With a fan base that almost parallels the Grateful Dead's following in size and fervor, and a penchant for extended jams and spacey segues, comparisons between Phish and that legendary group are as pervasive as buckshot 10 yards out of the barrel. But like buckshot, these comparisons spread too thin, too quickly and often fall short of their mark. Phish is its own animal.
While the band is well-known for such tangibles as epic three-hour shows, zany lyrics and onstage antics (vacuum cleaners, chess games and gigantic hot dogs, to name a few), it's the intangibles - the sheer musical prowess -- which have earned Phish their army of followers. Their music spans the spectrum of styles; obvious influences come from rock, jazz, blues and bluegrass. But somehow, the band manages to transcend each of these genres to create their own ahem Phishy verve.
Phish got its start on the University of Vermont campus in 1983 when guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio met up with Jeff Holdsworth. The two quickly recruited a young, bespectacled Jon Fishman for drums, and picked up bassist Mike Gordon from a classified ad. In 1985, Page McConnell joined the band on keyboards, and convinced Anastasio and Fishman to transfer to his school, Goddard College.
Holdsworth left Phish in 1986, and the band stepped up its efforts to produce new, original material. For his senior thesis, Anastasio wrote and recorded The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday (TMWSIY). Drenched in Campbell-esque mythos, TMWSIY recounted the tale of an evil king's lordship over his subjects and the protagonist's efforts to free the land known as Gamehendge from tyranny. Although TMWSIY was never an official Phish release, the band often includes songs from it in their live shows. On more than one occasion, they have performed TMWSIY onstage in its entirety.
Junta was released in 1988. The cassette, made available at shows, was an ambitious freshman undertaking for Phish. Anastasio flexed his compositional skills on such epic songs as "Divided Sky," "David Bowie" and "Fluffhead," each clocking in at over 10 minutes. Junta arguably fell short in the lyrics department, spinning off such ditties as "You Enjoy Myself" with only four intelligible words ("Boy, Man, God, Shit") and "Dinner and A Movie," where the only lyrics were "Let's go out to dinner and see a movie." On the other hand, given the intricate musicality and impressive soloing evident in these songs, the lyrics could be taken as a merely slipcover for the music. In any case, the music and the lyrics established Phish as a talented quartet with wacky sensibilities.
During the next two years Phish expanded its touring base to include most of the Northeast. In 1990, they headed out to Colorado for a five-show stint, sprinkling gigs across the Midwest on the way there and back. Phish@world, a listserv dedicated to discussion about the band, formed later that year, marking the beginning of what would later grow to be an enormous online community of fans.
With the release of Lawnboy in autumn of 1990, Phish showed that they could write a catchy tune. Some of the songs retained the epic, jazzy sentiment of Junta, but added on infectious, lyrics-driven preludes ("Squirming Coil," "Reba"). Others, like "Bouncing Around the Room" and "Bathtub Gin" dropped almost all lengthy pretense, leaving trippy lyrics and simple melodies. Lawnboy also laid to tape for the first time Phish's genre-bending sensibilities, with the bluegrass "Poor Heart" and "Lawnboy," a lounge rip-off.
The summer of 1991 was full of landmarks for Phish. They recorded their next album, Picture of Nectar in Burlington, Vt., engineered the temporary addition of a horn section (The Giant Country Horns have since reappeared on various special occasions) and retreated to fan Amy Skelton's farm for a free outdoor show. The band also opened negotiations with Elektra Records, eventually coming to an agreement later that autumn.
Picture of Nectar came out in February 1992. While it managed to capture the energy of a live Phish show, it lacked cohesiveness, moving frenetically from rock to jazz to bluegrass to lounge. Many of the songs worked well as stand-alones, but Nectar failed to coalesce as an album.
On the digital front, the Phish listserv had graduated onto usenet. The fledgling newsgroup, rec.music.phish provided a more easily accessible forum for fans to trade tapes, exchange tickets and spread information about Phish and related musical projects.
That summer, Phish toured Europe, participated in the first H.O.R.D.E. tour and rounded things off by teaming up with Santana for several amphitheater shows. Although Phish were limited to one abbreviated set (approximately 45 minutes instead of their usual two 60-minute plus sets), the tour with Santana helped them grow, perhaps more than any other tour to that point. The band benefited greatly from Carlos Santana's wisdom -- both about music itself and the challenges of being in a band.
Phish faltered a bit in their next two recordings. Unlike Nectar, the 1993 Rift had cohesiveness, but lacked energy. Although some of the tracks later grew legs in the live performance ("Maze," "It's Ice"), Barry Beckett's production work and Phish's quest for a better album sterilized the songs considerably. In an effort to produce a more organic sound the next time around, Phish played the songs on Hoist (1994) for the first time while in the studio. The result, while lively and concise, lacked the free-form structure that had become Phish's trademark.
In 1993 and 1994, the Phish fan base exploded. Usage on rec.music.phish jumped to more than 40,000. Shows moved from clubs to theaters, and then quickly to arenas and summer sheds. The band enhanced their live show, using signals (the audience would listen for a series of sounds and respond accordingly, ie yelling, "doh!" when the Simpsons theme was teased) and other audience-driven tools to compensate for the more impersonal venues. Additionally, Chris Karuda, the band's lighting director developed breathtaking arrays that complemented the music.
Halloween that year brought an unusual treat, as Phish covered the Beatles' White Album for the second set of their three-set show. The album was chosen by fans on rec.music.phish, and marked the beginning of what is now a three-year Halloween tradition of sonic garb. In 1995, Phish showed up as The Who for the second set, performing Quadrophenia in its entirety. Anastasio and the band picked the Talking Heads' seminal Remain In Light for the 1996 show.
Phish tried their hand at a live LP in June 1995. Aptly named A Live One, the album contained two discs of prime Phish material from live shows. Much to the avid fans' delight, previously unreleased, but favored vintage Phish songs like "Slave to the Traffic Light" and "Harry Hood" were included.
Phish reached new heights in 1996, when they drew a reported 75,000 (unofficial reports set the number as high as 137,000) fans to their final summer tour show in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Dubbed "The Clifford Ball," the show was, in fact a two-day extravaganza. "The Ball" took place on a retired Air Force base and featured three sets of Phish each day, amusement rides and a symphony orchestra. The Phish organization provided inexpensive food and sundries, free drinking water, security and first aid stations.
The band, which had been previously under the media's radar screen, began to appear in national publications and on MTV with alarming regularity. Amidst the hubbub, Phish came out with their best effort to date, Billy Breathes.
Billy Breathes avoided the trappings of earlier albums, marrying cohesion with free-form sensibility. The album moved gracefully from great rockers ("Free," "Character Zero"), to soft acoustical numbers ("Waste," "Talk," "Trainsong"). "Cars, Trucks and Buses." A frolicking, organ jazz composition fit neatly in there, and the album ended with the meditative "Prince Caspian."
Phish ushered in 1997 with a raucous three-set performance at Boston's Fleet Center (which included a cover of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" with the accompaniment of the Boston Community Choir), then surfed the subsequent wave of media and commercial recognition over to Europe for a month-long stint.
After returning to the States for a Lake Champlain benefit show and their second ever appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, Phish rested for three months, then shipped back overseas to debut a handful of new songs on the Continent.
In late 1997 Phish released Slip Stitch and Pass, the group's second live recording in as many years.
A six-disc live album, Hampton Comes Alive, came out in November 1999, containing two complete live shows recorded in Hampton, Va. Phish's latest studio album, Farmhouse, was released in May 2000.