“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.”
If 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.
While 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.
Over 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.
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.
Phish 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.
After 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.
DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY:
5.16.95 Memorial Auditorium, Lowell, MA < LINK
5.16.95 Memorial Auditorium, Lowell, MA < TORRENT LINK
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.Tags: 1998, Culture