Saturday, August 2, 2014

Why Phish Is My Favorite Band

Phish 7-30-14 Portsmouth, VA (@Phish_FTR)
After seeing the stupendous Phish shows in Portsmouth this past Tuesday and Wednesday, I was reminded once again of why they are my favorite band.  For me, the only band that could realistically also contend for that top title is The Grateful Dead.

The Dead had a 30 year career: 1965-1995.  Phish reached its 30th year in 2013.  Both are/were "live", improvisational bands with a large repertoire of songs jumbled up in active rotation.  Each also continued to write interesting, new material as the years went by.  Both sort of flew under the radar of mainstream popularity but were adored by legions of fans who want more from music than the processed way it is generally presented to the general public.  On these fronts The Dead and Phish are equally deserving.

First, The Dead's advantages.  Coming out of the 60's like they did, they are of course more culturally important, representing a long-standing progressive mindset and lifestyle.  They are forever associated with that counter-cultural zeitgeist, although Deadheads who lived it know that The Dead were just as much an 80's band as they were a 60's band or a 70's band.  The Now.

The Dead certainly embody a sense of Americana, and I don't even mean that in the sort of folk/roots/alt. country genre way that term is used nowadays (although the Dead's influence on that scene is often undervalued).  What I mean is the Red, White and Blue principles of the American Dream, apple pie and go west young man are palpable in their music.

In Jerry Garcia, The Dead had one of the most charismatic, lovable, and dare I say spiritual, figures in the history of music.  Jerry was a personality that no one in Phish comes close to.  The Dead also had a real poet - a true American poet - in their employ as primary lyricist...Robert Hunter.  His lyrics run so deep that entire annotations have been devoted to their analysis.

Phish's strengths, however, outnumber and eclipse those of The Dead.  Phish's song structures and compositions are at a level that The Dead probably weren't getting at.  Phish seems to have really, really studied music, and their songs have complexities and characteristics that puts them in a league of their own.  We're talking Beatles type stuff here and beyond (Classical music, jazz, et cetera).  Many different Phish songs seem like they were written to be mini-genres designed to fulfill a specific niche in the human psyche.
Phish 7-30-14 Portsmouth, VA (@Phish_FTR)
There's a level of technical precision coupled with group-mind, collective improvisation in Phish that wasn't present in The Grateful Dead.  Jerry Garcia and maybe Bill Kreutzman were the only members of The Dead operating on the level that all four members of Phish seem to always be at.  Phish has the chops, creativity, synchronicity and desire to work in unison as a four-headed beast.  No matter how out there Phish's jams get there's always a sense of direction and cohesion to them.  Plus, they rehearse like crazy and treat each show - each moment of each show - as if it were the most important one they have ever played.

Another big factor is from the time Page joined the band in 1985 (?), Phish has always been the same four guys.  No lineup changes.  Beside a few very early recordings, any time you listen to Phish you know you are hearing Trey, Mike, Page and Fishman.  That adds a level of continuity that is not present in the many different iterations of The Grateful Dead, who in my opinion never quite seemed like a fully-realized band until the Brent Mydland decade, which was otherwise marred by Garcia's drug addictions and poor health.

In addition to it being the same four guys their entire career, Phish is also four distinct instruments - guitar, bass, keyboards and drums.  In effect, this is a classic if somewhat minimalist lineup with each of the instruments represented at a virtuoso level, making it very easy to focus on each individual's contribution to the overall sound.  And when you're at the Phish show you get to watch one of our era's best visual artists - lighting director Chris Kuroda - at work.  I really like Kuroda's new, scaled down, less in your face and more quietly cerebral 2014 style.

Much like how The Dead was fronted by Jerry Garcia, Phish has a charismatic leader in guitarist Trey Anastasio, an incredibly inventive, driven, prolific and motivational musician.  Big Red might not be as iconic as The Fat Man, but having a guy like Trey in the band definitely has inspired the other members to push their skills to that same level, to the point that there are no noticeable weak links among the four members of Phish.  In fact, you'd have a hard time finding a band where a drummer has as much of an influence on the outcome of a concert as Jon Fishman does.
Trey Anastasio, 7-29-14 (@Phish_FTR)
It would be read Icculus to criticize Phish's writing from a compositional or rhythmic standpoint.  While The Grateful Dead's array of common time shuffle beats can get repetitive after a while, Phish purposely shakes it up in this regard.  However, a critique that is often made alludes to the fact that Phish can be lacking in the lyrics department.  I wholeheartedly disagree.  Even if I don't always find meaning in their words, I almost always find ultimate acceptance in a way that is more hard fought and rewarding than things which otherwise may have been more accessible at first glance.

Besides, finding (obvious) meaning in Phish's somewhat agnostic and cryptic world view is not always the point, me thinks.  Being a secular person about 10 years their junior, I find myself able to relate to the central theme of Phish's never ending spoof.  At the same time, there are always certain moments in a song - whether written out or composed on the spot - that feel like they are designed to go straight to the heart (or loins, or jugular) and grab you in an emotional way that you didn't think possible.

Another band that comes close to matching some of these accolades about Phish is Medeski, Martin and Wood, a somewhat well known instrumental trio that has walked the line between jazz and jam over their 20+ year career.  MMW has a similar aspect of continuity - with the same 3 members their entire career.  And they also improvise at a magnitude that rivals Phish's genius.  But nah, digging them as I do, that path is not as multi-layered as the Phish experience is, nor is it as shared by my peers.

Phish has always felt like an inside acquired taste.  You either get it or you don't.  Built into that is an element of humor that was never present in The Grateful Dead; at least not in their songs (the GD's stage banter yes).  I think the many layers of devotion a band like Phish asks of you can be off putting or intimidating to the layperson who isn't looking to go that far with their musical taste buds.  But, if you are looking for that kind of thing, Phish can offer it in droves.

Lastly, I am once again finding the Phish scene appealing.  My perspective on this has wavered over the years, but I've come to realize that it represents a form of punkish and intelligent grass roots indie that we should relish and cherish instead of boxing it into a stereotype.  Phish fans are real people folks, in search of something that a once-in-the-history-of-music type of band is currently able to offer.  Yes Phish is one of the strongest "brands" in all of music with a well managed business model...but fuck it that is both despite of and because of everything they've done over their 31 year career.

And as someone who is learning to play music, I feel incredibly fortunate to be exposed to Phish and have their music to listen to and study, because it is a world unto itself.

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