Phish Out of Water

Jon Fishman gets swept up in Pork Tornado.

Jon Fishman is feeling a little frantic, which is no wonder given his current schedule. For one thing, he recently became a father. And Phish, his mainstay act, is set to rock back into action this New Year's Eve at Madison Square Garden. Pork Tornado, Fishman's new moonlighting project, is in the midst of a tour that lasts through November. And for the past month or so, he's been pinballing back and forth between rehearsals and juggling song titles like a barker on speed.

"It's been difficult trying to absorb new stuff for both groups," he says. "The Phish songs are a little harder to learn, though there are challenges in Pork Tornado, too. I'm biting off a lot, but Tornado is a really good groove thing. It's good for getting me in drumming shape, and it gets the internal clock going really well. Aaron [Hersey] is a great bass player. He gets me in that jam mode."

Fishman isn't looking to lighten his load. He says he enjoys the challenge of dual band membership and the diversity of material it allows him to play.

Here, piggie, piggie: Jon Fishman (second from left) finds himself in the middle of a Pork Tornado.
Here, piggie, piggie: Jon Fishman (second from left) finds himself in the middle of a Pork Tornado.

"Pork Tornado is kind of the anti-Phish," he says. "By 'anti-,' I don't mean against, but let's just say anyone coming to the show hoping that we sound like Phish is going to find something pleasantly different."

Indeed. Unlike the rambling song forms common to Phish, Tornado hangs its hat on more compact ditties, taking respectable excursions into funk, various brands of country, soulful blues and even some quirky pop that's vaguely reminiscent of Phish, in spite of Fishman's statement to the contrary. There's a similarity of spirit, maybe, between the two bands. But Pork Tornado's live shows bear little resemblance to Phish's famous noodlefests.

"Pork Tornado is about a good, solid song," Fishman says. "While we do stretch things out live, we're more a straightahead classic bar band that focuses on the fundamentals and sticks close to R&B, funk, country and a little reggae. Also, we've been working with harmonies a lot. Historically, Phish songs have mainly been launching pads for instrumental improvisation, whereas Tornado is more about vocals."

Pork Tornado's self-titled debut, released on Rykodisc this summer, was produced by Fishman and guitarist/vocalist Dan Archer and features strong studio versions of songs from the band's live repertoire. The album includes several tracks that highlight harmonics, including a lilting version of the traditional African folk song "Guabi Guabi," as well as "Chained to a Stump," a sinister tune that lands somewhere between Frank Zappa and older Primus. Though the music on Pork Tornado is mostly straight up and down, the words of Fishman's "All American" invoke a lyrical playfulness: "I want a fat black and poor and handicapped old single mother lesbian with a high IQ/In the White house/For president/And non-denominational, too." (Fishman describes the current occupant of the Oval Office as a "lethal ape.")

"While we might stretch things out a little more live and throw out a few random covers that we like, our sound is much like the album," he says. "In fact, the first track, 'Move With You,'" -- a hard-driving funky/bluesy number that confirms why Fishman's timekeeping is so highly regarded -- "sounds exactly the way it does live as on the album. We locked into the pocket for that recording and put it down just the way we do when we're playing out."

In addition to Fishman, Hersey and Archer, Pork Tornado -- which formed in 1997 and is named for a dubious-sounding dish at the band's favorite cafe in Burlington, Virginia -- features Joe Moore (saxophone, vocals) and Phil Abair (keyboards, vocals). These individually talented musicians compose a motley unit that, despite aesthetic differences, falls together rather neatly.

Fishman calls Archer -- a finger-style picker who also plays classical guitar -- his favorite rock guitarist after Trey Anastasio. (An accomplished studio technician, Archer is the owner of the Burlington studio in which Phish recorded the album Lawn Boy.) Archer sings the chant-like "Guabi Guabi" and fingerpicks the instrumental "Fellini." He also co-wrote "Kiss My Black Ass," an in-your-face faux blues sung by Joe Moore that was Pork Tornado's first original song.

Moore, originally from Florida, ventured to Vermont thirty years ago and decided not to leave. Fishman says Moore is the Tornado's "secret weapon," who can be called upon whenever the band is at a loss for its next move. "I like to say that the rest of us are the white meat, or 'pork,' and Joe is the tornado," Fishman says, laughing. In addition to "Kiss My Black Ass," Moore sings "When I Get Drunk," a little-known R&B song first recorded by Eddie Burns. Moore is the band's song finder, listening obsessively to blues and R&B stations on the Internet and bringing in the occasional tune for the band to learn and for him to bite into on vocals.

Born and raised in the Maple State, Abair is the band's only Vermont native; Fishman describes him as "the quintessential local musician." Abair sings the amusing and countrified "Home Is Where You Are," a tongue-in-cheek love song that references numerous cities as well as "Mickey D's." Fishman says Abair is the go-to guy when other bandmembers forget song progressions or lyrics.

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