A Rare And Different Tune

“So where are you off to for the next two weeks?”

“I’m heading to see some concerts.  You ever heard of Phish?”

“Fish?  Country Joe and the Fish?”

“No, just Phish- with a PH, not an F. Have you heard of the Grateful Dead?”

“You mean Jerry Garcia and those guys?  The hippies? ‘Touch of Grey?’”

“Yeah, them.  Well, Phish are sort of like them.  They tour extensively, never repeating a show, and they improvise on almost all their songs.  But their music is very different.”

—-

phishIf you’ve ever tried to discuss Phish with an innocent bystander over the past couple decades, odds are your conversation went something like this.  Virtually impossible to describe to someone who has never heard of them, the Grateful Dead was often your first attempted reference point.  Generally people understood this comparison, and since their inception it was this constant comparison to the Grateful Dead that pigeonholed Phish as just another hippie band.

The comparison had validity on many levels, as both bands centered their shows around improvisation.  Phish inherited the Dead’s counter-culture that originated in the 1960s and carried it into the next millennium.  Phish were seen as the “new” Grateful Dead- thousands of fans would follow them around the country, hawking goods, creating impromptu parking lot parties, and living outside of mainstream society.  Psychedelic exploration and self-discovery were ingrained in both scenes, causing American culture to view both groups of fans as fringe elements of society.  “Those dirty hippies and their drugs!”- it was very easy to lump the Phish phenomenon in with the trail blazed by Garcia and the Dead.

Yet it was this comparison that Phish could never escape for most of the 1990s.  While their music vastly differed from The Dead, this was often ignored in favor of the cultural similarities.  The mainstream media failed to recognize the importance of Phish early on, and they were generally categorized as just another band with legions of dreadlocked, drop-out fans.  Thus, Phish spent most of their early career steering their band as far away from The Grateful Dead as possible.

space_your_face_f_lWhile The Dead were highly allegorical, using Americana folk myth and heartfelt storytelling to recount symbolic life lessons of an age gone by, Phish created a fantasy land called Gamehendge, formed their concert experience around wackiness and fun, and wrote songs about silly topics with unparalleled musicianship.  The Grateful Dead’s music served as the spiritual soundtrack for a cultural movement, while Phish’s music adopted a more entertaining and light-hearted quality, centered on reinventing what was possible in the concert experience.  Rooted in jazz improv rather than the folk and bluegrass building blocks of Dead music, Phish’s shows possessed a different kind of energy; a faster, quirkier pace squarely centered on mind-fucking fun.  Without judging one band over the other, their show experiences were completely different, and this is what so many non-fans didn’t understand.

Ironically, Phish started as a cover band in college, playing many Grateful Dead songs.  Self-avowed Dead fans, Phish played the music of their mentors, mirroring their songs while beginning to forge their own style.  Yet, as the band began to grow, the Dead and Phish comparisons grew with them- something that Phish wanted to distance themselves from.  No one wants to be thought of as a knockoff, and Phish certainly wasn’t, yet they had work to do to establish their independent legacy, separate from their ’60s predecessors.  Thus in 1987, while still integrating the songs of other artists, they stopped covering the Grateful Dead.  If one thing would keep Phish tied to The Dead, it would be playing their songs, therefore, as newly scribed songs were added to the band’s catalog, the Dead covers slipped away.

savegamehendge-395x561Over the course of the next decade, Phish would continue to forge their own scene, yet the comparisons never stopped.  Especially before 1995, when The Dead’s career came to a sudden halt, many jaded Deadheads and the mainstream media saw Phish as Dead imitators.  But anyone who knew Phish at this time understood that any similarities between the bands centered on the fan culture and parking lot scene; once inside, the concert experiences were wholly different.  Sure, both bands had psychedelic light shows and improvised like fiends, but that’s where the similarities ended.

Phish’s music was so different than The Dead’s music that the constant comparisons seemed absurd.  But these overly-general connections continued, and consequently, the band kept Dead covers, and even songs whose sound resembled The Dead, at arms reach.  During the early ’90s, Phish battled to stay separate from these categorizations, and in the late ’90s, the band finally established their own legacy in the eyes of music fans and the music industry.  Once The Grateful Dead were gone, Phish willingly inherited their rightful crown as heads of modern hippie culture.

