Step Into the Freezer: “Fuego” and the Tao of Phish

12/30/09, Miami, FL. Photo: Holger Cristoph

12/30/09, Miami, FL. Photo: Holger Cristoph

IN THE HYPER-STUDIED history of Phish, I’ve always felt that more gratitude was owed to Mike’s and Trey’s hair.

The legendary jam band, which will begin its 31st year of touring today, mostly belongs to the latter of these two men. Trey Anastasio is Phish’s guitarist, primary creative force, and frontman, in that order. If you see them live—which is something that all music lovers should do, regardless of whatever judgmental neuroses might protest—his guitar will be the sound noticeable in the PA mix. He’ll be the one singing most and making up the setlist on the fly. If it’s an arena show, sit behind and above the band and you’ll notice that the onstage monitoring system is primarily centered towards the radial Persian rug that houses Trey’s guitar rig. It’s inside that rug that the band’s soul—and maybe all of contemporary jam music—is spiritually housed. Holy ground, that rug.

Anastasio is also the owner of the kind of thick, full hair that seems to bless rock stars with suspicious frequency. Does Trey use hair color out of a box? We may never know. That he appears outwardly ageless we do.

To his left is bassist Mike Gordon, whose appearance has actually improved with the passage of time. Mike too has the immaculate hairline that Senate campaigns are made of, but he’s evolved sartorially nowadays, lately favoring expensive scarves and jackets over the granola crunch look of yesteryear.

Trey and Mike are the band’s only members that stand on stage. The famous trampoline choreography and proto-Macarena dances that came to symbolize Phish’s goofy camping-trip spunk in the early ’90s were performed by them. The other two guys play their instruments seated, Page McConnell in his keyboard ziggurat and Jon Fishman behind his drum set. Though they’ve recently reverted to a more conventional layout, Phish’s live setup for many years was as egalitarian as their jamming: all four members lined up across the stage. Thus, the visual that greeted thousands of concertgoers throughout the band’s fifteen greatest years was Trey and Mike front and center, bookended by two partially obscured bandmates.

If Mike so chose, he could skip the mousse one night this summer and let his ample hair flop over his head; maybe he’d go wild and accessorize with an oversized button-up shirt. It might inspire Trey to throw on a sleeveless tee and some tasteful cargo shorts. Were they to then step out onstage, Phish would instantly appear to have transported back in time. The delirious—delirious—audience they’d greet wouldn’t be looking at a vision of Phish at Somerville ’91 or December ’95 or Island Tour. It would be the quantum history of Phish, all past moments condensed to a single present point, gloriously returned to throw down.

How Long It Goes But This Remains

Jon Fishman soloing. Photo: Danshinneman

It is a crucially important facet of Phish that certain of the band’s elements never change. It’s not just that the two most visible members don’t look much different than they did when they were 30 years old. It’s also that Trey still plays a Languedoc guitar through the same amp and cabinet he was standing in front of in the early ’80s. That Jon Fishman still wears his donut-print muumuu and obliges on the occasional vacuum solo. That Page will still step out from his key-fortress and lighten the mood by crooning a lounge satire that predates the First Gulf War.

For a normal band, these gimmicks would signify stagnation. And there are worse ways to live; Gene Simmons and Alice Cooper still pay the bills by putting on makeup. To Phish, by contrast, they are ancient and mythologized motifs. They anchor the band’s history in the place of never having had a hit record or a standout moment of social impact. Fishman’s dress and Trey’s amp cabinet are threads weaving together the band’s living history. A neophyte would have to watch quite a few live Phish videos before being able to readily identify which year, or sometimes even which era, a given show comes from.

Phish has been slow to evolve because they haven’t really had to. Their founding ethos was liberating and perfect from the outset: deliver the musicianship of Fripp and Zappa with the spirit of a party band and the scope of the ocean. “If you draw circles, then you get famous for drawing circles,” said Anastasio in 2004. “What happens if you start drawing squares? Well, I’d say the answer to that is, don’t get famous for drawing circles.” Every artist who gives enough interviews ends up getting caught with an annoying quote like that, but in the case of Phish, you’d be hard-pressed to find another band that so imbues musical diversity into the marrow of their identity.

