Where This Meets That
There’s an old joke about jam band pioneers the Grateful Dead and their former frontman Jerry Garcia that goes like this: What did Jerry Garcia say when his drugs wore off? He said, “Man, this band is terrible!”
Phish, the Vermont-based jam juggernaut, has long fallen under the Grateful Dead’s shadow, due to their penchant for delivering sprawling, improvised psychedelic jams.
From spring of 1996 through most of 2001, I listened almost exclusively to Phish. The quartet was so versatile that I simply had no musical want that they were unable to fill.
During that span, I saw them perform live eight times, including two shows that led me across state lines to do so. No small feat for a guy trying to find his way in a career and budding family life.
On a good night, a single jam could carry a willing soul through a measure of ethereal bliss, then plunge him into a dark sonic abyss, only to pick him up and dust him off with a whimsical laugh.
Unfortunately, Phish’s legacy – like that of the Grateful Dead – will always be tied to drug culture. But when Phish was at their best, their music itself was a drug.
In those days, I remember being glad that I was young when Phish was in their prime, that they were there to provide the soundtrack for that stage in my life. A line from their song “Chalkdust Torture” declares, “Can’t this wait ’til I’m old, can’t I live while I’m young?” and embodied a rallying cry for where I was in life.
Sadly, as the band lumbered through the early 2000’s, the band came off the tracks. At best, band founder and frontman Trey Anastasio wasn’t as sharp as he’d once been, and at worst, he was visibly succumbing to drug addiction.
By the end of summer 2004, their shows weren’t even a shadow of what they’d been a decade before. As a variant of the Garcia joke might’ve gone, had Anastasio’s drugs worn off, he might’ve agreed with the punchline.
The band called it quits, and so did I.
A few years later, with Anastasio clean and sober, the band got back together and hit the road again to tour. I tried to listen to recordings of concerts, tried to listen to the new material, but it all came across as uninspired. I couldn’t bring myself to go see another show; just too much dough for the promise of mediocre performance that would only make me nostalgic for the “good old days”.
Eventually, I closed the file on them.
Then, earlier this year, the Grateful Dead announced a final round of shows, including Anastasio in Jerry Garcia’s place on lead guitar. I found myself cheering for him again. Indeed, I almost bought tickets to catch one of the subsequent Phish shows in Atlanta.
Afterward, on hearing recordings of the Dead’s performances and how good Anastasio once again sounded, I was astounded. And after hearing a recording of Phish’s Atlanta shows that I again skipped, well, for the first time in a decade, I kicked myself for doing so.
I followed the remainder of Phish’s summer tour very closely, and I was blown away all over again. Night after night, the band sounded fresh. Precise in their intricately composed sections and bold in their exploratory jams, they were once again playing inspired music.
And the best part was that Anastasio looked and sounded straight and healthy. Truly joyful, in fact, and it was contagious.
It had been so long since I’d had that “feeling” that I’d forgotten how it felt to have it. But whereas I’d once been thankful to have Phish providing the soundtrack of my youth, I now found myself thankful to have Phish serving me a shot of youth renewed.
Top to bottom, Phish’s summer tour represented one of the greatest live bands of all time once again finding their stride, offering such a glut of highlights that it’s really tough to narrow a selection to share here. So here are two.
First is a selection from the band’s second set from its August 15 performance in Columbia, Maryland. This clip is a seamless medley of songs spanning Phish’s entire career, demonstrating the band’s ability to effortlessly move from a funk groove to sublime ambience to straightforward rock to absurd madness with perfect ease.
Second is from a week later. This two-song excerpt from another second catches Phish performing an energetic cover of the Talking Heads’ song “Cities” that segues into an otherworldly performance of Phish’s song “Light”. When I listen to the words of “Light” (“obstacles are stepping stones” and “the light is growing brighter now”) in the context of this tour, I can’t help but find deeper meaning and the seed for the renewed joy coming from Anastasio. I only hope it sticks.
Click the below link to listen to an excerpt from Phish’s 2015 performance in at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland.