Phish is an American jam band noted for its technical prowess and live performances, particularly its extended jams and improvisation. Its four members performed together for 21 years and parted ways in 2004. They were one of the most successful live bands in American history. Without radio play or MTV exposure, Phish developed a large cult following simply by word of mouth. For several consecutive years, they were consistently ranked as one of music’s top grossing concert acts, and were a commercial cultural phenomenon, complete with their own flavor of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, an appearance on News Corporation’s (NYSE: NWS) The Simpsons. Along with The Beatles and The Grateful Dead, Phish were one of the first rock bands to have an Internet newsgroup, rec.music.phish, which launched in 1992.
Phish made attempts at almost every single traditional genre of music, from jazz, bluegrass, country, heavy metal, hard rock, reggae, folk, punk, ska, pop, blues, showtunes, classical, acoustic, progressive, and calypso, just to name a few. Most of their songs were written by guitarist Trey Anastasio and his friend, lyricist Tom Marshall.
During their entire 21-year career, Phish never repeated the same concert set list twice. Every single show was different from one another, and every version of each song was played differently than other versions. Often compared to a baseball game, Phish fans knew every show would be unique, so they would attend multiple nights on each tour, yet they would often never hear the same song twice.
Phish concerts featured two long sets of music with no opening band. Fans brought taping equipment to record the concerts and trade them with other fans through the mail or over the Internet. Free concert recordings were highly sought after since the majority of Phish's songs were not featured on their albums, and because of the ever-changing nature of their concerts (many fans referred to Phish concerts as separate, unique albums unto themselves).
Phish was formed in 1983 at the University of Vermont by guitarists Trey Anastasio and Jeff Holdsworth, bassist Mike Gordon, and drummer Jon Fishman. In 1985, Page McConnell joined on keyboards. In early 1986, Jeff Holdsworth left the group after graduation, thus solidifying the band’s classic lineup, which remained unchanged for the rest of their career.
Almost immediately, the band was extremely ambitious, writing complex progressive rock fugues and mixing them with intense improvisation. The group’s practice sessions are the stuff of legend. They used to lock themselves in the practice room for anywhere from nine to fifteen hours a day. These sessions, called “Oh Kee Pa” ceremonies, were the product of listening to each member and reacting through a constant flow of musical communication. In essence, Phish created their own form of improvisation, with a set of rules, goals, and listening exercises.
In 1986, McConnell encouraged Anastasio and Fishman to transfer to a small school named Goddard College, located in the hills of Plainfield, Vermont, (Gordon remained at the University of Vermont). In mid-1986, the band released an extremely experimental self-titled cassette (sometimes referred to as The White Tape). The album contained mostly avant-garde experimental pieces, long instrumental passages, electronic noise, and studio trickery, along with four standard full-band tracks. The album was widely circulated in bootleg circles for over a decade before finally being released in 1998.
In 1986, the group hooked up with soundman Paul Languedoc, who also built custom guitars and basses. Languedoc designed instruments for Anastasio and Gordon, as well as speakers, and was officially hired as their soundman on October 15, 1986 at a show at Hunt’s Bar in Burlington, Vermont. Because he had built the instruments and the speakers, Languedoc had complete control over the sound of the live Phish experience, resulting in nearly flawless concert sound for the remainder of the band’s career.
The band’s second studio experiment was a concept album written by Trey Anastasio entitled, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday. The recording was Trey’s senior thesis statement at Goddard College in the spring of 1987. Elements of the story have comprised no less than thirteen songs, only seven of which were featured on the actual recording. The band played the complete album from top to bottom on only four occasions (in 1988, 1991, and twice in 1994). The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday became a legendary part of Phish's unique culture for years to come.
By the late 1980s, Phish was developing a dedicated following in the Northeast United States that was following the band from show to show. In 1988, the group packed in their van and drove across the country to Colorado, only to find that the promoter had cancelled the shows. Phish went across the street and played another club throughout the week. Only a few people attended, but many of those people taped the concerts, thus spreading Phish's music all over the area. Two years later, Phish returned to Colorado shocked to find that almost every show had sold out by word of mouth. This would be the trend in almost every major city in the United States, thus building Phish's massive fan base by word of mouth and without the aid of radio or record companies.
Also in 1988, Phish recorded what many consider to be their masterpiece, a double studio album entitled Junta. Containing suite-length, classical/progressive compositions such as “The Divided Sky’’, “David Bowie”, “You Enjoy Myself”, and “Fluffhead”, Junta clearly set Phish apart from other groups, especially the Grateful Dead, to whom Phish were compared, somewhat unfairly, for most of their lifespan.
