Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Phish Turns 25

According to the copy of The Phish Companion I keep hidden somewhere under my pillow, today marks the 25th anniversary of Phish’s first show. In case you sleep with a copy of The Hipster Handbook under your pillow, the gig took place in the Harris-Millis cafeteria at the University of Vermont and, as legend has it, was cut short so the predominantly ROTC crowd could dance to Michael Jackson records.

If I’ve learned one thing in my time touring ‘n writing about Phish it’s that no matter what you say someone else will disagree. So instead of writing some long-winded ramble about how Phish is the reason I am the slightly befuddled, neurotic Jew I am today, I figured I’d compile 25 “artifacts” (articles, images, videos, links and mp3s) that somehow relate to Phish. Some are personal, others musical, but I find all of them incredibly interesting. Take them with a grain of salt (or “Sand” if you prefer) and feel free to add your own links in the comments section. I plan on adding new items throughout the day, so like a U.S. election during our Reconstruction Period and/or Florida 2000, please check in early and often.

1) Long before magazines used them to increase their Google footprint, Phish was just another club band trying to get some national exposure. Relix was actually one of---if not the---first national publication to give Phish a print profile and, at one point, Phish's management even asked Relix’s original owners to release Lawn Boy. The following clip was written by longtime editor Mick Skidmore for our Too New to Be Known column, a precursor to our current On the Verge section. It originally ran in October 1989, shortly after the release of Phish’s debut album, Junta:

It never ceases to amaze me how many great unsigned bands there are out there.

Phish, a four-piece that hails from Burlington, Vermont is one such band. It consists of Trey Anastasio on guitar (he also writes most of the music), Page McConnell on keyboards, Jon (Phish) Fishman on drums and trombone, and Mike Gordon on bass.

Phish has a strong base of highly original material that it liberally laces with jazz, rock, funk, calypso, and blues elements, as well as truly bizarre lyrics that would do Frank Zappa proud.

The band has been playing the New England Club and college scene for the past five years to ever-increasing audiences, and on the strength of their self-produced cassette release, Junta, it’s easy to see why.

The tape is superbly recorded and shows the band processes musical flair almost beyond belief. Sure the songs are a little odd, especially the whimsical, “Contact,” a love song to a car, and the poetic “Ester,” but the underlying strength of all the material is the virtuoso musicianship and wry sense of humor that runs through it. Guitarist Anastasio’s playing is of a highly exploratory nature and ranges from jazzy runs through melodic phrases to daring improvisations. Keyboardist McConnell embellishes the sound with some intricate playing, while the rest of the band creates a complex mesh of syncopated and polyrhythmic sounds. This is most notable on the lengthy, mainly instrumental “David Bowie” (the only lyrics are the title and UB40 repeated!), and equally exciting “The Divided Sky” and “You Enjoy Myself.”

According to a spokesperson for the band, the tape only reflects a small part of their complex repertoire of originals. They even have an entire suite that runs an hour and a half! I hope we get a chance to hear more from these extremely talented musicians in the not too distant future. Meanwhile, this tape comes highly recommended. For gig dates and other info, call 802-655-9068. For the tape, send $9 to: Dionysian Productions c/o 168 Weaver St. Winooski, VT 05404

2) Lets jump from the beginning to the (first) end. Even though you may not always agree with him, Jesse has always gone a great job articulating his thoughts on Phish. This column was published the first New Year's Eve after Phish's final performances, as the Vermont Quartet were slowly segueing from rock stars to normal, talented musicians.


I am not exactly sure who designed the trademark Phish logo, but one of its earliest appearances was on The White Tape, Phish's first "album. " According to the liner notes, Trey is responsible for the album's cover, so he very well may have designed the logo himself, which I've always found kind of interesting.

4) From chess matches to big ball jams to secret languages, Phish has always been---to a degree---about interaction with its fans. So it makes perfect sense that Andy Gadiel pulled the plug on his Phish page a month before Trey broke up Phish and even more sense that Gadiel.com/Phish returned with a retro-look right before the announcement of Hampton. Lets hope Andy plans to spend a few days at Madison Square Garden this March as well.

5) You can talk about music all you want, but sometimes its better to just listen. Here's some info on my favorite installment in the original Live Phish series. In my mind it encapsulates Phish's quirky/fun/exploratory side almost perfectly.

