league, Potter says she tries to follow Phish’s lead in connecting with her fans. And she, too, has taken to inviting local musicians to her festival, Grand Point North — including McConnell, who sat in with Potter and the Nocturnals for a ZZ Top cover last summer.
“As I’ve gotten to know them all better, all I can say is that they are brilliant and humble human beings with talent and compassion that reaches out in a lot of different directions and touches many people,” she says. “I’m so proud to share a little piece of Vermont’s musical legacy with those fine, fine gentlemen.”
To the uninitiated, there are two great fallacies about Phish and their music. The first is that they are an unserious group of stoner hippies who noodle around onstage for the sake of noodling around. That perception is driven, perhaps, by the admittedly ridiculous nature of their lyrics and an inaccurate stereotype of their fans as drug-addled and dreadlocked. (In fact, you’re more likely to run into a lawyer than a drug dealer at their shows these days.)
To be sure, Phish’s members have never been great lyricists, nor — with the possible exception of McConnell — particularly good singers. But you would be hard-pressed to find a rock band with compositional skills as advanced and eclectic. Nor could you easily find four musicians who have spent as much time together listening to one another and learning to anticipate their bandmates’ next moves.
That’s given them the ability, says Relix Magazine editor-in-chief Dean Budnick, “to collectively improvise — not just solo over changes — and go out and enter an improvisational space where they are taking the audience on a collective journey.”
Music like that doesn’t happen by accident.
“They’re not just these big guys who bullshit their way through the gig,” says Middlebury drummer Russ Lawton, who plays in Anastasio’s side band. “They take it very serious.”
Another Trey Anastasio Band member, Saratoga Springs bassist Tony Markellis (a longtime member of Kilimanjaro and the Unknown Blues Band), describes Phish’s guitarist this way: “If you sign on to do anything with Trey, you better be prepared to be in it 100 percent, because he expects a lot of himself and he expects a lot of the people around him. It’s just kind of a whirlwind.”
That energy and devotion to the craft has yielded results for Phish, whose music sounds like more than the work of just four people.
“I think the strength of the band is they interact successfully,” Markellis says. “A lot of musicians just play, but they really interact.”
“A lot of it is subconscious,” Gordon explains. “When it feels good, we’re kind of gliding with it. And I don’t know why after 2000 gigs we couldn’t learn to make just about all of them like that, but I guess that’s the nature of improvisation.”
The second and more pernicious Phish fallacy is that they are little more than a latter-day reincarnation of the Grateful Dead. The surface similarities — the tribal audiences, the improvisational style and focus on live performance — are obvious. But if you actually listen to the music, it’s dramatically different.
The Dead’s finest work was soulful and haunting. It spoke to the midcentury American experience through adept storytelling and evocative tone. And while its members may have lacked, for the most part, the formal training and discipline of their Vermont successors, they reached emotional depths yet uncharted by Phish.
What Phish lack in soul and substance, they more than make up for in range and technical prowess. Their music is smarter, edgier and more cohesive than that of the Dead. And while Phish may not have Pigpen’s grit or Jerry Garcia’s heart, their roller-coaster ride of tension and release will leave you clinging to the safety bar like nothing the Dead ever did.
“The first time I heard Phish, I thought they sounded nothing like the Dead,” says Mitch Wertlieb, the Vermont Public Radio “Morning Edition” host who regularly plays both bands between segments. “They had more of a hard-rock sound. A lot of the stuff I heard had more in common with early Genesis — Peter Gabriel stuff. It seemed more theatrical to me.”
Indeed, while the Dead drew from R&B, country-western and California jug bands, Phish’s members grew up listening to Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin, Talking Heads and YES. The differences are regional and generational and, to a certain extent, socioeconomic.
This is a band whose members came of age in the suburbs of New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania in the late 1970s and early ’80s. They hung out in shopping malls, went to good schools and read a lot of J.R.R. Tolkien. Their parents were doctors, businessmen, artists and educators.
That Phish’s music lacks the soulfulness of the downtrodden is a function of the environment and era in which its members were raised. If their music feels less relevant today than it did in the 1990s — or relevant only to those nostalgic for such times — that’s because it is.
And perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes it’s OK to sing about multi-beasts, antelopes and big black furry creatures from Mars.
By far the busiest member of Phish, Anastasio has toured since 2000 with several iterations of the Trey Anastasio Band, which have included Russ Lawton, Tony Markellis and an evolving array of horn, percussion and keyboard players. Anastasio has also performed classical compositions, which are often reworked Phish songs, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the National Symphony Orchestra. Last year, a musical he wrote with Amanda Green and Doug Wright, Hands on a Hard Body, had a brief run on Broadway. Anastasio has recorded several albums, including The Horseshoe Curve (2007), Time Turns Elastic (2009) and Traveler (2012).
