For fans of America's biggest cult band, the term "boys of summer" doesn't refer to guys who get paid millions to play baseball but rather four Vermont men in their forties who earn millions by playing goofy, unpredictable music while jumping on trampolines, having glowsticks thrown at and around them, and in the case of Phish drummer Jonathan Fishman, wearing a polka-dot muu-muu and playing a vacuum cleaner.
Yes, after five years of much-needed hiatus, Phish (and the adjoined community of fanatics that follow the improvisation-heavy group) are back. Joy, Phish's eleventh studio album, is due in September; the band's new original songs are replete with a kind of reformed happiness and confidence that seemed a little forced on 2004's Undermind, a disappointing album released just as the quartet announced its well-publicized breakup that summer. And that reformed joy makes sense -- unlike the version of Phish that imploded in 2004 on a tour that culminated with a two-day performance in front of 70,000 people in Vermont, Phish circa 2009 is well-rehearsed (deftly executing the band's most Frank Zappa-esque material) and reportedly steering away from hard drugs.
Phish's "farewell" festival in 2004 was telecast live in theaters around the United States and caught Anastasio, at times, in a drugged-out haze; at one point on the second evening, one could even see singer/guitarist and ringleader Anastasio snorting something onstage. Phish's music repeatedly bottomed out in 2003 and 2004, when the act replaced its previously revered approach of fun and frequent practice equaling impressive execution with messy thirty-minute improvisations out of botched songs. And Anastasio himself bottomed out after Phish called it quits in 2004; he was forced to repent and rehabilitate after being pulled over in upstate New York in 2006 and charged with possession of hashish, hydrocodone, percocet and Xanax.
Despite what you might think from seeing boneheaded kids in Phish t-shirts and dreadlocks, the group's actual music (led by the occasionally transcendent lead guitar of Anastasio) can be exhilarating, intelligent and stunning. The product of four Goddard College music majors, much of Phish's best material is informed by their classical background and, in terms of influence, comes closer to the Talking Heads and Zappa than the blissed-out mush of latter-day Grateful Dead music. In many cases, Phish's most-loved songs are incredibly challenging to perform sober, let alone when loaded on who knows what.
"Fluffhead," from Phish's 1989 debut Junta, is an irreverent "progressive rock suite" so difficult to perform well that the band didn't play it live from September of 2000 until the opening night of its three-night reunion in Hampton, Virgina this past February. The roar from the obviously pleased crowd was so loud that, even on Phish's official soundboard recordings, you can barely hear the beginning of the song.
And they nailed it.
But why, if Phish's shows are so hit-or-miss, do thousands of people eschew normal life to follow the eclectic foursome from town to town? On one hand, Phish never plays a song the same way twice, and every set-list is different. Phish sets may include surprise guests (such as Bruce Springsteen or B.B. King), surprise cover songs or even cover albums, such as "The White Album" and Quadrophenia, so a Phish concert is always at least part spectacle. And it's exciting: the chance of experiencing the beauty of a venue like Red Rocks while skilled musicians attempt to juxtapose dense arrangements with group improvisation -- that's sometimes akin to a sixth-sense.
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But sometimes Phish concerts are embarrassingly awful, and even hardcore fans will attend this weekend's four shows at Red Rocks (the band's first at the storied amphitheater since 1996) knowing that, as Entertainment Weekly once said of Phish performances, the audience's ears might be metaphorically urinated into. However, many "phans" will tell you that the surprise is an element of the group's attraction, and a huge part of following Phish has always been the embrace of a like-minded community. According to thirty-year old Andrew Merriam of Englewood, who has seen Phish over fifty times and just this May saw the band at Fenway Park in Boston, there's a new found buzz among fans.
"Phish's music is tight again," he says. "There is a glimmer of that old humor floating around, and there is new music to be discovered, new shows to experience and new friends to make."
Some of us will be content to observe from afar, but for those willing to live on "goo-balls" and ganja-buttered quesadillas while chasing Phish around America, the opportunity is once again all yours.
Phish kicks off a four-night stand at Red Rocks this evening. All shows are sold out!