Exchanging Phish stories before the big gigs this weekend

Exchanging Phish stories before the big gigs this weekend

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


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


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


Phish kicks off a four-night stand at Red Rocks this evening. All shows are sold out!

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