From 2001 through 2004, McConnell recorded and toured with Vida Blue, which also featured Oteil Burbridge and Russell Batiste. In 2012 and 2013, he played several shows with the Meter Men, which includes several members of New Orleans funk legends the Meters. McConnell has also released a self-titled album (2007) and the instrumental Unsung Cities and Movies Never Made (2013).
After an 11-year hiatus, Fishman’s lounge act, Pork Tornado, returned in 2013 to play a couple of dates at Higher Ground in South Burlington. The group, which also includes Dan Archer, Joe Moore, Aaron Hersey and Phil Abair, is slated to join Jam Cruise 12 in January.
Since 2008, Gordon has toured under his own name with Scott Murawski, Todd Isler, Tom Cleary and Craig Myers. He recorded The Green Sparrow (2008), Moss (2010) and Steamroller Wheelies (2012), and released a live album, The Egg (2013).
In a superb essay exploring whether Phish constitute a great band, Steven Hyden of the sports and pop-culture website Grantland wrote in June that, “In order to like Phish, you must consciously decide to like Phish.”
I made that decision at the early age of 12, when my brain function was limited enough to appreciate the band’s lyrics, but not quite developed enough to understand its music. Knowing that the cool kids at summer camp thought they were the greatest, though, I persevered.
After accumulating their studio albums and trading cassette tapes of their live shows over the internet, I was rewarded two years later when I finally made it to my first show, accompanied by my dad, on November 29, 1998, in Worcester, Mass.
It was a killer concert, with a guest appearance by then-teenage Vermont blues prodigy Seth Yacovone, who joined the band for “Layla” and his own “All the Pain Through the Years.” They played a soaring “Simple,” a solid “You Enjoy Myself” and a “Makisupa Policeman” with topical lyrics referring to Languedoc’s arrest — for talking smack to a cop — the night before.
In the 15 years since, I’ve generally caught Phish a few times a year, with the obvious exception of their 2000-2002 hiatus and 2004-2009 breakup. I’ve hit a few highlights, such as their 1999 Camp Oswego summer festival, their 2002 post-hiatus New Year’s Eve show and their 2009 Bonnaroo set featuring Bruce Springsteen.
I’ve seen some lowlights, too — most notably Phish’s 2004 pre-breakup festival in Coventry, when Anastasio’s worsening drug addiction was at its most evident.
I’ve occasionally questioned why I keep going back — why I’ve spent so much time and money seeing the same band over and over again. I’ve wondered whether I suffer from an extreme case of musical inertia, as if they are a first love whose exaggerated memory I just can’t kick.
Truth be told, at my ripe old age of 29, I find Phish’s concerts — or at least all that driving to Saratoga Springs and Camden, N.J. — a little bit draining. And, call me a snob, but I’m over the nitrous-dealing contingent that thrives like a parasite around the dark edges of the scene. And while sporting Phish concert T-shirts in high school made me feel pretty sweet, I recognize that being that guy in Burlington who still blasts “Weekapaug Groove” from his Volvo station wagon makes me about as cool as a Jimmy Buffett fan.
So why do I keep coming back? Simply put, even the most mediocre Phish show I’ve ever attended — a couple in 2004 come to mind — has blown every other band I’ve seen out of the water. I may be stuck in a rut, but it’s a pretty good rut.
Last week, I saw Phish for the 30-somethingth time at Hartford’s XL Center. I brought my dad, as I often do, because he, too, has grown to love the band — and especially their light show. Lou Reed had died earlier that day, prompting the most obvious opener in Phish history: the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll.”
The show was everything we’ve come to expect from a modern Phish concert: a first set mix of controlled demolition and bathroom-break songs such as “Ocelot” and “Lawn Boy,” and a second set that nearly tore the roof off the aging arena. The band ripped through an epic “Tweezer” and segued through a suite of jam vehicles starting with TV On the Radio’s “Golden Age,” touching on the theme from 2001: A Spacey Odyssey and landing on an immaculate “Slave to the Traffic Light.”
I will admit, however, that I felt a little sheepish at the start of the second set when Phish busted out “Chalk Dust Torture,” their 1991 tale of teenage angst. There I was, standing beside my 60-year-old father and worrying about whether I’d make it to work on time the next day, while a bunch of 49-year-olds on stage with receding hairlines belted out the classic refrain, “Can’t this wait ’til I’m old? Can’t I live while I’m young?”
It was a bit ridiculous, yes, but it was also kind of great.
When Phish returned to the stage in May 2009 after what many feared would be a permanent disbanding, a common complaint from those looking a gift horse in the mouth was that they’d grown too careful and concise. They just didn’t wail the way they used to.
“I think it took them a little while to get their sea legs,” says Dean Budnick of Relix. “There was a certain fluidity that was missing. There was a certain freedom that I think was lacking in their material, and I think some of that might have been by design.”
It was a new era. Anastasio, who was arrested in December 2006 for driving under the influence of drugs, had cleaned up his act. He and the rest of the band had committed to casting off outside influences and distractions.
