Moving On

(Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Leave Phish Behind)

When asked about my favorite music, people who know me are likely to identify two groups: The Grateful Dead and Phish. They’d be half right. Not that anyone should feel remiss for the mistake; my kids would probably offer the same response. The truth is that I have fallen out of love with Phish.

In the 90’s my musical world exploded into full life with The Grateful Dead. A few years later, I saw my first Phish show. Those two became the largest contacts on my radar and so life went for quite some time. Yes, I listened to tons of other stuff. I worked in a record store and amassed a hefty collection of music ranging from Louis Armstrong to ZZ Top. But Phish and The Grateful Dead continued to pull me back and dominate my listening and concert attentions.

The Grateful Dead ended and still I’d play their albums and live shows endlessly. Phish remained on the road and I saw them as often as life would allow and still I wanted to see them even more frequently. I collected tapes (remember tapes?) and CDs of their shows and they too stayed near the top of my playlists even during their hiatus and after their eventual ‘break-up’.

Phish used to jam. As a serious fan, I loved most of their material, including that which does not incorporate jamming, but it was the jamming and wild unpredictability that held my attention with Phish. When Phish came back in 2009, I was as excited as any fan (this blog is my testimony) and I went to the Hampton reunion shows and many more that year. The shows were fun. I had an amazing time reconnecting with old friends and sharing the shows with newer friends as well. But the music was not the highlight.

Last year, I found that listening to new Phish had become a chore. What had been a pleasurable obsession became an annoyance and, at times, I felt guilt about that annoyance. Guilt? Here was one of my so-called favorite bands, returned from rock & roll oblivion, and I couldn’t really enjoy what they were doing. Was it me? Had I changed that much? Had they?

It’s always been easy to find people who dislike Phish. In recent years it’s become nearly as easy to find former fans. Serious tourheads turned haters are all over the message boards. But why are they haters? Many are not willing to be more articulate than to say, “Phish sucks now,” and I’m pretty sure I’ve fired off a shot or two like that, myself. It’s easy. What’s hard is explaining why.

I mentioned jamming. I know the Phish 3.0 fluffers have a few jams at-the-ready to defend their favorite band but spare me. One hundred shows into their comeback and Phish hasn’t gotten in touch with “IT” more than a handful of times? At first I thought, “they just came back. They need to play some more shows for it to happen.” But it’s become clear to me that Phish is happy with their output.

Also happy: lots of fans.

Not as happy: promoters of what used to be guaranteed sell-out shows.

Also not as happy: people who want a Phish that plays well enough that the music plays the band.

Not to play the jaded vet card but, it used to be the case that every Phish show I saw was great and better than the last and it seemed unlikely that they could outdo it tomorrow. Then, they’d outdo it tomorrow. Now, it is just not like that. Phish appears to have stopped moving forward. Occasional spurts of inspired playing are bookended, often in the same show or set, by sloppy, careless, performances of what should be rote material. The problem is that you don’t get to be as tight as Phish-of-the-mid-90’s by rehearsing for a week or two before tour and at soundchecks. You get to be The Grateful Dead in the 90’s.

I, of course, LOVED seeing The Grateful Dead in the 90’s but, objectively taking into account what they had done for the previous 25 years, that was often a poor imitation of The Grateful Dead. At age 18 I wondered why the older Deadheads that I knew, ones who had seen the band in the early 70’s, didn’t make an effort to see every show possible. I saw that the road couldn’t go on forever and I wanted to grab up every note before none remained and I didn’t see why they weren’t chasing it as fervently as I.

I get it now.

And so begins my semi-retirement from Phish. I do plan on seeing one local show this Summer. But I won’t be attending SuperBall IX* or travelling to the West coast for shows (unless a miracle of scheduling has me finishing work in Seattle the week of the Gorge shows.) I won’t be listening to every show the day after it happens and I’m not likely to be following set lists as they roll in. (I will continue maintaining my twitter list, Phish-News because it’s easy and useful.) Instead I’m going to continue in my quest to experience bands that jam and other hair-raising, psychedelic, music. Look for me at MPP1 and any Mid-Atlantic Akron/Family shows!


