I see two dominant schools of thought in analyzing Phish history—the “classicist” and the “progressivist.” Allow me to elaborate. The classicist school believes a certain historical period represents the band’s best work. They believe that Phish caught lightning in a bottle during this era, and that the rest of their career simply doesn’t hold up to the playing in this one. Maybe the year is 93? Maybe ’95? Maybe ’97? But the argument is that there are are tangible boundaries of time that bookened the band’s most proficient era. The progressivist sees things on a continuum, and views the changing of Phish music as an evolutionary process. This evolution entails retaining improvisational elements of the past while integrating new ones to form a more advanced whole-group ethos. The progressivist sees 3.0 Phish as the culmination of this process, an era in which the band has integrated their entire past with new elements in forming some of the most virtuosic music of all-time. The classcicist will argue that the modern era is nothing but a watered down version of the band’s glory days in which Trey could play more notes per second and melt-faces with his more technically proficient guitar playing. The progressivist will see Trey’s step back in ’97 and discovery of rhythm guitar as a huge advancement of the group ethos, and a stepping stone towards Phish’s more free-flowing, communicative jams of the late ‘90s and beyond. The classcisist attaches to his past era as if represents an age that can never be matched—energetically, musically, scene-wise—you name it; it was better then. The progressivist sees the evolution of Phish as continuous through 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0. He believes that the modern era represents the full realization of Phish’s hall of fame career. The classicist comes to modern shows for nostalgia and flashes of what used to be. I think you see the difference by now. In fact, I’m sure you have already thought of five friends that fall into each camp. There is that much of an unspoken—and spoken—divide in the Phish scene in relation to the past. And this divide represents the proverbial elephant in the room in so many unproductive Phish debates.
This is not a new rift in the community. It has always been there. In ’97 there was a camp of fans who became disenchanted with Phish’s change of pace—literally and figuratively. These fans longed for the speedier, guitar-led jams that they had grown up with and couldn’t wrap their head around the fact that this change could actually represent evolution and not destruction. Many of these fans missed ’97, ’98 and ’99 only to kick themselves later. Many stayed away until 3.0! If one is so caught up in glorifying an era or style of the past—or the past at all—he will, necessarily, not value the present nearly as much as someone who believes (read: understands) that the past has led Phish to their more evolved music dynamic of toaday. Many of these fans still see the 3.0 era as nostalgia and whatever-era-in-the-past as inherently untouchable. But that’s a fool’s perspective. Listen to the jams of 2012 and 2013 and try to tell me that they aren’t the among the most egoless, democratic conversations of the band’s 30 year career. You can’t. Everything has led to now.
Phish’s improvisational skills are at an all-time high. They may not play the fastest or the funkiest that they ever have, but their jam-to-jam diversity, creativity and consistency is unmatched at any other point in their career. The guys routinely code-switch between improvisational feels, refuse to get stuck in any stylistic rut, and jam with an unparalleled level of democracy. Simply put—Phish are the smartest musicians they have ever been. One would be hard-pressed to argue that point. Perhaps they don’t practice like they used to and don’t nail all their compositions (though they’ve been doing better in this area), perhaps they don’t play with the speed and ferocity of 25-year olds at age 50, and maybe they jam slightly less than they did once did. Phish’s improvisational ideas, however, are as creative as ever and when they do open things up, the results—as proven over the past couple years—are most often sublime. Perhaps modern Phish isn’t one’s favorite era, but anyone would be hard-pressed to argue against the evolutionary thread that is evident throughout the band’s career; a thread that has led us to another high-water mark for the legendary quartet from Vermont.
“Twenty Years Later” 10.29.13 IICulture