Phish tend not to talk about things like taking their studio sound in a new direction, or defying expectations with this next record, or even really broadening their base. There was a period in the mid-90s when they set their attention to becoming a radio band, and they were good at it too, coming up with solid FM rockers like “Free” and “Sample in a Jar.” But they’ve never had to prepare their audience for surprise or advertise how open to the unexpected they are. Phish’s crowd has been conditioned to crave—nay, demand—the unprecedented. You’re not after a rendition of a song when you see Phish; you’re after something that’s never happened before.

They achieve this nightly, not in spite of but aided by the one supreme consistency of Phish: that all four original members are still alive and playing together. (Our regards to Jeff Holdsworth.) This in itself is a remarkable feat, and one which jaded scene vets often overlook. Great musicians, after all, have a habit of dying early or quitting, thus commending their tenure with a band to hagiography. Whether it’s Jerry Garcia or Ol’ Dirty Bastard or Bruce Thomas, all music fans know the loss of a great but irretrievable lineup. Phish were mind-blowing back in the day, and…oh look, they’re all still here! Nice!

This reliability is intriguing from the standpoint of Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory, considering that this particular quartet must be on hour two-million of communicating musically with each other. To this day, even though the energy and technique has somewhat dimmed, their group fluency makes for some of the most scintillating musical flow in the world. Seeing Phish jam is like watching Peyton Manning read the secondary or Doyle Brunson bluff; at worst, you’re watching masters at work.

When they’re on point, though—when the crowd brings the energy and the band feels like dropping a little further off the deep end, maybe even just for old times’ sake—it’s religious.

Phish at Madison Square Garden. Photo: Phish.com.

Phish at Madison Square Garden. Photo: Phish.com.

How Phish Works

Phish concerts, like their songs, operate according to long-standardized protocol. Should you choose to attend one, here’s what to expect.

First, you’ll first have to find a way to get to a venue that is generally no less than 20 minutes from the nearest convenient transportation hub. This is where Phish has chosen to hold their concert in your area. Didn’t they knock down that old Schlitz Arena two hours outside of town? No, Phish is playing there this summer. It’s like they tour as an excuse to search for uncharted land to name after themselves.

On the venue’s lot, you’ll see a youngish crowd that embodies our era’s miscegenation of formerly opposing social castes. Long ago, Rockers hated Mods and Punks hated Preps. Each had flags planted on opposite ends of the cultural spectrum. Our generation has dispensed of that kind of formality. Phish joins together frat bros (known as “chads,” and recognizable by their lacrosse pinnies and nebulae of crushed beer cans) and unemployable hippies (“wooks,” short for wookiees, which is what it looks like when a spun wook wooks out) in one concert experience. Between the Busch Light and designer drugs, you will feel as though someone built a terrarium for white people and dropped you in.

There is no opening band. The show will consist of two sets; the first will last around an hour and is supposed to focus on shorter, tighter songs to get the energy up. Phish has one of the most expansive song catalogs in modern music—certainly among the most sonically and stylistically diverse—and any of the selections are possible at any time. They also play a ton of covers, some standard and some less so, meaning that you could hear the James Gang’s “Walk Away” transition into calypso funk seamlessly. Even the rookie Phish fan quickly learns to start relishing the game of predicting these improvised setlists and alighting or moaning when they identify a new song. With so many musical directions in which to steer the crowd’s and the band’s energy, Trey’s song calls carry an almost political significance within the context of the show.

After a short intermission, set two will typically see the band attempt to harness the energy from the first set and use it to drive longer, more exploratory jams. This, for the most part, is what the crowd has come to see. (The older people, anyway. We’ll get to that in a second.)

A Phish jam starts with the band performing the actual song—the “composed section,” as it’s known—which gets things rolling in a certain direction. Often, these pieces will be simple pop-rock tunes built around pedestrian chord progressions.

One of the sustaining ingenuities of Phish is that, possibly because they have always been supremely confident in their musical virtuosity, the band has never taken itself so seriously that it wouldn’t play crowd-pleasing nursery rhymes like “Halley’s Comet,” sing-alongs like “Wilson,” or interactive novelties like “Meatstick.” Some of their most beloved works—“Harry Hood,” “ David Bowie,” “Fluffhead”—combine infantile, shout-able lyrics with technical passages worthy of any band Zappa put together. These songs, which drift well over the line of sophomoric at times, ostensibly stand as ready indictments for people who hate Phish and want to prove the idiocy of their audience. In reality, it’s what keeps them going. There’s a limited market for truly experimental psychedelic improvisation, and no shortage of artists out there to supply it. Incidentally, there’s a difference between the sizes of crowd most jam bands play to and what Phish draws. Call it a cynical business decision if you want, but the binding ingredient in the touring juggernaut that is Phish is that their composed music includes a lot of simple, catchy ditties for crowds to latch onto before heading out into the wilderness.

