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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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. voopa Says:

    It’s different for everyone. For me, MMW, moe., Mother Hips, and Umphrey’s are right up there with Phish and the GD. I don’t like WSP, SCI, or TDB, which is heresy to some, I know, but there it is.

    When I first got into Phish, I had a flash at one point: “This is it! The connection between The Dead and Zappa!” Some people saw what I meant, other thought I was nuts.

    I remember seeing the 8-9-98 setlist and thinking, “Whoa. Really?” Took a while before I believed it. Next show I went to, LA Greek 10-29-98, we were hangin’ in the lot prior, and someone put on that Terrapin encore…the whole section of the lot fell silent, and everyone rushed over to listen. More powerful than the opium that one dude had…

    Phil on the trampoline at Shoreline was great…as was Trey pranking Bobby by busting into Chalkdust after the West LA encore 10-6-00.

  2. Mr.Miner Says:

    @ Jesse, I mentioned most of what you said, perhaps in different words….

  3. voopa Says:

    Oh, and there are some who say that the 2nd gen jamband scene began with Blues Traveler and Spin Doctors, and not Phish. But whatever.

  4. cottle Says:

    Great post today!

    A good friend of mine was recently talking with a client of his, and it came up that the guy was an old deadhead. My buddy explained that he had seen a hundred or so Dead shows in his day as well, and then asked the other guy if he’d ever gotten into Phish. Turns out this guy had never even heard of Phish. All he knew about the band was that cover of “Gin and Juice” by the Gords, that was incorrectly labeled as Phish on Napster, and has since corrupted many people’s idea of who Phish is. To make matters worse, the old-timer didn’t know that that was a cover of a rap song, so he just assumed Phish was a bluegrass outfit that used too much profanity. Once he realized the band he couldn’t stand was in fact not Phish, the guy started asking who they sound like, or what tunes/albums my friend would recommend. One of the artists that I often compare Phish to is Frank Zappa. I think they parallel one another in the sense that both right songs that are musically brilliant, but the lyrics may not be as meaningful as others, at least to some. In my opinion, that’s always been at least as good as comparing them to GD.

    Having said all that, I’ll agree that if someone has no idea who Phish is, my follow up comment usually is: “Have you ever heard the Grateful Dead?” We all seem to perpetuate the same comparison that we try to dispute. But I guess as far as the improv genre goes, there’s not a whole lot of basis for comparison. Especially when you start to talk about the scene, the wanderlust, or whatever else it is that draws us in time after time. Sorry to ramble on…got sidetracked from work.

  5. Jesse Says:

    phish was right there touring with blues traveler and the spin doctors, but phish is the band that made it big because they are better, just like the dead is the band that made it over other bay area bands like country joe and the fish and quicksilver messenger service.

  6. Frankie Says:

    Exactly, i agree with the Zappa comparison. I couldn’t picture Garcia singing about somebody’s jumping in the tub with someone’s brother but i can certainly picture Zappa singing that… 🙂

  7. Jay Says:

    Also, Zappa was an amazing guitarist and composer. His songs were complex compositions with room for some improvisation. Just like Phish. Especially early Phish.

  8. bhizzle Says:

    I thought this was some good food for thought.


    Btw – love both the Grateful Dead and Phish. I don’t know many who favor one over the other or who despise one over the other. But I DO know Warren is not Jerry!

  9. Frankie Says:

    In the end, Phish just took a little something out of all that is GOOD in music and made it their own… a little Beatles, a little Dead, a little Talking Heads, even a little Elvis… They are their own sequoia but the roots are all over the place…

  10. v_krishna Says:

    Great post Miner. I think you’re spot on about the similarities between the Dead & the Feesh having far more to do with the culture/fans than the music itself.

    When trying to introduce Phish to people who aren’t familiar with their music, I tend to say “Mix Zappa with Talking Heads with Television, and then throw the whole mess on Dead tour”

  11. bhizzle Says:

    Gin and Juice got a little love from G. Love & the Special Sauce last night inside of Cold Beverages.

