Phish’s Leap of Faith

Zac Cohen on December 2, 2013

I. Introduction

On New Year’s Eve 2012, Phish transformed Madison Square Garden into their own private “Garden Party,” using Ricky Nelson’s bold artistic statement on fame and expectations to inaugurate a new era of their career. Setting the band’s artistic intention for the forthcoming year, Phish harmonized around the lyrics “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.” 30-years into their career as one of America’s most successful and renewable rock and roll acts, Phish is experiencing a career Renaissance, evolving both their music and their organization in a way that establishes the band as formidable successors to the Grateful Dead. They’re musical architects involved in a multi-faceted conversation with their own history, their evolving artistic demands, and their passionately engaged fanbase. And, they’re self conscious about it.

Given the band’s history–especially the traumas they and their passionate fanbase endured over one brief hiatus and subsequently painful breakup–few could have predicted that Phish’s return in 2009 would resemble today’s vibrancy. With all four band members not only physically healthy, but artistically satiated–Mike, Trey and Page have either led or been part of exciting personal projects in recent years while drummer Jon Fishman has focused on growing his family–and after Trey’s brief but crucial flirtation with Broadway, Phish is more engaged with their shared project than they have been since the 1990’s. For five years now Phish has been dutifully investing in themselves, using each year as a stepping stone to reassemble their ship of state from scratch, and this time structuring things, musically, thematically, organizationally for a long, bright future.

Phish’s 30th year of making music together was, simply put, one of their best.

Over the past 11 months, they’ve completed two tours: A 25-show Summer leg traversing both coasts that they capped off over Labor Day weekend at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Denver. Using their now-annual setlist gimmick to spell out the message “Most Shows Spell Something,”–the Phishy twist was that they spelled it backwards–the message was far more appropriate to their 30th year of making music than last year’s revered “Fuck Your Face” show.

Phish also completed a compact but potent 12-show Fall Tour across the mid-Atlantic and New England, starting in Hampton, VA’s “Mothership.” The band’s Fall Tour served as a sort of unofficial Anniversary Run, despite the misalignment with the band’s first shows in December, 1983. No matter because Phish constructed their Fall Tour masterfully, booking concerts in Glens Falls, NY, Worcester, MA, Hartford, CT, Reading PA and Rochester, NY, they made sure to stay within their comfort zone, geographically if not musically.

Capped off with a tremendous 3-night run in Atlantic City over Halloween, Phish used the end of their Fall Tour not for closure, but instead to crack open the window on what by all accounts seems to be a very bright future.

II. Fall Tour Recapped

The tour’s first weekend in Virginia revealed a band with sizable ambitions, firing on all cylinders. Friday night’s “Carini” was an early masterpiece of funk and the first big jam of a tour that would contain at least one significant piece of improvisation each evening. Mammoth versions of “Ghost” and “Tweezer” followed, on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Sunday evening’s “Tweezer” anchored the tour’s first fully coherent second set of the tour with a spiritual plunge into the depths of a musical inferno. Warm Ups were over. This monumental “Tweezer” revealed a band at home deftly balancing between the opposing poles of infectious, trenchant rhythms and resplendently psychedelic melody. The drama and scale of this singular jam recall the best Pink Floyd soundscapes.

A chilly Wednesday in Glens Falls, NY served as the unofficial hometown show. Located just 90 minutes from Burlington, VT, and with Atlantic City’s Halloween show looming large on the horizon, Phish reoccupied the venue where they first initiated their musical costume tradition with The Beatles White Album in 1994. In perfectly Phishy fashion, the band opened the show with “Back in the USSR,” directly referencing this cherished memory. An emotional Trey took to the mic to thank “all the friends and family” who were in the building as well as carefully alluded to his own years in the area, when he was serving out the terms of his 2006 arrest. A moving “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was the sole encore, closing the loop on Phish’s two-decade long homage to The Beatles.

And just as the Boston Red Sox geared up for their own Fall Tour, Phish rolled into Worcester, MA, pumps fully primed. Articulating clearly with refined first set efforts, Phish continued the musical onslaught. Friday night saw a powerhouse 2nd set notable for the band’s endurance. Blowing the set away with a late set “Ghost” and “Down with Disease” they bought an extra hour from the DCU Center and promptly rewarded the fans, some of whom had trouble entering the venue on time, playing a 4-song encore.