So you’re at this Phish concert, and it’s the second set. Maybe they set in on one of these beloved jam vehicles, “Tweezer.” You cringe your way through lyrics you didn’t know adults would deign to sing, and you rapidly get bored with the simple guitar line driving the song. Eventually, when the composed part ends, the band keeps playing on the same chord progression while someone, usually Trey, begins to wind his way into a solo. The song’s influence on the jam is usually nothing more than to establish a certain key and rhythm at the outset of the improvisation. These quickly change—the more, the better—but the song will go down in the books as ‘that Tweezer’ or ‘that Ghost,’ no matter how far away it gets from the actual Phish song “Ghost.”

When someone in Phish plays out, it is a full-band exercise. The legendary jamming drills that they used to practice for hours were actually listening exercises, designed to get each musician to play while listening to “anyone but yourself.” So though it may sound like Trey noodling, which it sometimes is, he’s doing so either in anticipation or reaction to one of the other instruments contributing an idea. One of the joys of Phish is dissecting the momentum of these interactions. Mike’s got it! Mike’s got it! you may note to yourself as the bass wends off in a different key or a different rhythm; what’s amazing is hearing the others follow.

Throughout the 1990s, when Phish were in their prime, Trey Anastasio was arguably the most captivating rock guitarist on earth. What made him great wasn’t just his technical virtuosity or his energy—though he had both—it was his insane approach to improvisational melody. He had a special ability to worm inside a swirling, evolving jam and dig out a crazy new direction to take it in. When Phish has this type of input coming in from all four corners, it’s a perpetual motion machine. Where it goes, no one knows, but it drags you forward by your face.

The days of escape-velocity Phish, sadly, are largely over. Trey may have kept his hair, but his aging has been done on the sly, in the three-note lines that have replaced the supernovas of old. He’s still a superbly fun guitarist to hear, but for 3.0 noobs like myself (those of us who are too young to have seen them prior to their 2009 reunion) we can only imagine what the halcyon days were like.

If the shred-tastic runs are mostly gone from Phish’s improv, one feature that has remained, if in a vestigial form, are the peaks. A jam’s peak is the organic version of what electronic music synthesized with bass drops; it’s when the band rises in energy, everyone wondering how much higher the music can go, until the band breaks through and releases the tension even higher than that. It’s showmanship and genuine bliss rolled into one. Phish used to be masters at it when their peaks were mixed in with other types of jams, but in modern times the technique has become something of a crutch.

Alpine Valley, 2003. Photo: phishheads.com 

Personally, I wonder if the light show is part of the problem. Part of your Phish concert experience, you see, will literally be what you see. The band’s visual show in this modern era is absolutely jaw-dropping, and it’s thanks to Phish’s “fifth member,” lighting director Chris Kuroda. If you ever want to say to yourself ‘What a glorious future we live in,’ buy a Phish ticket and witness Kuroda’s lattice of computerized, synchronized lights dance in epic colors and textures from the scaffolding hanging above the band. With such a powerful sensory component accompanying the music, it must be hard not to play into it.

When Phish hit a peak in a jam nowadays—almost always announced by Trey belting the jam’s root note in his guitar’s highest octave—Kuroda will anticipate it and blast the audience with high beams at this exact moment of release, which makes for a fantastic psychosomatic experience and the closest I’ve come to one of those near-death encounters. The crowd, appropriately, goes wild. The problem is that this instant gratification is a very easy trick for the band to execute. Even the most uninspiring of jams, given enough noodling, will eventually be worked around by Fishman’s anticipatory drum fills, Trey’s tense runs up the neck, and the fluttering of anxious lights into a peak of awesome visual and sonic consonance. It gives the illusion of magic. This is magic. The planned crescendo in “Bug” is not.