  12. gphisher62 Says:

    Great topic! I bought a shirt in ’95 that said “PHISH – choice of a new generation” in the shape and colors of a pepsi logo. That summed up my feelings about phish vs. dead. I love the GD, always have, always will. But in ’95 the dead were on fumes and I had seen my first 2 or 3 phish shows. The energy and effort were night and day. The dead were from an older generation and phish was something younger fans could call their own. By the way, my first phish show was the Lowell benefit that’s the download of the day!

  13. msbjivein Says:

    ^^^ WOW Dude! I don’t think you could of picked a better 1st shows to attend! I love listening to Lowell!

  14. Jay Says:

    @gphisher62 wrote:
    “The energy and effort were night and day.”

    Exactly. I saw my first Phish show in ’89. Was seeing a couple dozen Dead shows per year. By ’91 I pretty much stopped seeing The Dead and was seeing a dozen or so Phish shows a year. The energy and effort were consistent too.

  15. Jay Says:

    Ha Ha Ha! Look, it’s Spock’s Brain! Such a Strange Design for a Vulcan.

  16. Ginsengsully Says:

    I was one of those who had trouble converting over. Saw Phish in ’91 in Tempe, AZ and it was not a good night for me for personal reasons. Worked with a dude who always tried to rip the Dead and sell me on Phish, I blame it all on him! 😉 Moved back East in 95 and should have gone to the Clifford Ball, but I did not. I just watched some of the DVD and all I could do was shake my head due to my anti-Phish issues, I missed some hot shit! By ’97 I was on board and I am ready for the future.


  17. kts Says:

    I’m sure I’m not the only person who saw Syd Barrett’s Terrapin on a Phish setlist and assumed it was the GD song. (Kind of a newb rite of passage, I’d imagine). Which has always made me suspect that Phish’s choice of song for the eventual GD bustout was in some ways an inside joke to the phans.

  18. msbjivein Says:

    I recently had some co-workers asking about Phish. Mainly because they’ve noticed all the Tickets I’ve been purchasing and took off for Hampton so they were curious about Phish. My boss is actually a Huge Phan. So we played them some of Hampton 3-6-09 Fluff. Didn’t take long before they all thought I was absolutely crazy for spending time and money on this band. The office was buzzing about how I was spending all my time and money on some shitty band. So from now on when people ask about Phish I’m just going to say “You wouldn’t like em”. You either get it or you don’t. Maybe I am crazy for spending money and time on this band. But all I know is ever since Hampton my life has been consumed once again by Phish. I never thought my life would be consumed by one particular band again. And here i am just a couple days ago saying I wasn’t gonna do Phenway. And the more I thought about it and the more Jay kept telling me “nothing else matters” I’ve decided that I can’t miss it. Put in my lotto yesterday see you guys at Phenway!!!!!!!!!

  19. Mr. Completely Says:

    Well what a great post Miner! Thanks for the nuanced thoughts on a subject of great interest to me.

    Through the early 90’s the 2 bands were on different curves – the Dead were coming off their last great peak, summer ’89 to the first half of summer ’90, with a brief Bruce reprise/aftershock mini-peak in Spring ’91 – an underrated tour that features some beautiful jamming I think most Phish fans would dig. But after that it was down, down, down – the combination of the return of Jerry’s drug problems, the Keyboardist Who Must Not Be Named, and the absolute laziness and lack of interest by the rest of the band because of those first 2 things. So that was really depressing.

    And it made a sharp contrast with Phish, who were just getting better and better, their curve trending steeply up with one tour after another.

    In retrospect, for my taste, the 2 curves crossed later in ’91, basically as soon as Bruce came off tour. I’m not a huge lover of super-early Phish so for those who are I know the transition came earlier. But by ’92 there was no doubt which was the better band on a daily basis. Every once in awhile Mount Jerry would erupt into his former glory, but at that point the trend was clear…

    …I was just so burned out on rock music and the touring scene, depressed by Jerry’s fall…I wish I had simply jumped tours but I didn’t have the heart for it.

  20. Jay Says:

    @msbjivein wrote:
    “So from now on when people ask about Phish I’m just going to say “You wouldn’t like em””

    I say, you wouldn’t understand, or it’s not for you. I don’t even bother anymore to turn people on to the Dead Phish, or Zappa.

