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. voopa Says:

    Umphrey’s Make-A-Wish:


  2. voopa Says:

    Just noticed that the Dow Jones avg. hit it’s current low on March 9, the day after the Hampton run. Coincidence?

  3. voopa Says:

    Strike that apostrophe, and sorry for the randomness.

  4. old dude Says:

    holy Vince-hate, Completely. I’m no fan either, but c’mon, by that point the ship was a-sinking….at least he woke the crowd up during Maggie’s Farm – even if it was with fingernails. He doesn’t hold a candle to the Master of Distraction: Donna Jean. Imagine the 70s if she hadn’t ruined every single Playin’.

    And that 77-ish stint with JGB? ugh. unlistenable.

  5. Mr. Completely Says:

    @youenjoy09 – my 2 favorites from spring 77 are the back to back 5-19 and 5-22 shows which were released together as DP29. I have no argument with anyone that picks Cornell but I prefer those 2 shows, partly because I like the longer Scarlet>Fires from ’78 over the shorter ’77 ones. From the whole year I also put Englishtown (DP15) ahead of it for the incredible ending of set 2 and the best Half Step ever played. Other 77 shows I listen to more than cornell include the justly famous 2/26 Swing Aud gig, and 6/9 Winterland is my favorite show of the year overall as it epitomizes the high energy, shreddy vibe of the era.

    We should probably find another venue for extended conversation about early 70’s favorites, I don’t want to hijack even this Dead-friendly thread here…

  6. old dude Says:

    hey, maybe phish should bring in a female vocalist! wouldn’t that be fugly?

  7. Mr. Completely Says:

    @old dude – thats one reason fall ’73 is my favorite tour, by late in the run Donna had dropped off tour due to pregnancy. There are some epic Playin’s in there without any Donna screech at all – check em out!

    Disagree about the late 70s JGB, she still had her terrible moments there but overall was better than her Dead gigs & sounded downright nice now and again…Stir It Up, those versions are great IMO.

    ok really stopping dead-nerd talk now

  8. guyforget Says:

    completely, is there a certain source for that hampton show that is better than the others?

  9. Weyoun42 Says:

    ‘I mean “Local Band” in the best possible way. UM is still a Great band just not at Phish’s level.’

    Agreed. Besides still tinkering with just what their overarching “sound” is, they are still pretty much a Midwest thing. Then again, Phish was stuck as an East Coast thing for a while. Given time and maturity, I think they have a ton of potential. They would even have a shot at the dreaded mainstream popularity, should they choose. Oh, and as a cover band, they are second to none. They nail covers to perfection. They just broke out The Who’s Eminence Front for the first time a week or so back and it was spot on brilliant. I love how Phish and others take covers and make them their own, but to hear what almost amounts to a flawless copy is impressive as well. When UM drops an exact replica of the Doobie Brothers’ Black Water in the middle of a set of scorching improv, it’s just all in good fun. And, no matter the band or the music, as long as it’s fun, just go with it!

  10. Weyoun42 Says:

    ^old dude
    “hey, maybe phish should bring in a female vocalist! wouldn’t that be fugly?”

    A completely trashed Winona Judd again?

  11. Mr. Completely Says:

    @guy I will try to take time this afternoon to sort through them. the last boards I heard were not great. I will post again in a couple hours.

  12. msbjivein Says:

    ^^^ Agreed. They can kill covers. I like “Hey 19”

  13. SOAM Says:

    People go through changes and phases-The addict label is little much—as long as Trey rips tubes, does Brewskies, pops a cap here and there and lays off the heavy… he’ll be fine.

  14. guyforget Says:

    thanks dude, i figured you just had one on the top of your head.

  15. purplehumpbackwhale Says:

    you know, its funny what youre saying about that awkward conversation you have with people who don’t know phish because i basically had to do that in the form of a class presentation on wednesday, to 20 people who didnt know anything about phish.

    im in an art-essay writing class at NYU so we write about art and currently im analyzing Phish. we have to talk about the way they work with/against traditions and influences, and im hardly mentioning the Dead at all, seeing as how the music is so vastly different.

    Zappa, however, is where everyone attention should have been drawn. I mean the conversation should go “Oh isn’t that that band that sounds like Zappa?” rather than “isnt that the band that tries to be the grateful dead?” zappa had a uch bigger influence on phish thatn the Dead ever did… its wrtten all over Junta.

    my final paper is about their “creative process” and “stylistic fingerprint” but unfortunately is limited to 10 pages. ive already writte about 20 pages worth of material and i still have a month left in the progression so its gonna be a difficult cut hahah. how could anyone be expected to analyze Phish’s writing style and improvisation in 10 pages!?!