Nevertheless, the demographic that Phish now draws, especially in cities, is partly there in the reasonable expectation of getting these peaks. These are younger kids—high school groups and college students on dates—who suffer through the occasional “Uncle Pen” in order to throw their hands up and “wooo!” at the summiting of even a musical hillock. We shouldn’t rule out the possibility that this is itself a practical business decision by Phish. These kids with their techno, they keep comin’ for the peaks! Eighteen more peaks before Labor Day and we can redo the Barn’s swimming pool! At least the teeny-bopper contingent evens out the scores of jaded vets who still patronize Phish in spite of deeply resenting 1998 for leaving without saying goodbye.

The other attraction for newbies, of course, is the drug bacchanal that Phish is famous for bringing around the country. It’s a boring topic. Plenty has been said about this before: there are a lot of drugs. Not everyone’s on ’em, but you can be if you want. Sounds a lot like life as a grown-up, eh? Crucial to the band’s legacy that the drug scene may be, this aspect of Phish is mostly titillating to the young and the conservative.

So hopefully you’re enjoying your second set after that pretty decent “Tweezer.” (With reference to the aforementioned protocol of Phish concerts, hearing this particular song means that the show will later conclude with its companion piece, “Tweezer Reprise,” which is the song’s main riff modulated up a fourth.) You’ll likely get two or three other jam-tastic mainstays before the set ends.

In playing this callout game along with Trey, you’ll be selecting from an elite bullpen of material that the band generally reserves for second-set spelunking. These thirty-odd songs constitute the apex of Phish’s catalog. This highest echelon of jammable music includes covers, oldies, new additions, and many unrecorded live staples that the audience nonetheless knows word for word. There’s no distinction here between originals and covers; it’s whatever works best.

It is to this rank that all Phish music aspires, and so it is against this rubric that new entries into their repertoire are assessed. Look everyone, here come a few now.

 

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Over the course of 31 years spent playing every piece of music they enjoy, Phish has accumulated a repertoire of 800 songs. About a quarter of those are in steady rotation. They could play the entire tour this summer with nothing but material last performed twenty years ago. Why, then, does a band like this need new music?

The short answer is that they don’t, but they write it anyway. A new album doesn’t mean the same thing for Phish that it would for a younger group. Or, for that matter, what it means to an older band—let’s say U2—who derive most of their stature from their studio recordings. New Phish music is a class of prospects thrown into a professional team’s developmental system. Will any of them make it to the majors? Will any of them make it to that second-set bullpen?

Even if none do, Phish writing an album is heartening for fans because it means that the band has their creative juices flowing. The guys seem to be genuine friends with each other—my god, you’d have to be—but on their long, hot summer tours, they travel separately, lodge separately, and generally aren’t tight-knit 20-year olds about it anymore. Their core product, however—the live jams—requires them to maintain a vibrant chemistry. It’s noticeable when absent, and typically that’s after time off from Phish. A fresh album means collaboration and excitement over the new stuff. The hope among fans is that the enthusiasm will spill over into the classics.

Sure enough, Phish didn’t feel the need for a new album either. “We told everyone in our management and people around us, we’re not making a record,” Trey Anastasio told NPR last week. “Don’t ask us to deliver you anything. We just wanted to get together. It’s been harder to find that time with just the four of us. And so we went into the barn and just locked the door.” So in this case, the flowing juices preceded the album. Encouraging!

Fuego, the album that they eventually wrote, recorded, and last week released, is an excellent achievement for Phish 3.0, miles above the tentative return to even being a band that they put out as 2009’s Joy. (The group broke up in 2004 amid an Anastasio drug addiction and the general sense that they’d run their course.) Fuego’s title track opens the disc with a rollicking composition of affirming complexity and length, driven by some of Jon Fishman’s finest-ever studio drumming. The group’s expert cohesion is evident in the jigsaw-puzzle arrangements spanning the record, notably on “Waiting All Night” and “Wombat.” The latter track, a fan favorite since Fuego’s stage debut last Halloween, is a fun but terrible song that probably should have remained a live novelty. Despite disrupting the high standard of this record, “Wombat” nonetheless displays Phish’s ability to use their instrumentation maximally in every application. Producer Bob Ezrin’s sheen further coheres the band skillfully.

