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Not since the heady days of the 70s have a band become so huge by dint of sheer hard graft and a resolutely “authentic” sound, proving that even in the days of 99p single giveaways when the solid quartet were on the threshold of breaking through, record company marketing muscle wasn’t everything. An archetypal “Great American Band”, PHISH have undoubtedly tapped into the same constituency of MOR-friendly, liberal/hippy Yanks who once followed (and probably still do) the GRATEFUL DEAD, and duly dug HOOTIE & THE BLOWFISH. It is for exactly this reason that despite being honoured with the obligatory Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavour in the States, PHISH will probably only ever attract a minority audience in Britain; there was indeed another type of FISH: the ex-MARILLION man. Talking GRATEFUL DEAD, this group has followed their idols – and even PEARL JAM – into pocket-emptying, discographer-ruining “live bootlegging the bootleggers” multi-sets. So how and where does a Brit start to catch up with the mighty PHISH? Read on…
Formed in Burlington, Vermont, 1983, by local university students Trey Anastasio (guitar), “namesake” Jon Fishman (drums) and Jeff Holdsworth (vocals/guitar), the enterprising trio posted flyers around campus to hook in additional alumni Mike Gordon (bass) and, in turn, Page McConnell (keyboards); early gigs would see room for auxiliary vocalist The Dude Of Life (aka Steve Pollak) and percussionist Marc Daubert (of Trey’s other outfit Bivouac Juan). For Holdsworth, other post-graduation challenges needed his attention and he wriggled free, leaving Anastasio to move up to the mic.
While the band began touring in earnest, jamming across the States in order to build up a grassroots fanbase; their reputation was largely garnered by word of mouth. An eponymous demo (“the white tape”) circulated to in-the-know “PHISH-heads”, who bought into their wide-ranging approach. The very limited-edition cassette, PHISH (1986) {*6}, was surely one that got away in the eyes of many; the first versions of `AC/DC Bag’, `You Enjoy Myself’, `The Divided Sky’ and `Slave To The Traffic Light’, were found here.
As for the similarly-formatted, self-financed JUNTA (1988) {*7} and LAWN BOY (1990) {*6} – the latter for the independent Absolute A Go Go imprint – PHISH explored elements of jazz, funk, bluegrass and exotica in a similarly improvisational spirit to ZAPPA, HOT TUNA, YES, WIDESPREAD PANIC, BLUES TRAVELER and SPIN DOCTORS. The first of these greatly expanded early cues, `You Enjoy Myself’ and `The Divided Sky’ (clocking in at over 20 minutes between them), whilst the jazzy `Foam’ was a dead-ringer for a GENTLE GIANT/KING CRIMSON tune, and their `David Bowie’ (mentioning also “UB40”) was prog-rock, jazz-fusion and the kitchen-sink rolled into one. Whether ZAPPA was impressed with the marathon meander of `Reba’ (from the 1990 set), we’ll never know, but there was plenty dicey diversions aboard, including `Run Like An Antelope’, `Bouncing Around The Room’ (perhaps a precursor to The BETA BAND?) and opener `The Squirming Coil’.
In fact, PHISH actually toured with some of these bands under the banner of H.O.R.D.E. (Horizon Of Rock Developing Everywhere)(!?); some sharp-witted Stateside critic memorably dubbed this lot the “Living Dead” in honour of their interminable jam sessions. Packing out venues in almost every state, it was only a matter of time before the band were picked up by a major; Elektra Records winning out and releasing the hour-long, A PICTURE OF NECTAR (1992) {*8}. Convention thrown out of the window and harking back to a post-hippie 70s rather than fitting in with the buoyant grunge scene or anything else from the 90s, PHISH were a law unto themselves, shifting from the bluegrass `Poor Heart’ to their SANTANA-esque swinging signature tune `Stash’ within a matter of grooves. Ditto `The Landlady’. Their musicianship and inventiveness was never in question, but indulgence and playfulness (calypso ZAPPA, anyone?) wreaked havoc on `Guelah Papyrus’, `Magilla’ and `Glide’. Sorting the chaf from the “live”-wires, the funk-driven, near 9-minute `Tweezer’ and the freewheeling `Chalk Dust Torture’ made the experience all worthwhile.