  16. SOAM Says:

    Just say no to Donna.

  17. Weyoun42 Says:


    Maybe I’m just a nerd, but I’m pretty sure I’d like to read that. Before it gets cut to 10 pages.

  18. whole tour! Says:

    i just read on hightimes.com that brittney spears had to stop her vancouver show for a half hour last night due to weed smoke in the crowd….lmfao! She’d love seeing phish!

  19. msbjivein Says:

    ^^Donna’s the gateway to butchered Playin. OOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHH YEAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! PLAYIn PLAYIN in the band!

  20. whole tour! Says:

    i’m sure donna is on bobby’s long list of conquests. How could she not be? Someone once told me she freaked out on cid during the europe 72 tour and crawled under keith’s piano….to do god knows what….lol

  21. Jay Says:

    Actually Donna has a good voice. Brought up preacher style. She just could not hear herself sing over the incredibly loud playing back then.

  22. bhizzle Says:

    curious as to how you feel about Joan Osbourne.

  23. Wax Banks Says:

    I think one big Dead/Phish difference has something to do with their fellow-travelers. Back in the day, The Dead had brother and sister bands that made sense on a shared bill, postwar American pop/rock bands following parallel paths. That shared sound of R&B/rustic-Americana/Brit-psychedelia. The Dead made sense in their first decade. Hell, the Allmans aren’t on the same plane as Phish and the Dead but they made a lot of sense paired with the Dead, you know?

    Yet I can’t think of any bands contemporary with Phish who do what Phish does. (No, Ween doesn’t. Fiery Furnaces, nope. Umphrey’s, WSP, SCI? No. Need a serious compositional force in the band.) I imagine part of the reason they ‘don’t need opening bands’ is that there are few bands who really make sense on such a bill, who could step onstage with Phish and form a unit with a single purpose. I can imagine MMW joining in, at least a few years ago; but beyond them…? Even the HORDE scene imagined a musical link where only a cultural one existed.

    Most of the time even Phish’s guest players just grate. You can lock into the band’s energy, yeah, but their approach to group playing is singular – only a handful of players (like Béla Fleck or B.B. King/Carlos (for different reasons!)) can avoid a first-round knockout with Phish (cf. Seth Yacovone).

    Whereas you bring Branford Marsalis on with the Dead and it makes perfect sense. The Dead made music in terms common to other musicians. At the moment, Phish don’t. Twenty years ago they might’ve fit a Brit-inflected prog-rock mold, sort of, but their improvisatory seriousness put that genre behind them, and that designation is long gone.

    I don’t flip for the ‘Terrapin’ encore but I love listening to the crowd go nuts at the beginning. As with the Hampton ‘Fluffhead.’ No coincidence how much those tunes have in common, eh?

  24. bhizzle Says:

    better than Phil singing

  25. dyda Says:

    if syd hadn’t lost it i might say pink floyd was england’s dead, but i can’t really do that…

    phish totally started the resurgent jam scene that emerged in the late 90s. moe, umph, disco, etc etc etc. all good in their own regard, but none have been around long enough to achieve IT quite like phish. perhaps in another decade. i’ve see them all, but none stack up in my opinion. good times, but not IT.

    umphree’s played a pretty spot on ‘shine on’ cover last time i saw them.

    bisco has a unique ‘trancefusion’ sound, which i dig, but it gets a little too heavy/one note if i listen to them for too long. they haven’t quite found a balance to their sets (at least the ones i’ve heard). they’re one of the few i haven’t seen live yet (will at roth) partly because of the negative things i’ve heard about their following. that may also just be my anti-philly mindset too…

    i’ve totally had that conversation you started the post off with today, miner

    i like the mention of quicksilver messenger service. nice. have heard them on the xm deep tracks station.

    anticipating a phil & phriends post in a few weeks to conincide with the 10th ann. of that run

    zappa is totally where it’s at. fish and trey nurtured that influence. mike brought the bluegrass. page with a classical/jazz sense. there’s a prologue in the phish companion from one of trey’s music teachers and he said that trey studied bach’s compositions not to learn to play them, but to see how he wrote and learn from that.

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