On January 26, 1989, Phish played the Paradise Theater in Boston. The owners of the theater had never heard of Phish and refused to book them, so Phish rented the place out themselves. The owners were stunned to see a huge line of people wrapped around the street trying to get in - the show had sold out due mostly to the caravan of Phish fans that had traveled to see the band.
By the turn of the decade, Phish concerts were becoming more and more unique. The band was constantly involving the audience in their performances, a trend that would only grow over time. The group developed a special “secret language” where the audience would react in a certain manner based on a musical cue from the band (for instance, if Anastasio played a bar of The Simpsons theme song, the audience would yell, “D’oh!”, imitating lead character Homer Simpson. Another favorite was “All Fall Down”, where the band would play a descending group of notes and the audience would fall on their backs to the floor). Drummer Jon Fishman would often play a vacuum cleaner like a woodwind instrument, and the group would switch instruments to the left one member at a time in an experiment called the “Rotation Jam”.
In the early 1990s, the audience games became even more elaborate. The “Big Ball Jam” consisted of each member throwing his very own beach ball into the audience. Every time their particular ball was hit, they would play a note, so in essence, the audience was performing and creating a composition on the spot. However, the most famous onstage gimmick involved Gordon and Anastasio jumping on mini-trampolines in the middle of a song entitled, “You Enjoy Myself”, doing synchronized maneuvers on the trampoline while jamming on their instruments.
Gags and humor aside, Phish was a powerhouse in concert. Their jams were much more energized and frantic than say, those of The Allman Brothers Band or the Grateful Dead. The group experimented with tension and release jamming, in which a jam would bubble up and condense itself into a tight, usually off-key musical corner, and then explode back to the main theme.
Much of the drama and intensity of the live concert experience was a result of legendary lighting designer Chris Kuroda, who first worked with the band in April 1989. Kuroda essentially jammed with the band, using a dazzling array of lights and lasers to accompany the music. He would also learn every composed section of each song, and design a light-based reaction to fit each note. When the band improvised, Kuroda improvised. He was such a large part of the Phish concert experience that in the late 1990s, a group of fans lobbied to have Kuroda recognized as an official member of the band (fans have likened simply listening to a Phish concert on tape or CD as the equivalent of watching a movie with your eyes closed).
In 1991, Elektra Records got wind of the band’s enormous following, and signed the band after attending one of their concerts. In 1992, their major label debut, A Picture of Nectar was released, and Junta from 1988 and Lawn Boy from 1990 were re-released on the label as well. In 1992, in what many call the first true “jam band” festival, John Popper of Blues Traveler organized the first annual H.O.R.D.E. festival (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere). The lineup included Phish, the Spin Doctors, Blues Traveler, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, and Widespread Panic, providing Phish with their first national tour of major amphitheaters. That summer, the band toured Europe with the Violent Femmes and later toured both Europe and the United States with guitar legend Santana.
Phish was finally popular enough to headline major amphitheaters on their own by the summer of 1993. That same year, the group released another concept album, the wildly popular Rift, which continued the band’s streak of challenging, complex music and elaborate storytelling. However, the group completely changed their songwriting and recording approach for their 1994 release, Hoist. Feeling they had taken their complex progressive sound as far as they could, the band concentrated on simple songs and heartfelt lyrics, a move that would eventually expand and diversify the group’s overall sound, but at the time was extremely controversial and met with criticism from many fans. In addition, the band made their first and only video for MTV. Even though it was rarely played, cries of “sellout” eluded the band from their fans, and they refused to ever make another MTV video again.
Although 1994 was a controversial year in the studio for Phish, it is considered one of, if not the greatest, concert years in the band’s history. The band was peaking musically, thus completely rewriting the rules of improvisational rock. The group was becoming so big that they headlined Madison Square Garden in New York City on December 30, 1994. Earlier that day, they made their national television debut on The Late Show with David Letterman, where they would appear a total of seven times over the next decade. On New Year’s Eve, already a legendary, historical night in Phish's world by this point, the band headlined the Boston Garden. Before midnight, the band wanted to make a special effort to get close to every fan in the house, no matter how bad the seats. They flew in a giant mechanical hot dog through the air and performed music while throwing candy to the audience.
On Halloween night in 1994, the group promised to play an entire album from another band (in essence dressing up in a “musical costume” for Halloween). The band took fan votes on their website and ended up performing the entire, 30-song self-titled Beatles’ classic known as The White Album sandwiched in between two sets of their own music. The concert, which began at 7 PM, ended at 3:20 AM. It would become a tradition that other bands would copy in years to come.