    “Maybe I am crazy for spending money and time on this band.”

    Nothing else matters is right. We are all going to look back on this year as epic and legendary and will be glad we saw as many shows as we could. 2009 will stay deeply within us for the rest of our lives. It’s just money. As long as you are taking care of the essentials, the rest is just gravey. Besides, we are helping the economy get back on it’s feet 🙂

  21. Exree Hipp Says:


    My first show was 12/30/93… I knew very little about the band then but had listened to Junta a million times. My cousin, who I went with, thought ‘Weigh’ was the best song in the world. So when they opened with David Bowie into Weigh, we thought this just made perfect sense. It wasn’t until a few years later when I got into tape trading that I realized how big a deal our first show had been in context. I now consider it one of the best, if not the absolute best two set show of all time, start to finish. I definitely cannot think of more than 5 that contend with it.

    Btw, we bought tickets retail, at the venue, a week before the show, kind of on a whim, and the local news showed clips of the show that night when we got home. My aunt said they sounded like shit and I blamed it on her crummy TV.

    It’s a fucking crime that this show isn’t a Live Phish release! It makes me wonder if there is no release-quality master available. I know the SBD that circulates has a cassette generation in there…

  22. voopa Says:

    I remember hearing that Phish was in attendance for the 8-27-93 GD Shoreline show…I felt kinda bad that they caught the worst of the 3 show run, but they didn’t let it show when the played the Berkeley Greek on 8-28. And they did do a nice nod to the the SF scene and the man who brought them to the big stages on the West Coast, Carlos Santana, by doing a full on Oye Coma Va jam during YEM.

    Even then I didn’t think that Phish would essentially inherit the Dead scene. I thought it was 2 different eras, and the music was different enough that comparisons seemed silly.

    That all changed on 9-30-95. Seeing Phish destroy Shoreline that night, I knew right then that they had found their destiny. Seeing Tom Constanten in the crowd before the show helped solidify those thoughts.

  23. Jay Says:

    Oh, BTW, Fluffhead is not the right song to try and turn the clueless on to Phish. Maybe should have tried Chalkdust or Rift or even Gin.

  24. SOAM Says:

    Completely-a little too much with the powershitting on the dead in the post 90 era-If you go to a show expecting Cornell 78-you deserve to be let down-I have seen good dead shows post 91-Its way too fucking cliche to say the dead blew after brent died-so what if they weren’t perfect -they were damn special and let’s remeber them that way as opposed to sounding kida Ungrateful….for their gift.

    some rise..some fall

  25. Mr. Completely Says:

    The biggest similarity between the two bands is that for both, the music is a means to an end. The unity of the crowd and band is the same. The feeling of it is a little different – a generational difference in the fans, the personalities of the band members – phish is a little more hyperspacey when you’re in the tube, the dead were more varied on the road to terrapin, though the textures of a phish groupmind hose have grown a lot more subtle and intricate over the years, I must say…phish certainly remained capable of very sustained jamming across a set or through multiple nights of a tour much longer than the dead did, which is to their credit. The last time you could go to a Dead show and absolutely count on at least one really insane jam every night was spring ’78 which is a long time before the end.

    If Phish lacks anything in comparison it’s the killer ballad thrown at the end of a jam, laid on a condensed crowd when they’re helpless and open to the the world, the old Other One > Stella Blue trick, rip your face off and then play the bittersweet beauty to melt your heart…phish plays with much more feeling than they used to and have more good songs, but bottom line, this is just not as big a part of who they are. And that’s fine.

    No other band creates that experience with the same depth as these two. That’s the heart of the matter for me. In the midst of a jam you might forget everything…what song it is…where you are…who you are…and even than you are supposedly a separate person…and there we all are, a single perspective floating above the middle of the room, and everything is both frozen and moving at lightspeed, and you can hear the improvised parts coming before they’re played, because after all those ideas are coming through all of us…

    I miss Jerry of course. But more than the man, I mourned what I thought was the loss of that experience. So when I went back to Phish and it happened again, and I felt the feeling I’d forgot, that was one of the happiest moments of my life. And now Trey has apparently beaten the Jerry trap, bless his heart! Life’s a funny thing.

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