“When we came back in 2009, that was probably the prime directive: spend time together, the four of us,” Anastasio told Rolling Stone this summer. “You know, for better or for worse, tons of stuff happened that led us to separate in 2004, but at the core of it was probably losing the most important thing, which is that Phish is the four of us, together. And that we have to make time for that.”
The results have showed.
“The music feels more mature,” Gordon says. “Sometimes the fans look back and say, ‘You know, what about the way you jammed in ’94, and this and that.’ I never do that. I always feel like we keep progressing, personally. It might be in subtler ways, like just that the grooves are more even, but that’s a deep thing, from my perspective.”
Skelton, who went on to work for the band for a dozen years and now lives in Waterbury, agrees.
“It feels like they’re finding a really great groove again and really hearing each other onstage — listening, responding and playing with a commitment, I guess, to the future,” she says.
Last October, the band returned to the Barn, Anastasio’s Westford recording studio, to spend time together and write. They crafted new songs inspired by old jams and wrote lyrics collaboratively.
The entire experience was different, Gordon says, now that each band member has had a chance to lead his own band.
“We still accept that Trey has been more prolific over the years, and he’s a great leader, so we’re going to want his guidance in some ways, but bringing those kinds of experiences to the table, it means that we’re going to be more confident than before,” Gordon says. “It feels more like collaborating than ever before.”
Out of those writing sessions came several dozen new songs, 12 of which were debuted at last week’s Halloween show in Atlantic City, and many of which are likely to appear on Wingsuit. Though the songs had never been played for an audience, they sounded more complete than many of the band’s recent originals, with tight arrangements and well-developed vocal harmonies.
Budnick, who found some fault in the timidity of earlier post-breakup Phish, says their willingness to break with tradition and perform an untested suite of songs to an arena filled with fans expecting a classic-rock cover shows that “they’re willing to take chances again to the nth degree.”
It’s as if — like the lyrics of their new album’s title track suggest — they’ve donned wingsuits and jumped out of an airplane.
“What’s new is old, what’s old is gone. You’re pushed up to the edge, so put your wingsuit on,” they sang to their Atlantic City audience. “And gliding away, you fly where you choose. There’s nothing to say, and nothing to lose.”
So what is Phish’s legacy after 30 years on stage? Most obviously, they — along with H.O.R.D.E. tour contemporaries such as Widespread Panic and Blues Traveler — helped spawn a third wave of jam bands. Following a rubric pioneered by the Dead, Phish showed that with little radio play and just one goofy music video, they could still sell out Madison Square Garden in minutes.
“There’s not a single band playing under the jam-band umbrella that doesn’t owe some piece of their philosophy or approach to Phish,” says Genauer.
In Vermont, the band’s influence has been felt both culturally and philanthropically, even though they’ve only played in-state a couple times during the past decade and a half. After Tropical Storm Irene devastated Vermont in 2011, a benefit show at the Champlain Valley Expo brought in more than $1.2 million. The band’s nonprofit Waterwheel Foundation has donated another $1 million to other causes.
“They are tremendous supporters of the arts — all arts,” says Russ Bennett, the Waitsfield designer and builder who helped design many of their festivals. “They’re not one-dimensional people in any way.”
And if the number of out-of-state Saabs on my block featuring Phish and UVM stickers is any indication, the band is still drawing suburban youth north and infesting our state with, well, people like me.
“I can’t tell you how many banjo students I’ve had who chose UVM because Phish was around here,” says Gordon Stone, who has played and recorded with the band over the years. “I’m like, ‘really?’”
But what about beyond those narrow confines? Outside the strange, insular and incredibly white world of Phishdom, does anybody really care about Burlington’s finest?
“I really think Phish have carved out a pretty unique place in music history because they have generated — you cannot deny, whether you like them or not — an amazingly fanatical fan base,” says VPR’s Wertleib.
“You don’t think of them as being a mainstream band, and yet they draw huge crowds,” Markellis says. “I know that Justin Bieber is a fan, so you never know. You never know. They’re not necessarily a household name, but somebody’s filling up those arenas.”
Grace Potter echoes the point.
“As for the big wide world, I do hear little tickles of Phish here and there — often in surprising places,” she says. “Like when Justin Bieber’s guitarist went into ‘Tweezer.’ Did you see that fuckin’ YouTube?”
Gordon seems a little uncomfortable with the question of Phish’s legacy, but after some reflection he says he hopes his band has made it a little easier for other groups to be themselves.
“Musicians come up to me and say, ‘You guys are so weird, and the fact that you can do that in arenas … mixing compositions in odd time signatures and, you know, repeating a phrase of lyrics over and over—” he begins, before interrupting himself.
“I don’t know what they’re referring to, but generally they say, ‘The fact that you can do that and bring it to an arena level so joyously and have success at it is sort of like artistic license for all the rest of us,’” Gordon says. “Ultimately, that would be the idealistic way to phrase it: If there were any inspiration, it would be inspiration for people to try to be themselves, rather than follow the formulas.”
Click here for the full Q&A with Phish's Mike Gordon.