Saturday night’s main event was a 40-minute plus “Drowned > Light > Sand” segment of completely outro funk. Jon Fishman presided over a rhythm clinic that saw Phish touch completely fresh musical landscapes. “Drowned” modulated towards a downtempo calypso-inflected jazz jam before guitarist Anastasio boldly peaked the jam. And in the wake of this brushfire, new growth sprouted as Phish emerged into a sanguine melodic space. This has quickly become Phish’s dominant mode; 15 years ago Phish became a funk band. In 2013, Phish are once again rhythmic improvisers first, with style, melody and effect acting as embellishments stretched atop this canvas.

Save for a rough second set in Rochester, Phish’s 2013 Fall Tour had few lulls.
A stellar Sunday night show in Hartford, CT kept their momentum intact. With only 12 shows on the docket, Phish’s execution was under the microscope. And as temperatures began to drop, Hartford’s “Tweezer” and “Golden Age” kept the fans

moving and grooving. And as a sign of their accelerated evolution, “Tweezer” moved away from the craggy depths of the previous weekend’s effort, veering towards a bright, melodic jam reminiscent of “Weekapaug Groove.”

But the band was hardly done there and the TV on the Radio cover “Golden Age” provided yet another opportunity to keep the dance floor shaking, with a “Start-Stop” rhythmic breakdown showcasing the band in complete control.

The last stop before Atlantic City was Reading, PA where Phish’s tightness and mastery was on full display. A 20-minute version of “Down with Disease, their defining rock anthem, opened the second set. The band soon congealed around an Allman Brothers-esque “Mountain Jam,” more grist for the Halloween rumor mill as Eat a Peach quickly leapt to the fore of potential cover albums. Towards the end of the jam, guitarist Trey Anastasio, bucking Phish’s more democratic trend, stepped to the fore and delivered perhaps the signature solo of the entire year, a nearly four-minute long sluice of guitar god theatrics.

III. Wingsuit

Shocking their fanbase and the larger Rock community of which they remain a major part, Phish took a bold step into the future, subverting their very own Halloween tradition of covering an album from Rock’s past and instead opting to cover one from Phish’s own future.

Unveiling Wingsuit, Phish’s first album since 2009’s Joy, live on Halloween was one of the boldest and most controversial artistic decisions the band has ever taken. The debut of Wingsuit almost instantly rewrote the book on Phish’s entire year, shaking up what had been a schizophrenic, difficult-to-pin-down narrative. As it turned out, Phish was actively telegraphing their intentions all along, “in Morse code,” as the Gordon/ Murawski penned song “Say Something” declares. And in a moment when the very concept of the album as both artistic statement and commodity product remains under withering assault, Phish recalibrated themselves back towards the album as artifact. Only with a twist.

Because if there has been one persistent criticism of Phish’s studio records, stretching all the way back to 1988’s Junta, it has been the band’s inability to effectively bring the spontaneous magic, the serendipity and phenomenality of their live performances with them into the studio. As the band stated in the “Phishbill” distributed to fans on Halloween Night,

“We jammed a lot at first, and came up with some cool musical segments that we all liked, that sounded like the beginnings of songs.” They quickly added this fascinating nugget: “Mike had some journal entries of his favorite live Phish jams that he remembered from over the years, so we went back and listened to them, and re-learned some of those spontaneous musical moments, reconfiguring them to be parts of the beginnings of songs.”

For Phish, Wingsuit is not just another album to placate a quickly-dying industry custom. This is the first album they’ll be truly crafting together, at least since 1998’s Story of the Ghost which emerged during a number of furtive jam sessions. (The Bearsville Sessions were later released by Phish and reveal the nuts and bolts of the material as it was being studio-crafted, a crucial look underneath the hood at Phish’s creative process.)

But Story of the Ghost also revealed fissures within Phish. Trey and his long-time writing partner Tom Marshall showed up with a fistful of nearly-completed songs they intended for Ghost only to find the remaining band members invested in a more collaborative approach. In the end, compromises were made and the democratic approach won the day, but at the expense of frayed inter-band dynamics. Many of the songs from Tom and Trey’s prolific output were relegated to 2000’s Farmhouse.