In 1995, the band experienced a huge swell and growth in audience numbers when Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia died on August 9. Phish had been tapped by the media as their heir of the Dead's throne atop the jam band world for years, mainly because Phish didn’t sound like the Dead even though they followed their approach and business model, thus able to represent a new, younger generation of fans. It was both a blessing and a curse, as shows quickly became overcrowded with hangers on and hustlers looking for a drug score or a big party. The scene would smooth itself out eventually, but at the time it was a major shake-up in the Phish world.
That fall, Phish engaged in the most extreme audience participation game in their history. The band challenged the audience to a chess game. A huge chessboard would be lowered down on stage before the show and in between sets. The band would make a move, and then a representative from the audience would make their move based on votes tallied in the lobby. At the end of the tour, the band and audience tied 1-1. Phish performed Quadrophenia by the Who with an entire horn section for Halloween 1995. Their first live album, A Live One, featured the best versions of songs from 1994 concerts, and was the first Phish album to go gold.
In 1996, Phish released the critically acclaimed Billy Breathes, which featured a mostly acoustic, flowing second side that continued to display the band’s simpler, stripped down song approach. That summer, they completely revolutionized the concert experience and set the stage for Bonnaroo and other future festivals. The Clifford Ball took place on an empty air force base in Plattsburgh, New York. An astonishing 65,000 people showed up. MTV was on-hand to make a documentary of the experience. Phish set up their own makeshift city, complete with an amusement park, restaurants, a post office, playgrounds, arcades, and movie theaters. For two days, a Phish concert was the ninth largest city in New York. Aside from six sets of Phish, the band hopped on a flatbed truck at 3:00 AM and drove through the campground, serenading the audience with a haunting jam. The concert’s production company, Great Northeast Productions, would host six more Phish festivals and eventually host the now legendary Bonnaroo Music Festival, all based after The Clifford Ball in 1996.
In 1997, Phish completely changed their jamming style. The previous Halloween saw Phish perform the Talking Heads’ album Remain in Light, which is extremely groove based and funk oriented. The frenzied, manic tension and release jams gave way to a smoother, simpler, funky style of jamming that became extremely psychedelic by the summer. It was a period of rebirth, and considered a second peak for the band by many fans. Jams were becoming so psychedelic that several sets that year only contained four songs. That same year, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream launched Phish Food, which remains one of the company’s most popular flavors.
That summer, the band drew 70,000 people to its second festival, The Great Went held in the northern-most point in the continental US - Limestone, Maine. The concert was the largest city in Maine. Throughout the weekend, the band had the audience paint their own individual piece of art. Each piece of fan artwork was attached to make a huge tower that was several stories high by the end of the weekend. Backstage, Phish was also creating pieces of art. During a jam on the final day of the weekend, the band passed their artwork through the audience. The audience attached the band artwork to the fan artwork, thus connecting band and audience in true fashion. The tower was then burned to the ground.
In 1998, the band tried a new approach to recording. They recorded hours and hours of improvisational jams over a period of several days, and then took the highlights of those jams and wrote songs around them. The result was the funky The Story of the Ghost album (followed by the all-instrumental The Siket Disc in 1999). Phish headlined Farm Aid in the summer of 1998, jamming on stage with Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and Paul Shaffer. The group also returned to Limestone, Maine, for the Lemonwheel Festival, which drew another 70,000 fans. Once again, the concert was the largest city in Maine. This time around, the band had the audience make candles throughout the weekend. At the end of the show, the band lined the stage with candles, turned out all the lights, and played one long, quiet, ambient jam. They encouraged the audience to leave the concert area and mill about and talk to one another, play on the ferris wheel, or just stroll around, allowing the music to simply be background music and act as the soundtrack to whatever was going on.
The band pulled a huge prank on their audience at the 1998 Halloween shows. The group performed Loaded by the Velvet Underground as their musical costume. Somewhat of a rare album, most of the audience was unfamiliar with the album, and thus a little disappointed in the selection since they had paid big bucks to stay in Las Vegas and pay outrageous ticket prices from scalpers for the sold out show. Two nights later, the band played in the middle of Utah. Most people had spent their time, money, and effort to see the Halloween shows, and therefore, elected to skip the far drive to the middle of nowhere to see what was destined to be just a normal Phish show following the annual Halloween celebration. Playing to a small audience of only 4,000 people, Phish performed Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd in its entirety towards the middle of the second set. Many fans who missed the show were irate, but it only cemented Phish's “you snooze, you lose” attitude, and sense of humor. Throughout their career, Phish showed magnanimous sensitivity to their audience in stunts like this one.