"Comes a Time" (R.Minkin)

“Comes a Time” (R.Minkin)

It was at this time that many Dead fans shunned Phish, refusing to “give in” to any other improvisational unit.  Others happily crossed over, realizing the power and uniqueness of Phish, while some fans remained in no-man’s land, refusing to commit one way or the other.  Yet by the time 1998 rolled around, Phish had carved out their own musical niche, and achieved recognition for their own virtuosic music.

During the summer of 1998, Phish went on a rampage of busting out one-time covers of their favorite songs.  Zeppelin’s “Ramble On,” Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing,” Smashing Pumpkins’ “Rhinoceros,” and The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” were some of the entertaining pieces that Phish featured during July and August.  But late on the night of August 9th, things would change forever.

1998-08-09mo3Phish had just finished a tremendous set in Virginia Beach, featuring a summer highlight in “AC/DC Bag,” and smoking versions of “Antelope” and “YEM.”  Although there had been a buzz earlier in the day about the third anniversary of Jerry’s passing and what might happen, nothing had materialized musically.  The same rumors floated around Alpine Valley the summer before on August 9th to no avail.  Thus all anyone expected was a conventional encore before heading north to Star Lake.  Yet what was coming was anything but routine.

As Phish retook the stage for the last song of the night, wide-eyed fans mulled about clapping and killing the moments before Phish restarted.  As the band readied themselves, the crowd quieted, and then, like a dream that could simply not be real, Trey began the opening chords of “Terrapin Station.”  My mind had a mental disconnect, as I knew the song by heart, but didn’t understand how it was coming from the stage.  The melody was so familiar- what was it- “OH MY GOD!”  That thought process took all of about half a second as I rushed into the lower pavilion from the walkway that separated the lawn.  Staring at the stage in disbelief, goose bumps covered every inch of my skin, just as they are right now as I recall this magical episode.  Phish was playing “Terrapin!”  Virtually unfathomable, my ears and eyes certainly weren’t lying as Phish broke out the biggest surprise of the summer.  My eyes fixated on the stage, watching every moment unfold in its grandeur, in possibly the most surreal moment of my Phish career.

phish-1After the show ended, I sat on the lawn outside the venue speechless.  My friend, Patrick, and I looked at each other, but couldn’t manage to speak a word.  The magnitude and symbolic nature of what had just happened was overwhelming.  After years and years of establishing their independence from The Dead’s legacy, they had finally done it.  Covering “Terrapin Station,” one of The Dead’s most revered epics, while a clear homage to Jerry, also represented Phish saying, “We made it!”  They were their own band- Phish was Phish in the eyes of all- no longer “that band that was like The Grateful Dead.”  Comfortable with their own place in music history, Phish now honored their heroes instead of trying to escape their cultural wake.

It was all different now.  Following years of speculation, Phish had finally covered The Grateful Dead in the ultimate announcement of self-confidence and reverence.  Having accomplished their mission that began in the mid-80s, Phish had morphed into, and was recognized as, their own phenomenon; unfettered by genre and driven by their own musical innovation.  Driving off into the summer night, the feeling of awe was undeniable.  Among all of the special nights that comprised Summer ’98, this one stood alone.

***

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=====

DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY:

5.16.95 Memorial Auditorium, Lowell, MA < LINK

5.16.95 Memorial Auditorium, Lowell, MA < TORRENT LINK

Memorial Auditorium, Lowell, MA

Memorial Auditorium, Lowell, MA

In this one set benefit show, Phish took the opportunity to unveil seven new originals, several of which would go on to become Phish classics.  The debuts included “Free,” “Theme From the Bottom,” “Spock’s Brain,” “Ha Ha Ha,” and “Strange Design.”  In addition, this show features the sole performance of “Glide part II” (aka “Flip”).  In between all the new material, Phish threw down one of the most sublime versions of “Reba” ever played.