RIFT (1993) {*7} was PHISH’s first major chart entry (#51), the band reining in their more wayward musical tendencies, albeit with a few exceptions: `Lengthwise’ (2 soundbites) and the all-too-short `The Horse’. A loose concept dealing with a man dreaming about a “rift” between him and his girlfriend – the group had ventured closer with “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday”: shelved in ’87 – producer Barry Beckett honed in on their musicianship skills, while lyricist Tom Marshall (a friend of the group since ’83) offered them another dimension. Once again, nothing worth editing for a single format, the 8-minute `Maze’, plus `My Friend, My Friend’ and the almost PRIMUS-y cut, `Weigh’, pulled it from a sticky jam.
For a second time in a row, Britain was thought not a happy hunting ground for PHISH; Elektra managing to bypass them again with 1994’s Top 40 (HOIST) {*7}. OTT prog-rock was frowned upon in these shores on a commercial level, so maybe there was method to their madness. Americans, on the other hand, couldn’t get enough of PHISH’s funky stuff on the head-beating `Axilla (Part II)’, `Sample In A Jar’ and the 10-minute anchor, `Demand’.
Trey and Co were now able to fish out a recording made in August 1991 with lyricist/singer The DUDE OF LIFE, and CRIMES OF THE MIND (1994) {*5} maintained their spontaneity. The Dude had no rug to piss on (just yet!), but what the collaboration had was some relaxed stoned-age psych-rock, best served up by `Dahlia’, the morose `King Of Nothing’ and the title track.
In the true spirit of the GRATEFUL DEAD (sadly, JERRY GARCIA was soon to pass on to the other side), 1995 saw Anastasio and Co release that most reviled of rock artefacts, a multi-disc concert album, A LIVE ONE {*7}; little did PHISH fans know of what was to come. There was no surprises but for a handful of fresh toons (the 15 minute `Harry Hood’), and just some longer excursions into the literate waters that engulfed the quartet. Several months down the line, ANASTASIO masterminded his first free jazz album under the eponymous moniker of “Surrender To The Air”, alongside the likes of SUN RA alumni Marshall Allen and experimental guitarist Marc Ribot.
The mellow, ALLMAN-esque `Free’ incredibly remains the band’s only bona fide single release; one of the stand-out tracks from 1996’s BILLY BREATHES {*8}, a Top 10 album and their most successful to date. Englishman Steve Lillywhite (at the decks) probably helped Elektra’s UK branch to give it whirl the following February, and gone were the prog-length recurring jams of excess. More melodic with a psychedelic tinge, fans had their other faves in the title track, `Prince Caspian’ and group compositions `Taste’ and `Theme From The Bottom’.
Now something of an American institution, PHISH seem to have effortlessly navigated the shark-infested waters of the music business without compromising their original vision. Their second live set in as many years, SLIP STITCH AND PASS (1997) {*7}, was thought a marriage of older concert draws and elaborate cover versions from TALKING HEADS’ `Cities’ and ZZ TOP’s `Jesus Just Left Chicago’ to the downright silly escapades of `Hello My Baby’ and JIM MORRISON’s “The End” recitals in `Weekapaug Groove’.
1998’s Top 10, THE STORY OF THE GHOST {*6}, found PHISH swimming as freely as ever: downstream on the spiritual `Ghost’ and the charming `Birds Of A Feather’, or upstream on the swaggering `Guyute’ and transcending `Wading In The Velvet Sea’. As much as prog fans must’ve loved the loose concept of this life-affirming set, several of the cuts were just catering to lost souls from the ‘Dead.
Forget their recent double-live album ventures, PHISH went for nothing less than a live boxed set a la HAMPTON COMES ALIVE (1999) {*7}, a sprawling multi 6-disc affair – more Col. Bruce Hampton than PETER FRAMPTON – that conceivably went a long way to replicating the scope and intensity of their concert experience. Here was another excuse to display their “greatest hits”, along with an unhealthy amount of cover versions: namely `Rock And Roll, Pt.2’ (GARY GLITTER), `Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)’ (BOB DYLAN), `Funky Bitch’(SON SEALS), `Roses Are Free’ (WEEN), `Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It’ (Will Smith via CHIC), `Cry Baby Cry’ (LENNON-McCARTNEY), `Boogie On Reggae Woman’ (STEVIE WONDER), `Nellie Kane’ (TIM O’BRIEN), `Bold As Love’ (JIMI HENDRIX), `Sabotage’ (BEASTIE BOYS) and `Tubthumbing’ (CHUMBAWAMBA).
