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. Mr. Completely Says:

    JGB summer 77 -> march 78 = fantastic stuff, 5 stars most nights, not much circulates in good quality tho

    check out Theater 1839 official release – peak Jerry guitar shred, worth the coin if you dig solo Jerry at all


    Didn’t go to those summer ’92 Carlos openers but I love listening to them now. Like you say: how much rock can be crammed into short set?

  2. Mr. Completely Says:

    Miner, you mean you want recommendations or for me to post some music? Either way the answer is Yes.

  3. Mr.Miner Says:

    I guess i was asking if you could post a few- i like that era- very psychedelic

  4. Mr.Miner Says:

    cheers 🙂 (and maybe one of those ’77 shows you mentioned?)

  5. Mr. Completely Says:

    miner, see email

  6. Mr. Completely Says:

    I will gladly post some things tomorrow – I can’t get it together before end of day today due to work deadlines, I have to go actually do stuff for a few hours

  7. SOAM Says:

    Completely-you need to rearrange your priorities..when Miner calls you come-I’m not sure he’ll tolerate the delay

  8. SOAM Says:

    Miner 2 decent -one sick 73’s on nugs.net-FYI

  9. whole tour! Says:

    lol soam!

    my favorite dick’s pick is the one from boston 73….vol.14 ..it is outstanding.

  10. voopa Says:

    I can’t think of a dud among ’73 Dead shows…some killer ones that come to mind:

    5-26 – Kezar Not the best, but they find IT during Playin’
    9-20 – Truckin >Nobody’s Fault > Eyes >Stella
    11-11 – Dark Star > Eyes > China Doll
    11-17 – One of 3 fall shows with Playin > UJB > Dew > UJB > Playin
    12-19 (DP1)
    6-22 – another monster Playin

  11. SOAM Says:

    Most things from Boston are bro.

    doing a tasty 11/6/77 Bingo NY

  12. Mr. Completely Says:

    @wt! that’s the one without Donna ;o) great great release

    @soam ok my one-shot-for-now pick is 12-6-73 Cleveland, the free-est and most creative jazzy-improv dark star of them all, my favorite version of my favorite song. It also has the best version I’ve ever heard of Here Comes Sunshine (an underrated jamming tune in that churning full-band style particular to the era) and a superb Eyes of the World with some unique improv in the end section.

    also 12-18, the night before the dicks’ pick, I think its superior

    more to come including links or torrents tomorrow

  13. RamblinOnMyMind Says:

    Some have commented on the comparative levels of jamming that went on early in the Dead’s career vs. the heavy jamming that came a bit later for Phish….I think some of this is due to the fact that the Dead didn’t really have that tight compositional element to work on. From the start they were about the group mind, while Phish had to perfect the composed parts and work on freer jamming.

    Another interesting thing to note about the early years of both bands is that with youth came a great amount of intensity. The Primal Dead years (I’d say ’67-’70) feature a lot of wild, high-energy jams and things began to space out a little more in the early ’70’s (Yes, I know they got some energy back in ’77). Phish kind of had a similar trajectory if you think about the almost frantic pace of some Phish jamming from like ’91 to the height of the “speed jazz” of ’93. Their jams became more open and expansive in the ’94-’95 era and especially when the cowfunk emerged.

    Are there other bands that you can talk about as having such distinct periods in their sound within a relatively small time period? We all talk of the (obvious to us) differences between ’72 Dead and ’74 Dead, or ’95 Phish vs. ’97 Phish. Maybe you could talk about Dylan in the same way because he evolved so much, but I’m not sure you can talk about too many other rock bands whose live sound evolved so much that they sounded like different bands, even though a continuity runs through it all. You might need to head into the jazz world for something comparable.

  14. Al Says:

    Did you know that besides the FENWAY show 2009 there will be a third Jones Beach!? June 2nd. Check it out!

  15. Read Icculus Says:

    ….great post Miner……you’re the man.

  16. Mr. Completely Says:

    @Ramblin great post – yes there are parallels in jazz – compare Miles Davis albums Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way, and Bitches Brew, all released fairly close together in time, but each weirder than the last, building on the basic modal vamp-based improv idea and taking it further each time. All 3 highly recommended, Filles still sounds like “normal jazz” but hipper, Silent Way is maybe best post-tripping chill album ever, Btiches Brew is…well…whatever the fuck you call that crazy ass shit.

    Same for Coltrane in the early 60’s etc

  17. Mdawg Says:

    When it comes to making comparisons…

    Phish is the only band that makes me evaluate all aspects of my life and rework matters so that I am able to attend as many shows as possible! No other “jam band” would have me squirming for tix. My world is subject to everything Phish. With that, I can relate to die-hard dead heads not digging Phish cuz over the past 5 years or so any band/show I saw was missing IT. I know that IT will be there this summer and phor that I am Grateful!

  18. RamblinOnMyMind Says:

    @Completely – I definitely had Miles and Coltrane in mind. I think the Coltrane example is a little closer only because the evolution was so much in the hands of Coltrane himself, whereas with Miles sometimes you literally had different bands. Phish is a more constant entity that progressed on its own (not to suggest that Miles never progressed…) But electric-era Miles has a lot of the same musicians, and In a Silent Way is a completely different sound than, say, A Tribute to Jack Johnson or On the Corner (which I haven’t been able to get into). The parallel carries even further because with Miles it wasn’t just a matter of entering the studio and trying different sounds. There was a more consistent approach that got worked out in a live setting and evolved organically.

  19. Mr. Completely Says:

    @Ramblin’ – very thoughtful comparisons.

    Anyone that digs electric Miles should buy this immediately if you don’t already have it:

    here is YT clip from it, dropping straight into the sickness:

    And to think that’s the same festival the Hendrix DVD is from – holy crap!

  20. Mr.Miner Says:

    that 12.6.73 show sounds great Mr. C – exactly 24 years before 12.6.97 Tweezer- my favorite version of my favorite song 🙂 Coincidence? I think not.

  21. youenjoy09 Says:

    @guyforget – imho DP29 has the best ever Peggy-O. Not only is the whole band clicking, but Jerry’s solos are far beyond elegant – so perfect they seem composed (as Miner recently wrote in reference to pieces of outstanding Phish music)Also includes great versions of Bertha, Jackaroe, Sugaree, Looks like Rain and Comes a Time.

    @Mr.Completely – It’s funny you mention 12-6-73 Cleveland Dark Star….I was just listening to that again yesterday, and blown away as usual. Unspeakably pure free-form group mind improvisations. Also, Theater 1839 you mentioned has an incredible version of Deal.

    @wholetour – agreed on DP14! A top shelf Black-throated Wind, along with amazing versions of TLEO, PITB, and Don’t Ease me In

  22. youenjoy09 Says:

    @ Mr.C – I haven’t listened to much Coltrane, but dig some of what I have heard. You seem well-versed…. what are your top 1 or 2, must-have albums or sessions?

  23. judd Says:

    good entry today, mr miner.

  24. vtsnowboarder802 Says:

    Excellent piece today. Great piece. I have goosebumps right now.
    kudos sir. kudos.

  25. voopa Says:

    I’ll butt in again…recommended Coltrane:

    Blue Train
    Giant Steps
    My Favorite Things
    Cannonball and Coltrane

    …and for some really out there shit, Live in Japan.

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