Don’t You Wanna Go*, Ha Ha Ha* > Spock’s Brain*, Strange Design*, Reba, Theme From the Bottom*, HYHU > Lonesome Cowboy Bill* > HYHU, Free*, Glide II* > You Enjoy Myself, Sweet Adeline, Sample in a Jar

E: I’ll Come Running* > Gloria*#

Voters for Choice Benefit. *First time played #One verse only; for Gloria Steinem.

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208 Responses to “A Rare And Different Tune”

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  1. null Says:

    Amen, brother. Unfathomable. They embraced what for so long they had been forced to keep distant. In one moment, in the time it took for music to become understanding, everything became different.

    I think that the first crack in the wall came the year before at Shoreline, when Trey played Happy Birthday at midnight (8/1) and talked about how they were ready to take up the mantle. Shoreline & Virginia Beach: two of the most amazing shows of my life.

  2. Mugician Says:

    I’d love to be at Red Rocks for night 3…

  3. Brandofunk Says:

    Great writing as usual! What a great sound with phish and the audience! Chills!!! Thanks again miner. Donations are coming

  4. good buzz Says:

    There ain’t nothin like the Grateful Dead.

  5. Edison Says:

    regrettfully decided not to make the 18 hour drive down for this show and instead just pointed towards starlake and drove. upon arrival we were quickly aware of the mistake we had just made.

    hearing it on lot at the Lemonwheel was more than just a moving experience, i can’t even imagine having been there. tears of agony and joy for sure.

    nice post Miner.

  6. Chalkdustin Says:

    Miner, this is a perfect explanation of why Phish isn’t just “another Grateful Dead hippie band.” Next time someone starts to argue with me, I’m sending them straight to this post! You captured it perfectly. It’s not the music that places both bands in the same category, it’s the culture and customs of the people who follow them, and if you haven’t been to a show or experienced IT, the difference is hard to grasp. This was a beautiful piece- goosebumps all around. Terrapin was an innaugural Phish moment.

  7. Little Buddy Says:

    Man. You summed that experience up very well, Miner. Eloquent as usual. I too was overcome by some strange mix of emotions when those first few notes of Terrapin rang out from the stage. Virgina Beach was a rough scene that day out on the lot – lots cruel cops and fighting. Somehow all of that contributed to how special terrapin was for me though. It was an ultimate release of all kinds of emotions. I start to tear up just thinking about it.

    Thanks again, Miner!

  8. MadtownCows Says:

    It was absolutely stunning.

    And it was the quietest post-show parking lot scene ever. Everyone was simply speechless. It was eery how quiet it was.

    Thanks again to the taper who let me hear Terrapin in his truck before I left the lot, confirming that it had indeed happened and was not just my imagination.

  9. Frankie Says:

    Woah! Beautifully written Mr. Miner… Thanks! :)

    Lowell ’95! Love that show!

  10. ma Says:

    GOOSE BUMPS!….that pretty much sums it up…each and every time i hear trey noodle the opening, the goose bumps arrive….it would take an extraordinary act of nature to hear the lady with a fan intro and not feel that rush of emotion…i’m sure i speak for most, great post and thanks for a stroll down memory lane.

  11. AbePhroman Says:

    Decent.

  12. Hooks Says:

    what chalkdustin said. this is a go to article on the subject, really interesting.

  13. tela'smuff Says:

    The big difference other than just the musical styles for me is that Phish jammed much longer and harder. They just did it in reverse order in terms of their careers. While The Dead started in the 60′s by jamming quite heavily, they jammed less and less as the years progressed. Of course, this isn’t counting Drums/Space. Phish was the opposite. I’m not suggesting the Dead didn’t jam, but compared to Phish, they didn’t match up. (I do think late 60′s Dead jamming was the tits and is magical)

  14. nonoyolker Says:

    Great write up. I remember being so DEADicated back in the day that i wrote off phish early as a poser band that was trying to BE the grateful dead. I thought listening to them would be cheating on my true love… Anyway, it was COMPLETELY close minded and I missed out on a lot of early shows that i kick myself over now. The dead and phish are a completely different sound, both at the top of their respective sounds. I often bounce back and forth w/ months of listening to each at a time. In the end, I think Phish has a definite edge with me because it hits my ear just a bit better. Slightly more coherent and directional jamming. Regardless, glad i took off the blinders when i did because phish changed my life more than any other singular factor.
    That Lowell show is sweet! REBA REBA REBA!!!

  15. msbjivein Says:

    Nice read Mr. Minor. I can’t wait for Red Rocks Aug 1st Jerry’s B day!

    I’ve been listing to that Lowell MA show recently. I wasn’t there but it’s one of my favorite old tapes to bust out and listen to while Vaporizing. I’ve been on this Ha Ha Ha Ha kick lately all from listening to that show. MAN I HOPE THEY BUST THAT OUT THIS SUMMER!

  16. Jay Says:

    @Mr Miner wrote:
    “The mainstream media failed to recognize the importance of Phish early on, and they were generally categorized as just another band with legions of dreadlocked, drop-out fans.”

    That’s because most journalists, and especially rock journalists, are lazy.
    I had no difficulty seeing the vast difference in their music compared to the Dead as well as the similarities in approach. If there are similarities musically with any other musicians I would have to say Zappa.

  17. phishphyx Says:

    Excellent post. I, too, was at that show, and the one thing I remember were so many fans just overcome and in tears. I wasn’t even much of a Dead fan, and I still found it to be an incredible moment. Thanks for bringing back the memories. :)

  18. Mdawg Says:

    Great Post!

    Thank you Mr. Miner

    =)

  19. JoyBoy Says:

    Actually, I always try to avoid the Dead comparison when describing Phish to an un-annointed one….now, I love the Dead, but while they share a similar philosophy of presantation, I don’t find them all that similar.

    Lately I’ve been introducing folks to Phish deployed with me in Iraq. I play shows in the office, and almost once a day people ask, “Who is that?”…particularly the day I played Seattle 11-27-96….My sergeant asked during another anonymous jam….oh, I have that album, that’s Pat Metheny right, sir?

  20. Frankie Says:

    @jivein
    Love that Ha Ha Ha riff! I read once in a mountain biking mag, the songs readers had most in their head while riding and sure enough, on top of that list was that million-dollar riff song… Ha Ha Ha !!!

    Listening to the Hampton Rock’n'Roll this morning… :D Is it May 31st yet?

  21. JerZ Says:

    Miner, you really took me back with this write up- thank you. I look back on that as one of the sweetest memories of my life. Totally agree with the disconnect. One of my favorite things still is going back and listening to the crowd figure out what was going on- it seemed to happen in like three waves. There were the people that figured it out right away, those that didn’t get it for about 10 seconds, and the rest of us that just went nuts when Trey busted out, “Let my inspiration flow”

    I don’t know if you remember it, but that was the most volitable parking lot that I have ever seen. Police were treating people like animals. I remember saying that to a cop and he said, “You want to live like an animal, I will treat you like an animal”. I always looked at the Terrapin as Phish throwing a bone to the people who had to endure some pretty harsh treatment

  22. sickness Says:

    just reading todays phishthoughts gave me goosebumps. i can still remember first hearing that phish covered Terrapin and remember even more when i first heard the tape. having never been a full blown dead head, I am proud when i tell folks that I am, in fact, a serious and devout fan of the best band in all the land. PHISH.

  23. SOAM Says:

    Bset post ever Miner -you briliant MFer–This summer is going to be like 1990-one tasty one after another.

    90-09..coincidence?

    There was a time when I never thought Phish had it in em to tap into the sacred emotions generated at a good dead show. I thought the lyrics to the early songs were a little nonsensical to have as much meaning as a Stella or a Peter but my mind has been transformed and warped by songs like fefy, lifeboy,If I could, Pebbles, Wading, Design. I also think they have become much, much better at writing and composing tunes.

  24. lanser Says:

    awesome!!! DEAD>PHISH>BISCO. believe it.

  25. Chalkdustin Says:

    Miner, the Reba jam on this download is tight. Thanks!

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