The polarizing jamband Phish, which formed in Vermont 30 years ago, is arguably more famous for its spontaneity than its songwriting. From performing inside a flying hotdog in Madison Square Garden to playing a set of improvisational music atop an Airforce control tower in Maine to pretending to shoot its drummer through the roof of an arena in Miami, Phish has attracted fans at least as much for the quality of its music – which is genuinely amazing at times – as for the chance of witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime concert, such as Phish’s Halloween 1994 performance of the Beatles’ “White Album.”
Phish’s music, in its early days, was based in both classical music and classic rock such as Santana, the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead, whose legacy Phish carried on, in some ways, after Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995. The band’s most memorable and most impressive compositions – “Divided Sky,” “You Enjoy Myself,” “Harry Hood,” “David Bowie,” et al – brilliantly juxtapose nonsense lyrics with sweeping, complex prog-rock workouts that found a way to mesh the languid jamming of the Dead and the Allmans with the “look ma, I can do this” pyrotechnical musicality of Zappa and Yes. Essentially, for its first 20 years Phish – although it struck gold with Billy Breathes in 1996 by bringing a bit of Pavement and the Beatles to jam rock – ranged from the mesmerizing to the laughable in its original compositions, sometimes choosing one (“The Curtain”) or the other (“Icculus”), or mixing the two (“Stash”). And in the last decade Phish, whose members are now all either 50 years old or close, in my opinion has not aged well in the realm of creating original music. While innovation and achievement in the world of rock music thrive all around it, Phish has been churning out nearly adult-contemporary ditties about shirtless bike rides and secret smiles, only occasionally combining edge with depth, as on the powerful “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan.”
But – although there are certainly a few dreadlocked exceptions to this rule – Phish’s cult following does not attend their concerts, let alone drive around the country attending dozens if not hundreds of the band’s concerts, hoping to hear its most recent compositions. A dream setlist for most fans most likely includes only pre-2000 Phish material – in other words, songs from before the first time Phish broke up.
So what happened on Thursday night sent shockwaves through the band’s fanbase, which now includes several generations of mostly white, suburban-raised, middle-class American dudes. The fans who follow their favorite band because “every night is different” got a pie in the face this Halloween when Phish, which has performed, in its entirety, another band’s classic album (from “The White Album” to Exile on Main St.) every time a gig has fallen on Halloween since 1994, chose instead to essentially workshop songs from its as-yet-unrecorded LP Wingsuit.
Watching in person or via an online stream, Phish fans who hadn’t got the pre-show memo in Atlantic City clamored for search engines as the second set began on Thursday night, trying in vain to see what band’s album Phish was covering. Turns out it was just songs no one had heard before, and in most cases songs no one would want to hear again. Not that it was all truly horrible; but let’s just be honest, here. Phish has not written and recorded a memorable album in nearly 15 years, and may not ever again. Hundreds if not thousands of musical artists release good to great albums each year, and I review many; Phish is simply not one of them anymore. Which doesn’t make buying a ticket to one of the group’s shows necessarily a bad idea, because sometimes they pull off amazing performances of classic songs, or simply an improvisation that shines somewhere between Hot Rats and Marquee Moon.
What’s most interesting, though, is not the arguing going on over whether the songs Phish played on Thursday night were quality works of music, or whether Wingsuit will crack the top 200 best albums of 2014 when it’s released. What’s interesting isn’t even how many fans feel betrayed by Phish’s decision to throw a wrench into its Halloween tradition, i.e. its fans’ expectations, and effectively show up to its own Halloween party sans costume. That the same people who answer the question “Why do you like Phish?” with “because I never know what to expect” are angry with the jam-rock quartet for destroying their expectations last week is pretty boring, and predictable.
As a musician I personally would not charge people to see my concert and then, after they’ve arrived, surprise them by trying out an entire set of unfinished material. And certainly not on Halloween. But Phish has the right to play anything it wants, as does everyone who calls him or herself an artist, and it took guts to do what they did on Halloween. What’s really interesting to me stems from a conversation I read online. One Phish fan wrote that Wingsuit was “hilariously bad.” The first person to reply to his opinion wrote, “I hope you don’t wake up tomorrow,” and was followed by a Phish fan concurring: “I second this and ask that you please go to bed immediately.” On another website, many Phish fans responded to criticism of Wingsuit by pleading with people who didn’t like Phish’s new songs to avoid ever coming to a Phish concert again. Funny – I love Dr. Dog, for instance, although the Philly band’s last LP was my least favorite of its marvelous catalog; but in conversations about Dr. Dog recently, my dissatisfaction with Be the Void hasn’t prompted any of the group’s fans to request that I never go to another Dr. Dog show, or request that I die.
These pesky interactions with Phish fans clearly aren’t about music. Like the Grateful Dead, Phish does not just have a cult following, as did the Velvet Underground or the Ramones. Phish literally has a cult following it. That is something entirely different, and it must be both heaven and hell getting almost no respect or attention from your given industry but playing for 20,000 people every night who worship you and feverishly strive to convey your infallibility to unbelievers. Many of the people I’ve spoken to at Phish concerts only listen to Phish, and in many cases love some of the terrific covers Phish does, such as “Peaches en Regalia” or “Frankenstein,” but don’t realize that they’re covers. I find it maddening, frustrating and deeply interesting sociologically that if you criticize Phish, many of their fans feel, and react, as if you are criticizing their religion, and in essence, their selves.
In 2010 I had a fabulous time in Telluride writing about Phish for Boulder Weekly, seeing two shows in a gorgeous setting with San Francisco friends I don’t get to be around often. I wrote in my review that some of the music was great, some good, some downright awful, and the myriad comments I received online ranged from insulting to threatening, with only a handful of reasonable commenters asking why people were so upset with a review that wasn’t all bad. None of the angry Phish fans realized, of course, that as both a writer and musician I get almost as much shit from many writers and musicians for liking some of what Phish plays as I get from many Phish fans for not liking every single note Phish plays.
One has to wonder what this mighty sensitivity from Phish fans stems from, psychologically. When you purposefully fail to expose yourself to the great new music of your time and forcefully insult, or even wish death upon, people who like some of what your favorite band plays but not every single note, something is wrong. And really, the ignorance with which you’re behaving is not unlike Christians who could not accept Native Americans who wanted to integrate Jesus as one of their gods but not their only god. And it surely doesn’t make outsiders more apt to take a minute and see whether they might find some of what Phish does appealing.
So, may lightning strike down upon me at this very moment for saying it: I think some of what Phish does is great. I think some of it’s good. I think some of it is pretty shitty. And I’m glad Phish is around.