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.





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”

  1. Bapslap Says:

    Interesting read.
    In high school I was not much of a Dead fan, but was curious about this band Phish I was hearing about. I asked around and kept being told “oh, their just like the Grateful Dead.” This was a turn-off at the time and it took me far too long to decide for myself. I heard “Picture of Nectar” and it was nothing like the Dead, and the rest is history.

    As a side note, I have also grown to appreciate the Dead since then as well. But I’m far more of a Phish fan.

  2. msbjivein Says:

    @Lancer, What the fuck dude?? Bisquicks are not worthy of being mentioned on this blog. Let alone mentioned in the same breath as PHISH AND THE DEAD! Believe IT!

  3. Gr8flone Says:

    I was their. I fell to the ground and wept. I was Magical, thanks for the memory’s. That is the Show of the Day.

  4. whole tour! Says:

    i always hated it when people constantly compared phish to just being another Van Halen spinoff/cover band. Whenever i was at work and my coworkers would hear Van Halen on the radio, they would make snide remarks such as “oh those phish guys try to be the next van halen. People couldn’t understand how i could wear a van halen t-shirt and follow phish around. I found myself constantly having to defend phish in every david lee roth message board i’d post on. Everytime i’d mention phish, those jaded older roth heads would flame me and say “phish sucks compared to eddie” It constantly bothered me until one fateful night at lakewood ampitheater on 6/8/1998. It was on this night that phish proved to the world that they wern’t just some Van Halen inspired spin off band. With the opening keyboard and bass fill i knew something special was about to happen. As the stage filled with smoke, i thought that i’d see DLR leap forth with mic stand and flaming spandex…IT was actually happening…”RUNNING WITH THE DEVIL!” I then knew that phish had arrived and now i could call everyone that doubted me a certified jack ass. I had arrived. The band had arrived…


    great post miner! with “terrapin station” phish proved to the world that they had become a totally different monster than the grateful dead, yet they were finally comfortable enough in their own skin to make that epic shout out to their predecessors. It was an awesome experience, one that sticks with me to this day. I still encounter many jaded dead heads who refuse to give phish the credit they deserve. When someone posted a phish mix tape that was given to phil prior to the 99 phil and phriends shows on a name withheld torrent site, you wouldn’t believe the amount of idiots that caused a fuss because phish was playing the holy grail of Gd songs. I tried to explain that they should listen to the rest of the mix first because phish playing “terrapin station” wouldn’t make them like phish any better…and i was greeted with several idiot remarks like “i know that”…and “figures, they always were just a cover band from some bar.” The close minded morons didn’t even want to give the Desert Sky 97 Gumbo in soundboard a chance, or the killer wolfman’s from 1998. Their loss. With each juvenile and close minded remark i just smiled to myself and thought ” i could try and explain again, but it’s not worth my time. I know i my mind that phish is the best band on the planet. I love both phish and the grateful dead and i feel really sorry for people who refuse to take the time or open their mind to learn that they are vastly different, yet equally awesome.

  5. msbjivein Says:

    @ Frankie, Yeah that is a million dollar riff for sure. Short but sooooooo Sweeeeet HA HA HA hA is!
    That rock in Roll is sic. Trey’s solo is mind melting on that!

  6. Mr.Miner Says:

    Shout out to JoyBoy in Iraq!! Good to have you on Phish Thoughts my friend!

  7. In Flagrante Delicto Says:

    The lot was such a mess before the VA Beach show – cops on horses dragging hippies by the hair, etc. I similarly remember after the show how freaking quiet it was… I’d parked next to a taper, and by the time we got back to the car, he’d hooked his dat up to the car stereo and just kept playing Terrapin over and over and over.

  8. Jerrydamule Says:

    Miner, this post is nothing less than landing a crisp 8 iron from a buck fifty out to within 1 foot of the hole. Nice ball, buddy! There was this akward time – during the beginning part of ’89 to ’95 – when my love for the phish grew to parrallel that of the dead, and I would try to catch as many shows of each as I could. The internal debate – who do I love more? which is better? – would cycle itself, stupidly, and if I strayed in one direction I would feel guilty, as if I was cheating on the other. I realized right away that, notwithstanding the common themes you cite – improvisation, love of tour, counterculture – the music was vastly different. I rejected the naysayers and came to terms with the fact that I could love each band’s music without compromising my love for the other… and I’ve never looked back at all…
    p.s. Jerry will always hold a special place in my heart!

  9. msbjivein Says:

    @ Lancer, I just realized that your post was a joke. So Ha Ha Ha Ha!