*Super Ball Licks? That’s just too easy!

3 thoughts on “Moving On

  1. Great Read!

    I graduated HS in NJ in 1992, so I saw a lot of 1991-1993 shows (35+). Phish was new life in the jam scene, they interacted with us, the audience, they wanted to please us. This is why I hopped off Dead tour. (mere 30 shows) and just ‘did phish’ my deadhead friends would scoff at this notion and just said ‘phish suck’. The intensity that smaller venues provided I think was a big part of this. When you’re at Roseland, the Flynn, Albany or some random SUNY show, we felt apart of the jams and shows, just as the band did (or at least we convinced ourselves of that). The jams were fast, loud and almost almost violent at times, and we loved every minute of it.

    I then took job that had me away from any major city for a couple of years, then moved to CA, 1999 was my first ‘post modern’ shows, at bigger venues and such. I felt lost in the crowd, and lost from the band…like at a Dead Show. The music was good, I danced my arse off, had a great time. But I always felt a little let down, like it should have been…well, like it used to be.

    Now 2011, some twenty years later, my touring consists of going to the Hollywood Bowl show ( I live in LA). I still enjoy Phish and look forward to the show, I may even bring my 9-yo son to his first show!

    I think that Phish, like us, just got older.

  2. I am similarly trying to understand my passion for Phish by questioning what is really going on with the band, its music, and fans/culture in the whole’s latest iteration.

    I have discovered this (as much as I sometimes try to say otherwise): Phish is not a nostalgia act. The definition of nostalgia is: “a bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past.” I don’t believe Phish is doing this or even their fans are doing this. Trey has said that he never wants this band to be a nostalgia act. I have questioned this after the shock and awe of Hampton ’09 wore off. I’ve pretty much concluded that Phish is definitely not operating as a nostalgia act in 3.0. This is a different time and people change, music changes.

    But there is still something big here. Something, well, really big. I contest that as much as you’re trying to, you’re not at all “leaving Phish behind.” Even entertaining driving 2.5 hours from Seattle for 2 nights of camping and concert during a business trip show you are nowhere near leaving Phish behind.

    If this “scheduling miracle” happens, why would you go see Phish at The Gorge?

    Within this answer is why YOU cannot leave Phish behind. The 3.0 jams the fluffers throw your way are for them. What is IT for you?

    I can relate. That’s why I’m commenting here. I suspect your answer to the above goes something like this: Phish shows are still a TON of fun. The music is still DAMN GOOD (great even sometimes; rarely if ever awful). The feeling, the people, the energy, the memories, the music (new and old), the stories — all of it is IT. It’s the new IT.

    The waters of Phish are a little more charted these days. But so are the waters of our lives.

    I think you should stop worrying and never leave Phish behind.

    • I disagree that Phish is not a nostalgia act. Trey may not want to be a nostalgia act but I get nothing new out of their music because they aren’t breaking any new ground and, at best, treading familiar waters. Seeing their shows is a very deliberate ceremony designed to reconnect with the past. Maybe they’ll break out of that and do something new and interesting. I’m just not interested in waiting around at all of the going-through-the-motions shows for the possibility that one will rise up to approach even the lowest of their early high-water marks. I don’t think that the music is that good anymore (I tried not to belabor that point in my post simply to avoid falling into the “phish sucks now” trap but, yeah, I feel that way.)

      I consider the Gorge thing because I have never been to the Gorge and because many of my West Coast friends will be there. Honestly, if a dozen of my friends are all attending some other show at the Gorge while I’m there, I’d consider going; it has next to nothing to do with the band. (If they were all attending Lady Gaga @ the Gorge, I’d have to catch them on another trip, though. Or get new friends.)

      As it is, I’m considering taking myself on a side-trip to Portland to see people. Likely that would be equally if not more rewarding. One thing I’ve learned this year, as I’ve gone to non-Phish shows, is that I don’t need Phish to see my friends who share my love of live music. In fact, I can see my friends and see new music in smaller rooms for less money. These young bands remind me of a band that I used to see. A band that was young and hungry and worked every minute to make their music the best that it could be. That band doesn’t tour anymore. They used to be called Phish.

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