6) I’m not too good at math, but if this is Phish’s 25th anniversary than it also means it has been five years since Mike Gordon debuted his 20th anniversary montage in Boston. That also means it is has been five years since Phish last played Boston, a city I visited six months ago on the fourth anniversary of Phish’s last New York performance, which was two months before their last Vermont show. Who says hippies can’t add?

7) Jeff Holdsworth: The author or "Camel Walk" and "Possum," Blackwood Convention’s original frontman, the guitarist who got away, The Pete Best of the Phish word, the jam-scene’s greatest mystery…No matter how you see him, this is how he describes himself in his current staff profile.

8) You could argue that Phish went from being cult heroes to cultural institutions when Ben & Jerry’s awarded them an ice cream flavor. But, I just like the little chocolates that dwell at the bottom of the container like the catfish in my fish tank

9) Phish played my alma matter, Skidmore College, only once: October 5, 1990. I tried to track down a copy of the show after I received my early acceptance letter in high school, but some dude ripped me off B + P-style. The summer after I graduated my friend Kenny finally gave me the show on CD for my birthday (I also have a Skidmore News’ interview with Mike and “Tray” from that same show hanging in my cubicle at Relx). Here’s the setlist:

10-5-90, Skidmore Gymnasium, Skidmore College, Saratoga, NY

I: I Didn't Know, Mike's Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, My Sweet One, The Landlady, Tela, The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony > Suzy Greenberg, Stash, The Asse Festival, Bouncing Around the Room, Run Like an Antelope

II: Golgi Apparatus, The Curtain > Ya Mar, Alumni Blues, Uncle Pen, Split Open and Melt, Fee > Possum

E: Good Times Bad Times

According to the tape, a few Skidmore kids called the Phish Hotline to request “The Curtain” before the show

10) I’ve always thought Mike Gordon could make a great spoken word album. Here is an archive of his Mike’s Corner columns.

11) One of the best things about Phish’s return (besides the music) is that Phishheads are coming out of the woodwork from seemingly every direction. Here is a recent article from Gothamist that links to one of my recent Jambands.com news stories.

12) When I first got into Phish this was considered their best show. I often wonder if it would be regarded as highly if it didn’t take place in the wake of Jerry Garcia’s death, but either way this is a great version of “Maze.”

13) In 1994 Phish played a tiny ski mountain virtually in my suburban backyard that we affectionately referred to as Big Bump. According to legend, the show was empty because the Dead were playing nearby (relatively at least, meaning Washington DC) and the members of Phish got into a little tiff onstage. What resulted was a swirl or “Cavern” and “Wilson” I hope Live Phish releases on soundboard someday soon. Here's a link to the show.

14) I have absolutely no idea who I am going to marry and it is probably healthier if she doesn’t even like Phish. But, no matter, I want “If I Could” to be my wedding song. Here is a clip of them recording Hoist.

15) Though Phish’s cover of The White Album is the most fun, I’d say their version of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light had the biggest impact on the jamband scene as a whole. Here is Newsweek’s take on Phish’s various Halloween costumes.

16) I couldn’t think of compiling any sort of comprehensive Phish retrospective without giving at least one nod to my dear friend and podcast co-host Benjy and his “Harry Hood” chant. That’s right my friends, enemies and people I stalked awkwardly on Facebook, the dude who often crashes on my sofa changed a Phish song forever.

17) Last night I had a conversation with a friend that eventually drifted back to Phish’s 1997 tour. In certain ways it was the beginning of the end, as the group finally loosened up and started focusing more on big, funky grooves than tight, precise psych-rock nuggets---and, we later learned, started playing like rock stars both on and off the stage. But, 1997 and 1998 still produced some incredible funk jams, especially during “Ghost” and “Moma Dance.”

19) Here is a fuzzy clip of Phish playing “Antelope” at a farm in Vermont in 1987. As far as I know it is the oldest video of the band currently available online

20) While it’s hard to know exactly when and where Phish decided to reunite, for me the reunion took place right before Trey and Mike played “Backwards Down the Number Line” at Rothbury. I’m not sure I’ve bounced or smiled so hard since college and he’s a live blog to prove it.

21) Phish not only had a legion of dedicated fans, they offered a platform for creative people to turn music into their careers. One such person is Brad Serling who turned his mp3 site nugs.net into a livemusic downloading empire. Here's an old school review he wrote in 1995.