Phish’s real success with Fuego is having crafted interesting, resonant songs out of the meaty chord progressions that Trey favors these days. The last time they tried to do this we got “Kill Devil Falls” and “Backwards Down the Number Line,” cookie-cutter slices of arena-rock pablum. The closest to that the new record comes is “Devotion to a Dream,” a dad-rock tune that is, in typical Phish fashion, adorably earnest. “Tomorrow I can cross the border / It’s today a new world order / Yesterday my will was broken down / I’ll ignore where this is leading / Tomorrow glaciers are receding…” Oof. Fuego’s lyrics are abysmal, but that’s like criticizing the singing. It wouldn’t be Phish without inane or embarrassingly on-the-nose lyrics.

The Line” is a respectable single that sounds like if War composed a Broadway musical, and “Sing Monica” is an excellently-recorded earworm. I’m starting to think they need to leverage Page McConnell’s songwriting talents more. “Halfway to the Moon” has the same understated elegance as his solo releases “Beauty of a Broken Heart” and off-label oddity “If I Told You.” Hey, those songs have nice words. Should Page take over lyrics permanently? No argument here.

Fuego is a refreshing statement of mature, fine rock made by confident musicians; the only negative is that little of the new material leaps out with immediate jam potential. This collection seems more geared for radio than for set two. As always, though, the material’s official release is merely the beginning. Over the next two months, Phish will play 25 shows in which Fuego’s ten tracks will subsume into the most expansive oeuvre in music, like baby sea turtles wading toward the ocean, and try to find their way. Sometimes a piece of music will surprise you in this band’s capable hands. Sometimes Phish surprises you.

The Band Who Stepped Into Yesterday

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Cardboard cutouts at Big Cypress, 1999.

After existing for three decades, two of which have been spent as the biggest touring spectacle in America, Phish have come to symbolize many things. To some, they’re hippies descended from Ben and Jerry’s Vermont to sit at the right hand of the Grateful Dead and lead us all into space. To others they’re a bro band, the site of a naïve kind of abandon that only exists within the insulation of white privilege. To teens they’re a twangy substitute for the fun of the club scene; for veterans, they’re losing their touch. To Gen Xers they represent bygone youth, and to youth they represent a link to history.

But Phish are history. If you’re familiar with the band’s music, you likely have been for years. And you’re therefore prone to having it hit you, right when they round into the “runrunrunrun runrunrunrun” in “Antelope,” that this feel-good chorus is the exact sound that set the gearshift of your cool cousin’s soul back when you were in diapers. That it’s the same groove that told generations of young American revelers to run like an antelope, out of control.

The first Phish song I ever really liked was “Bouncing Around the Room” from A Live One, a song that never deviates in form and to many fans warrants a bathroom break. I’ve heard this song twice in concert, and it’s never failed to bring me back to my middle school Discman, when I imagined that the crowd in the recording embodied the throaty liberation of glory-years youth. Then I remember that I’m now part of it. This is the transportive effect of Phish; they are a goddamned wormhole.

So maybe it’s too severe to say that they are history. Their continuing mission in the world, after all, is still to take their adoring audience to new plateaus (and peaks) and ideally never stop. What Phish are, then, above all else, are exemplar custodians of their own legacy. They trade on caring about their music as much or more than their hardest-core fans do, from the new and buzzing “Fuego” to “Contact,” an infantile, insipid ditty from their first album that most bands wouldn’t have even brought into the 1990s.

The tires are the things on your car / That make contact with the road
The car is the thing on the road / That takes you back to your abode
 

Phish—four world-class musicians who are nearing 50 years old—continue to play this song (last heard during 2013’s Halloween run, the same one in which they debuted their new album) and treat it with respect, simply because it is a member of the Phish canon and therefore deserves love. Forget the impossible jazz-prog of “Reba” or “David Bowie”—these guys really can play anything.

 

About Lenny DeFranco

Lenny DeFranco (@ledefranco) is a culture connoisseur who turned to writing when friends asked him to please stop talking. He grew up on the streets of River Forest, IL, a leafy suburb that contains one corner from which an excellent athlete could throw a rock and have it land within Chicago city limits. His passions include The Who and revolutionizing the small talk game. He lives in New York and can be reached at lenny@theweeklings.com.
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1 Response to Step Into the Freezer: “Fuego” and the Tao of Phish

  1. Sammie says:

    What a sensational article!
    I am 67 and I just discovered Phish this year.
    Since it is all new to me, I am blown away. I know that they have done some pretty sensational stuff since this article was written!
    I have spent more time listening to Phish in the past few weeks than I ever have any band except the Beatles!
    Thanks for the great article.

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