The Phish that created Story of the Ghost is not the Phish of today. More refined as musicians, more humble as men and more attentive as fathers, husbands and friends, Phish is using the creative dividends they’ve garnered over the past few years and reinvesting them right back into the band. They’ve made a collective

decision to lean into the studio process, one of the last remaining creative challenge’s of their career.

To solidify the seriousness of this undertaking, one need only look at their choice of producer, industry heavyweight Bob Ezrin, to assess Phish’s commitment. Ezrin is at the top of the class when it comes to big-name Rock and Roll producers. An overwhelmingly theatrical producer, Ezrin is best known for his stewardship of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and breakthrough records with Alice Cooper, Lou Reed and KISS. And like all great rock producers, Ezrin’s talents include an ability to serve as creative middleman between strong personalities. If he can work alongside Roger Waters and David Gilmour then surely Trey, Mike, Jon and Page stand a chance right?

Maybe so, maybe not.

There are almost no guarantees that whatever Phish has cooked up with Wingsuit will pan out. But here they are, taking a giant risk, stepping up to the cliff side “because it feels good.” Despite a modicum of success from both a critical and fanbase perspective–both “Billy Breathes” and “Story of the Ghost” made US Top 10 charts upon their release–the feeling remains that a truly great album that binds positive mainstream and fanbase accolades while injecting exciting fresh material into the bands current musical programme, remains elusive. The manner in which Phish has turned the tables on the entire album making process, reverse engineering it for Wingsuit, is very promising. It’s a thoroughly Phishy act if there ever was one.

In a way, Phish has been in the studio all year long, actively using their shows as a real time laboratories for innovation and growth. Investigating normally-contained standard such as “2001” for hidden treasures, Phish often enough finding them. The evolution of songs like “Tweezer, Down with Disease, Rock and Roll, Golden Age, Harry Hood, Slave to the Traffic Light” in just this year alone proves how absorptive the band can be when they are composing new material on the fly. As we now know, the Wingsuit material was being carefully crafted the whole way, this extra

layer of attention likely bleeding over into the live setting. Determining how each process seeped into the other is a narrative that continues to unfold but isn’t likely to be clarified until the album’s release next year.

IIIV. The Terms of Surrender

Many first generation fans who supported Phish in the late 80’s and early 1990’s are quick to point out how the band’s furious ascent to the top of the industry cost them a sense of intimacy and ownership with their fans. And though their scale alone prevents Phish from pretending to be able to communicate as directly with their fans as they once could in smaller venues outside of the public’s glare, Phish has pioneered new forms of connection incomparable to nightly narrations or Fishman stunts, but these methods are quickly revealing themselves to be just as intimate, and even more relevant.

Sprinkled throughout Phish’s Summer and Fall Tour’s were hints and allusions to their forthcoming Halloween stunt. Opening their Summer tour on the waterfront in Bangor, Maine with “Possum,” the band may as well have reprised “Garden Party.” At the mid-Summer mark, Phish broke in Northerly Island, a new venue jutting out into Lake Michigan, in grand fashion, recovering from a nearly-disastrous cancelled set on Friday night with a three-set show on Saturday and an instant classic Sunday show.

Opening Sunday’s second-set in Chicago with the Apples in Stereo song “Energy,” a cover new to Phish’s 2013 setlists, with lyrics that speak of “synchronicities” and “possibilities” Phish turned up the volume on their communication with the fans. Pairing “Energy” with their late ‘90s era jam vehicle “Ghost” and the increasingly-rare Gamehendge track “Lizards,” Phish crafted a musical movement of stunning lucidity with each lyrical verse and jam section imbued with an elevated sense of spiritual justification. To hear the words “Surrender to the flow” on a night like this was quintessential Phish. And the perfect setup for them to launch into “Harpua,” their theatrical set piece about a murderous “Fat sweaty bulldog.”

Reaching deep into their bag of tricks Phish called on the famed Chicago improv comedy troupe “Second City” to teach the fans a lesson. Impersonating a group of fans who had been on tour with Phish “for 15 years” (interestingly enough, bisecting Phish’s career perfectly) the Second City players jumped onstage to tell the band “The Right Way” to play their music. In what was emerging as an unexpected prank in reaction to the communities anger at Friday shows cancellation, Phish was playfully yet sincerely warning their fans; Change was afoot. And after 30 years of playing together, Phish believes they’ve earned the right to do what they want, how they want without the sort of staunch reactionary criticism incessantly leveled at them.