By 1999, Phish were an American institution. They were considered the biggest concert band in the country. With the millennium on the horizon, fans knew that Phish was going to pull out all the stops. They decided to skip the annual summer festival in order to prepare for the New Year’s Eve Millennium Celebration. However, at the last minute, they decided to hold a summer festival anyway. Sixty-five thousand people came to an abandoned airport in upstate New York for Camp Oswego held in July. The following weekend just a few towns away, the disaster at Woodstock 1999 was making new headlines as 200,000 people rioted and burned the concert grounds in an ugly scene. The media failed to mention that a large number of people came together for a peaceful, friendly weekend across the state at a Phish concert.
For the millennium celebration, Phish went to the southern-most tip of the US - the Florida Everglades - at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation. It was the largest Phish concert ever, and widely considered the greatest. There were huge New Year's Eve concerts all over the world that night - Sting, Barbra Streisand, Elton John. Of them all, Phish's was the largest. Peter Jennings reported on the huge audience in an episode of ABC World News Tonight. Eighty-five thousand people showed up for two nights of music, culminating with a seven-and-a-half hour second set that began at midnight, and ended at sunrise. The band had portable toilets onstage so they could use the restroom during the marathon set, and a team of security guards lined the stage to prevent band members from “wimping out” and trying to leave the stage.
When the band left the stage in tears at sunrise after the extremely emotional performance, Trey Anastasio said to Jon Fishman, “We should stop.”
They kept going, but Phish had realized that there was nothing more in the music world they could do. They had accomplished more than any other touring band, and on their own terms. They glided through the year 2000 with no Halloween, no summer festival, and no new material. On October 7, 2000 in Mountain View, California, they played what was to be their final concert. There were no frills; the band played a regular show and left without saying a word as Let It Be by the Beatles played over the PA. Although there was some misunderstanding by many who thought Phish had broken up, the band made it clear that this was simply a “hiatus” and that they would be back for more. There had been announcements, such as during their 2000 concert in Las Vegas (which since has been released on DVD) that they were tired, and wanted a break to go different ways, but would be back for many more years of touring.
The members of Phish always had musical projects outside of Phish, but the hiatus allowed them to explore them more deeply. Trey continued his solo career (which began in 1998) and formed the supergroup, Oysterhead, with Primus bassist Les Claypool and drummer Stewart Copeland of the Police. He also did orchestral work and conducting with the Vermont Youth Orchestra. Mike Gordon made two films - Outside Out and Rising Low - and made an album with acoustic guitar legend Leo Kottke before launching his own solo career. Jon Fishman alternated gigs with the Jazz Mandolin Project and his rowdy bar band, Pork Tornado. Page McConnell formed an electronic trio, Vida Blue, with Meters’ drummer Russell Batiste and Aquarium Rescue Unit bassist Oteil Burbridge.
The community of smaller bands surrounding Phish exploded during the hiatus. Phish-influenced bands like moe., the Disco Biscuits, String Cheese Incident, and Umphrey's McGee experienced a swell in their audience, and the annual Bonnaroo festival (based on Phish's summer extravaganzas) opened the doors for several groups inside and outside of the jam band world.
Over two years after the last show that had been played, Phish announced that the hiatus was over, and they would return to the stage on New Year’s Eve 2002 - 2003 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Once again, Phish pulled a prank on the audience that actually fooled the entire US media. Page McConnell’s brother was introduced as actor Tom Hanks, who came onstage to sing a line from the Phish song, “Wilson” (also a name from the movie Cast Away, starring Hanks). Because of McConnell’s uncanny resemblance to the actor, the US media reported that Tom Hanks had “jammed with Phish” at their reunion show. The prank was revealed days later.
The brief winter tour that followed featured a great deal of sloppiness, as the band members shook off their collective rust and relearned how to connect, but the end of tour featured a string of breakout shows. Summer 2003 saw a relatively long, solid tour that exhibited a great deal of extended free-form jamming, but suffered from sloppiness in the composed sections of songs, particularly those that were older and less frequently played. This problem was to grow over the next year.
