Phish: A Personal Reflection

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Phish’s music has taken on a variety of shapes over the years. What started as a group of goofy-looking white guys playing music in Vermont, has turned into one of the most successful and impressive musical acts in history.

For over half of my life, Phish has held a very special place in my heart. The band, its music and the surrounding culture have helped shape my beliefs and turn me into the person I am today. For this, I am eternally grateful. For the monumental shows that Phish has played, and the ones I’ve been lucky enough to experience, these are memories I will cherish forever. For those that haven’t experienced Phish first-hand, I don’t expect you to understand the thoughts I’m about to express with specificity to Phish. However, as a fan of talented musicians, try to empathize.

I’m currently on a flight back to Portland, Oregon after making the trek to Alpharetta, Georgia to see Phish play a pair of sold-out shows in a gorgeous, accommodating venue. The shows were a lot of fun, the crowd was full of energy, and even though the second night’s show was paused due to severe thunderstorms and a flooded pit section, the entire experience was absolutely monumental.

These days, the overall experience is all that seems to matter to most people, including the band members. The entire musical landscape that Phish originally helped shape — complex musical compositions, lengthy and emotional improvisation, thrashing musical mind-fucks, totally unpredictable shows night after night — has all but disappeared. Nowadays, people don’t walk out of shows talking about how Trey turned their brain into mush with a flurry of incomprehensible guitar licks. The days of being able to critique the music on a scale of complexity and improvisational craftsmanship are long gone. Instead, the entire show is grouped together as one experience. Either it was good, or it wasn’t. This isn’t the Phish that I remember, and quite frankly it’s a Phish that scares me for the future.

There was a time when it simply didn’t matter where (geographically) Phish was playing. Often times, the most epic and memorable shows took place in the most rundown of venues, in the most unfriendly of neighborhoods. With downright disgusting lot-scenes and relentless harassment from local authorities, we traveled to these places to see Phish play because the music was simply unrivaled and unabashed. These days, I can’t whole-heartedly say the same thing. Aside from the obvious reasons (you live nearby, you’ve never seen the band live, you were invited to a show for free), I couldn’t recommend going to see Phish at some of their favorite and historically successful venues anymore.

It saddens me to write these words, but they’ve been festering in my mind for far too long now.

The band refuses to take musical risks on a regular basis. They are settling for insultingly predictable setlists night after night. Fans that hop on tour for strings of 4 or 5 shows are being treated with multiple repeats. When Phish finally jams and enters some improvisational territory, people are surprised, and after the show you hear things like, “wow, I’m so happy they jammed tonight.” How is this the band we fell in love with so many years back?

It’s no doubt that Trey’s sobriety is massively stifling his creativity. He is clearly thinking about the notes he’s going to play, and is less-and-less becoming a “vessel for improvisational music,” like he used to describe himself. This leaves the band without an experimental, psychedelic leader who’s willing to take risks and fall flat on his face, in the hopes of reaching true musical bliss. The Trey that leaves my jaw on the floor simply isn’t in the building anymore. This isn’t a bad thing. Trey has a substance abuse problem. Him being sober means he gets to be a better father, a better husband, a better son and a better friend. If the music must suffer in order for him to lead a happy and healthy life, so be it.

Some of this can be attributed to father time as well. People get older, fingers move slower. Still, Phish’s ultimate success wasn’t brought about because they could shred Donna Lee at the drop of a dime. There are plenty of Jazz musicians out there that destroy insanely complex compositions, who are much older than any of Phish’s members.

Not surprisingly, Phish has a whole new legion of fans. At any given show you’ll have folks that are clamoring for old Gamehendge material (thus detaining the band in the past), folks yelling for new material (irking the fans that want to hear old tunes), folks yelling for Mike’s “funk” synth-bass bombs (which many fans think of as a pure gimmick), and folks who simply want to see Trey make his “O” face while he stares out into the crowd. They have so many people to please and so many different fans that are consistently traveling extensive distances to see them play, they don’t want to let anyone down. So, we end up getting shows like they have been playing on this 2011 summer tour.

Five minute 2001’s, nearly no Gamehendge material, consistently repeated Fluffhead’s, Possum’s, Down with Disease’s, and very minimal risk taking, if any at all. Songs that used to be special are now seemingly played to please crowds. Yes, every once in a while a show will stand out from the norm, but, that norm has become monotony, and the standout shows are a small glimpse of what used to fundamentally define Phish.

These days, going to see Phish is about having a good time, and enjoying the experience. It’s not about going to see something different night after night. It’s not about releasing all of your expectations and allowing the band to take you on a magical journey. As reluctant as I am to say it, unless Phish does things differently in the near future, they risk turning into exactly what they wanted to avoid… A purely nostalgic act that allows some of us to feel like we’re 18 again.

I’d love to see Phish mix things up once they’re done with this summer tour. While I doubt any of this will happen, I believe it would be in the band’s best interest to do some of the following.

They need to start playing smaller venues. Look at what happened in Utica last year. This is a prime example of how a small venue can bring about a truly creative, intimate energy. These days, that energy seems much harder for them to find at places like Madison Square Garden, in Atlantic City, or Camden. These huge, themed shows are some of the funnest parties on the planet, and the entire experience is sure to be a blast, but musically, they are generally forgettable. I’d love to see Phish skip some of these huge shows that gross millions of dollars, in favor of smaller shows, where there’s a chance that musical enlightenment will happen.

Phish has a chance to repeat something that most musicians will never get a chance to do even once in their lifetime. The musically-genius, creative journey that propelled them into international stardom in the mid-nineties, has a chance to be recreated here and now. But only if the band shifts gears. Otherwise, they truly risk becoming caricatures of themselves. And we know for a fact that nobody wants that. This isn’t about technical chops, or the speed of which Trey can play a certain solo. It’s not 1994 anymore, he just isn’t the same musician he was back then. I’m talking about creativity. If Phish were to take some time and focus on creativity within their music, they could potentially enter a glorious place of passion and inspiration for their (new or old) music. Either way, this is how we may ever have a chance to rival anything that happened in the nineties. Otherwise, we’re just heading down a road of even shorter songs, twenty song second sets, more judgmental Phish crowds, a wider set of people the band has to please at every show, and a musical act that seems to care more about the money than the music.

While you can still feel the phamily, these days Phish is also a large corporation. The big shows bring in the big bucks. Management makes more of a decision on when tour dates are announced, and ticket sales weigh heavily into future plans. For all we know, they may not even want to reach new musically creative territory anymore. Perhaps they’re simply content grossing millions and millions of dollars playing the same songs year after year.

Whatever happens, I’ll always be grateful for what Phish has given me. If there’s ever been a band that can transcend musical conventionality, it’s Phish… Let’s just hope they want to do it too.

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