22) Being relatively young for the Phish scene, I missed a lot of the group's more famous stunts. One gag I did see took place on the roof of an air traffic control tower at the IT festival. Here's a look for yourself:

23) Likewise, I was lucky enough to see Phish's latter day bustout show in Burgettstown, PA. I did that entire tour with my friends Brill and Jenny, and we always joked that this would be the show we were going to skip. Luckily, we made the long hall and after 40 odd shows I finally heard "Fee," the song that originally got me hooked on Phish. According to legend, they broke out all these rare cuts after getting their first iPods. Here's the setlist:

07/29/03 - Post Gazette Pavilion at Star Lake - Burgettstown, Pennsylvania

Set 1: Daniel (Saw the Stone), Camel Walk, Gotta Jibboo, Cool it Down, Scent of a Mule, Fee > Timber (Jerry) > When the Circus Comes, McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters, Golgi Apparatus

Set 2: Crosseyed and Painless > Thunderhead, Brother, Harpua > Bittersweet Motel, Harpua, I Fooled Around and Fell in Love* > Hold Your Head Up > Harpua, David Bowie

Encore: Farmhouse

* First time played, w/ Fishman on vocals and vacuum. None of the first nine songs had been played this tour. Daniel had not been performed in the previous 280 shows, Harpua in 167.

24) I have never seen energy like at Madison Square Garden on 12/31/02. Here is how The New York Times remembers the night.

25) Famous last words? Never say never...


    Last Friday night, I got together with Mike, Page and Fish to talk openly about the strong feelings I've been having that Phish has run its course and that we should end it now while it's still on a high note. Once we started talking, it quickly became apparent that the other guys' feelings, while not all the same as mine, were similar in many ways -- most importantly, that we all love and respect Phish and the Phish audience far too much to stand by and allow it to drag on beyond the point of vibrancy and health. We don't want to become caricatures of ourselves, or worse yet, a nostalgia act. By the end of the meeting, we realized that after almost twenty-one years together we were faced with the opportunity to graciously step away in unison, as a group, united in our friendship and our feelings of gratitude.

    So Coventry will be the final Phish show. We are proud and thrilled that it will be in our home state of Vermont. We're also excited for the June and August shows, our last tour together. For the sake of clarity, I should say that this is not like the hiatus, which was our last attempt to revitalize ourselves. We're done. It's been an amazing and incredible journey. We thank you all for the love and support that you've shown us.

    -- Trey Anastasio

and one for good luck...

26) Here's the appreciation I wrote for Phish when they received the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's Jammys

Phish: An Appreciation

Though they leave behind an impressive body of over a thousand carefully-annotated performances, a dozen studio albums and a web of carefully preserved digital shrines, it is still impossible to separate Phish's music from its cultural impact.

In many ways, they are both the first post-modern rock band and the internet age's first great success story; the first group to rub the avant-garde against mainstream, MTV culture with festival-size success while still reducing the meaning of life to the carefree, 1990s sentiment of "whatever you do, take care of your shoes." In an era of hard-rock testosterone and New Wave excess, the members of Phish emerged as the perennial everymen: four ordinary people known by their first names for their uncanny musical ability, personifying four tangible elements of post-Aquarius, suburban society.

While not the first rock band to embrace improvisational music, Phish turned the jam scene on its head with an original cocktail of rock, pop, jazz, bluegrass, reggae, funk and orchestral sounds that owed as much to Talking Heads and Frank Zappa as it did to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. In only 21 years, Phish challenged arena rock's rules, claimed cow-funk as their own and re-fused Brian Eno ambience with the indie-rock underground. Their studio work is equally varied: From the breezy statements of Junta and the dreamy concepts of Rift to the mature, rustic emotions of Billy Breathes and the instrumental experimentations of The Siket Disc, Phish played by their own rules, setting the template for the modern festival, harnessing the power of the internet long before the blog and somehow turning a flying hotdog into an everlasting cultural statement. Only a collegiate cycle since their curtain call, Phish's legacy is still being set...and we still have no regrets.

Mike Greenhaus, from somewhere south of Coventry


Charlie Dirksen said...

Wonderful post, Mike! The next 25 years will hopefully be enjoyable for all of us as well -- even for those of us without Hampton tickets. Re Phish's logo, if memory serves, both Trey and Mike designed it. I believe there's something about it in the dictionary section of the Companion.

coltrane74 said...

Great stuff!

But there's a small error on #13. That Big Birch show is so special (for many reasons) but not least is that the Dead returned to Phish's home state of Vermont on 7/13 & that's where everyone was. Not in DC.