At the end of the tour, Phish held their first summer festival in four years. The “It” festival was once again held in Limestone, Maine. Seventy thousand people showed up. At 2:30 a.m. after the first show, in an elaborate stunt, the band performed on top of the air traffic control tower overlooking the air force base. Musically, the “It” festival is considered one of the strongest of all the festivals, and somewhat seen as the band’s last great run (along with their 2003 New Year’s Eve show in Miami, Florida). In December 2003, the band celebrated its 20th Anniversary. The band shocked the Phish world by inviting founding Phish member Jeff Holdsworth to jam onstage for the first time since 1986.
In order to avoid the exhaustion and pitfalls of previous years of non-stop touring, Phish played only sporadically after the reunion. Tours were now only about two weeks long. Though the band debuted a wealth of new material and had clearly improved on their classic improvisational style, they were not practicing their older material, and were therefore becoming sloppy. Phish made a name for themselves by practicing and being “tighter than a mosquito’s ass” in concert (as one fan put it). Watching Phish's trademark precision decline onstage was a tough pill for many to swallow; the band simply did not play enough to gain the momentum that had carried previous tours. Though the Miami New Year’s run, now the stuff of legend, was one huge bright spot, overall fans knew something had to change.
After a lackluster, oddly detached run of shows in Las Vegas in April 2004, Trey announced on the Phish website that the band was breaking up for good after a small summer tour. The band played an excellent run of shows in June, even jamming with rapper Jay-Z at a show in Brooklyn. Another highlight of the June tour was a short seven-song set performed outside from the marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater during an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, delighting fans who had gathered on the street outside the theater and channeling the spirit of the Beatles in their final public performance on a rooftop in London. However, by August, the band had begun to fall apart as the new paradigm of sporadic touring and practice sessions could not sustain the energy that they had once had. The final shows were to be the last huge Phish summer festival Coventry, named for the town that hosted the event which was held in the group’s home state of Vermont. One hundred thousand people were expected to attend. It was to be broadcasted to millions in movie theaters across America.
Unfortunately, an entire week of rain had flooded the concert field to the point where people were turned away, causing a huge traffic pileup on the highway. Mike Gordon got on the radio and told everyone who wasn’t already in to turn away . . . no more cars were allowed. At that point, only about 20,000 people were in the concert area.
The fans did not fight police, drive cars through barriers, or riot. Instead, tens of thousands of them got out of their cars and walked as much as 30 miles to the venue. The police cooperated. It was an extremely emotional showing and a perfect example of the incredible bond Phish has with their audience. However, the weather and situation took a toll on the band and the fans. There were no special surprises like a late night set or an audience participation game. Even worse, the band played sloppily, mostly due to the emotional roller coaster of playing their last show. They broke down crying onstage several times, especially when Page McConnell erupted in tears during the poignant ballad, “Wading in the Velvet Sea”, which left him unable to continue singing.
Despite the negatives, Coventry was an emotional goodbye for Phish and its audience, a somewhat tragic end to one of the most incredible stories in rock music. Without any help from radio, MTV, or album sales, Phish became the biggest live band in America, and a group that Rolling Stone Magazine called “the most important band of the 1990s”.
Phish played their first show on December 2, 1983 and their final show on August 15, 2004 (they were inactive from October 7, 2000 until New Year’s Eve 2002-2003).
Phish's musical ethos is a playful mix of skilled improvisation, psychedelic rock, folk, bluegrass, funk, jazz, acapella/barbershop quartet, reggae, heavy rock, and intricate compositions. Some of their original compositions (such as “Theme from the Bottom”) tend towards a psychedelic-rock and bluegrass fusion, with more rock, jazz, and funk elements than the Grateful Dead and other earlier so-called jam bands. Their more ambitious, epic compositions (such as “Reba” and “Guyute”) are often said to resemble classical music in a rock setting, much like the music of one of their heroes, Frank Zappa.
Phish truly transcended genres, as evidenced by the sheer number of guests who took the stage with them over the years. Notables include Willie Nelson, Santana, Kid Rock, Dave Matthews, Sarah McLachlan, B.B. King, Son Seals, George Clinton, Noel Redding, Neil Young, Del McCoury, Wynonna Judd, Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Jimmy Buffett, Jim Carrey, Buddy Miles, Jay-Z and many others.
Starting with their reunion concert on New Year’s Eve 2002-2003, Phish began releasing every concert for download on Live Phish. Since then they have released various important shows from their 21-year career other than more recent concerts.
The 2009 studio album, Joy, from the reformed band led by guitarist extraordinaire Trey Anastasio. The album was produced by Steve Lillywhite and was recorded in New York’s Chung King Studios. Many of the album’s ten songs have already been road-tested during the band’s reunion tour and retain their fresh, live feel on the studio recordings. The album is already being called the band’s best ever studio release.