Overlooked in this dialogue though was the less overt welcoming gambit. As Phish enunciated the outlines of a new agreement whereby the fans would hand their trust back over the band, the rewards would soon follow. After Chicago, Phish turned up the heat on their Summer tour, barreling through an eight-show swing of The Gorge, Tahoe, San Francisco and Los Angeles. As if the conversation in Chicago had cleared the air somehow, the rewards came fast and furious. On a Wednesday night in Tahoe, Phish drafted yet another communique, in the form of a 36-minute “Tweezer,” plainly answering persistent questions about the band’s ability to extend their jams into that liminal space both the Dead and earlier iterations of Phish were comfortable with.

At times, Phish’s relationship to their fans feels like a love affair, full of both the excitement and petty jealousies that such relationships bring to bear. Phish has required, and been lucky enough to generate, the dialogue necessary to connect with their fans who are truly unlike any other in the history of Rock and Roll. They are obsessive, committed pilgrims that will go anywhere the band does much like The Grateful Dead’s community once did. But whereas Deadheads sprouted from a Bay Area-inflected countercultural sensibility, Phish’s fans have, since the beginning, reflected a more obsessive, analytical East Coast mentality. Phish fans are more competitive, less forgiving and still bearing the scars of past injuries.

In their 3.0 era, parts of Phish’s fanbase has used the band’s disinterest in

long-form jamming as a cudgel to minimize the band’s project. In Tahoe, Phish used a game-changing “Tweezer” jam to clear the decks, in a single act disarming a vast majority of their critics. What might be more astonishing than the jam itself is the idea that Phish knew exactly how the community would react. It’s almost as if the band wanted as flat and objective environment as possible for Wingsuit’s debut.

One can only imagine what the Phish community is like in the digital age. Phish fans have unsurprisingly taken to the internet and its attendant social networks, blogs and forums to participate in a vast and persistent conversation. In the past 18 months, there has been nothing short of a flowering online around Phish as new writing projects, photographers and videographers, fan artists, voices of influence, affiliations and collaborations sprout up on nearly every network, blog and platform.

Phish is hyper aware of this community, and yet continues to play “Possum” with their fans. We cannot yet envision the full slate of consequences that Phish’s bold Halloween act has rendered. Phish and their fans have always been collaborators, just never static ones. As the music changes and, as the fanbase rolls over into a younger generation, the parameters which govern the manner in which Phish and their fans collaborate shifts along with it.

This is what Phish knows more intimately than any other Rock and Roll band and why they’ve managed to stay relevant and loved for three decades. This goes to the very heart of what Phish has always been about, a unique contract between band and audience, a love, a trust, gratitude and willingness to push boundaries that colors everything in and around the music.

It is always the music with Phish. And now there is new music. And with it the idea of new tours to support that music. New setlists and improvisational vehicles, new stunts and gimmicks, new inside jokes and references and asides. Phish will be around for many years to come. Only on this latest revolution, whenever the Wingsuit songs see the light of day, it will immediately redound back upon 2013’s Halloween, when Phish rewrote the rules, stepped up to “The Line,” and brought their fans into the studio with them.

As Trey said to the Halloween crowd, the reception of the Wingsuit songs would figure heavily on Phish’s decision making in the studio. We don’t know when the decision was made to play Wingsuit live for their fans. But it was in that moment Phish realized that their future was dependant upon them taking a giant leap of faith into the arms of their fans. The Wingsuit song “Devotion to a Dream” speaks directly to the event: “It’s today the vows are broken/ It’s today the charade is over/ It’s today the curtain’s coming down.” These are the promises that Phish is predicating their entire future upon, making the decision that the only way forward for them and for us is to drop the pretense and continue hacking away at the layers of separation between band and audience, something Phish has been doing since their very beginnings. It may be the only way to stay relevant in a music industry that seems to degrade itself more thoroughly with each passing fad, award show and spectacle.

In one incredibly intimate and vulnerable act, Phish invited us to join them in creating new music alongside them. In the studio as it were. Where we have always belonged.