  10. JerZ Says:

    We had a couple that was riding with us on the east coast leg of the tour that thought that Phish insulted the memory of Jerry by playing Terrapin. They pissed us off so much that we dropped them back in Jersey before making it to the next show- that was a detour

  11. msbjivein Says:

    @Joyboy, “My sergeant asked during another anonymous jam….oh, I have that album, that’s Pat Metheny right, sir?”
    That’s funny shit. Was he serious?

  12. ma Says:

    @ wholetour….

    i couldn’t agree more….one of my best friends, with whom i’ve seen the majority of my dead shows, still to this day knocks phish from time to time ( he does go to shows locally, just won’t travel to see them )… the point is, each time he says something negative about phish, i honestly have to discredit his opinion about jerry and the boys and the music…

    how someone, who has been in the trenches with the dead, can’t capture that same feeling and experience from a phish show just baffles me.

  13. ma Says:

    it’s hard to listen or take seriously any words that follow ” oh phish, their just kids…the lyrics are ridiculous, blah, blah, blah….

  14. lanser Says:

    not a joke. it’s not about style of music. its about touring, varied setlists and lots of pshchadelic improv. im not saying one is better than the other or anything like that. it’s in the same spirit. why do you think phil had the biscuits open for phil and friends for the whole tour in 01.

  15. msbjivein Says:

    @ Lancer, I give you the “It’s in the same spirit”. there are may bands that try to capture the spirit.(UM,STS9,Bis,Tea,ect) But to compare them w/ The Grateful Dead and Phish is nuts. The Grateful Dead and Phish have taken there art form to a totally different world than any of the above. The feeling experienced @ Phish show’s is outta this world. It transcends time. You can’t capture that feeling anywhere else. Not even at a Phil show or Dead show. So I beg to differ that The Bis should be catagorized w/ Phish and The Grateful Dead. These two are in a league of their own when it comes to show experiences.

  16. Mr.Miner Says:

    The result of Phish taking the torch from The Dead was the creation of the jam scene- all those bands mentioned flowed naturally from Phish

  17. empire01 Says:

    That has to be the biggest bust out cover eva! I was not there I didnt see many shows in 98 cause my son was born in october of 97. but I remember listening to it on tape…and I was floored my first love was the grateful dead it was a real treat to hear trey sing the opening verse. Oh and following in the next year the epic shows with phil and phriends…4/15 4/16 and 4/17…amazing

    Im loving this show kick ass start…I hope they revive spocks brain and ha>ha>ha in 09…

  18. lanser Says:

    just because it doesn’t take you to that place. i’m not comparing one to the other, you are. this is not a the biscuits are as good as phish thing. apples and oranges baby.

  19. lanser Says:

    thank you mr. miner. “flowed naturally”

  20. Jesse Says:

    Miner, huge fan of your blog, I value your opinion and writings on Phish so much… I’ve been into Phish for a few years but since the hampton shows I’ve been REALLY getting into Phish, downloading and listening to a ton of shows, before that i didn’t have as much time for phish because i’m a huge deadhead and have over 500 dead shows from every year that i’ve been going through. all that said i have to say that as amazing as your knowledge is about phish, you definitely aren’t as much an expert on the grateful dead. there are many more similarities between phish and the dead than just their culture and improvisation. the biggest comparison that never gets mentioned is that they both make music you can DANCE to. go to a phish or dead show and there will always be people dancing. of course the music sounds different in that phish is much more funky and jazzy (although i challenge you to listen to any show from ’73-’74 and tell me that isn’t straight up jazz). they also both have the same kind of relationship with the audience. they also both create some heavily psychedelic musical explorations whether it be a 30 minute dark star that finds it’s way into a jazzy eyes of the world, or st. stephen, or a 30 minute mike’s song that finds it’s way into a groovy weekapaug. lastly another HUGE forgotten similarity between the two is that the bands are/were ALWAYS changing and every year sounds so different from the last. play me any show from the dead between ’65-’95 and I will tell you exacly what year it’s from just as you can do with phish.

    to like phish and not like the dead makes you blind. to like the dead and not phish means you only have one eye.

    see you guys at darien lake! (and any deadheads, see you in buffalo!)

    thank you mr. minor for a great blog, keep it up.

  21. Mr.Miner Says:

    we can agree to disagree 😉

  22. lanser Says:

    can of worms mr. miner:)

  23. msbjivein Says:

    I agree it’s like comparing “apples to oranges”.

  24. Jesse Says:

    one last thing that i forgot, the bottom line is that what it all comes down to is that the most important similarity between both bands is that the most important thing, for both bands, is that it’s ALL ABOUT THE MUSIC, and that’s all that matters

  25. lanser Says:

    apple butter toast is nice. i’m out.

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