Music News

Phish Out of Water

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.

"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.

Hersey, who studied music at the Berklee School of Music, has a voice like a black singer from the Deep South, though he is actually a white native of rural Maine as his picture in the liner notes reveals. He sings the bluesier cuts on Pork Tornado, including "Aaron's Blues" and "Move With You."

"Aaron's voice doesn't really fit his body," Fishman says of the bass player. "He's super white, although he's really into James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone, and he has this powerful soulful voice. He's also really animated. He's kind of the frontman and is usually the guy who is keeping things going. He's one of the main singers, so he takes a leadership role. He stands right in the middle up front, which aids his status. You know: location, location, location."

Amid rumors of Phish's breakup, how do the other members of that band feel about Fishman's toils with Pork Tornado? Just fine, he says, adding that he and his mates make a point of being supportive of one another's projects. Other Phish side forays include keyboardist Page McConnel's groove band Vida Blue (and stint on Tenacious D's hilarious opus last year) and Trey Anastasio's solo work and tour with Oyster Head, a group that pairs him with Primus's Les Claypool and drummer Stewart Copeland. Bassist Mike Gordon recently toured with Leo Kottke in support of the pair's new album Clone.

"They like it," Fishman says. "Though I can't say any of us has taken a hugely active interest in each other's solo projects. Generally we like to give each other a lot of space. But over time we come around to liking everyone's other stuff. I was really surprised by Page's band. And Trey really dug the cut 'Trousers' on Pork Tornado.

"Really, at the end of the day, I don't care what anyone thinks, because I'm enjoying it," he adds. "I don't know if I see Pork Tornado getting a whole lot bigger, but I love it."

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Nick Hutchinson writes about music for Westword and enjoys playing his guitar when not on deadline.
Contact: Nick Hutchinson