Perhaps this was a ploy to placate diehard fans before the release of FARMHOUSE (2000) {*7}, a record that – as its title might’ve suggested – veered closer to the dusty paths of country rock than exploratory jams; with an engaging and very welcome focus on songwriting over instrumental flair. Their “Workingman’s Dead” if falling short of melodic masterpieces (give or take the title track, `Twist’ and `First Tube’), there was indeed an endearing quality to their sunny-side-up funk ’n’ roll.
Amid a lengthy break, PHISH fans could content themselves with an extensive series of live-in-concert volumes, all of which (in 2001 at least), incredibly, cracked the Billboard Top 200. As afore-whined, this frowned-upon deluge of mortgage-broking sets was never going to charm passers-by to their already bulging CV. The thing is, unlike PEARL JAM, their set-list seemed to switch nightly. In among their jam-tastic pool of American beauties were further “cover-age”: `Frankenstein’ (EDGAR WINTER GROUP), `Timber’ (JOSH WHITE), `2001’ (DEODATO), `Albuquerque’ (NEIL YOUNG), `Drowned’ (The WHO), `Crosseyed And Painless’ (TALKING HEADS), `Loving Cup’ (The ROLLING STONES), `Walk Away’ (JOE WALSH), `My Soul’ (CLIFTON CHENIER), `Rock & Roll’ (The VELVET UNDERGROUND), `Ya Mar’ (The Mustangs), `Wipeout’ (The SURFARIS), `Old Home Place’ (The DILLARDS), `When The Circus Comes’ (LOS LOBOS), `Mirror In The Bathroom’ (The BEAT), `Sparks’ (The WHO), `Have Mercy’ (The MIGHTY DIAMONDS), `Purple Rain’ (PRINCE), `La Grange’ (ZZ TOP), `The Great Gig In The Sky’ (PINK FLOYD + Clare Torry), `Daniel Saw The Stone’ and `Avenu Malcanu’ and `Carolina’ (trad), `Back At The Chicken Shack’ (JIMMY SMITH), `While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (GEORGE HARRISON), `The Andy Griffith Theme’ (Hagen-Spencer), `Donna Lee’ (CHARLIE PARKER), `Fire’ (JIMI HENDRIX), `Johnny B. Goode’ (CHUCK BERRY), `Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ (Arlen-Harberg), `Sweet Adeline’ (Amstrong-Gerard), `Rocky Top’ (Bryant-Bryant) and on “Live Phish Vol.13” the 2nd & 3rd disc ran through the whole of The BEATLES’ “White Album”, whilst “Live Phish Vol.14” did the same for The WHO’s “Quadrophenia”. As 2002 turned into 2003 – and beyond – PHISH drowned their fanbase in a sea of memorable gigs, that unveiled full-album re-cycles of “Remain In Light” (TALKING HEADS), “Loaded” (The VELVET UNDERGROUND), etc., etc., etc.
PHISH returned from their mini-hiatus in late 2002 with the studio set, ROUND ROOM {*4}, a disappointing record reverting to noodling and perambulating business after the focused, easy grace of the preceding album. Not that they seemed much concerned about it, content to jam on song fragments rather than songs themselves. It however, only just scraped into the Top 50… PHISH fans hardly having time, energy or the wherewithal to come up for air. Described in some quarters as sprawling and ramshackle, songs such as `Seven Below’, `46 Days’, `All Of These Dreams’ et al were alone in a hammock on a cruise through the Bermuda Triangle, or indeed up shit creek.
Much more interesting had been TREY ANASTASIO’s eponymous solo debut proper, a Top 50 entry earlier in the year. With its complex, elastic grooves glued firmly in place by more discernible arrangements and a slick pop sheen, the record was an another giddy achievement in his extended PHISH layoff, ranking alongside his work with OYSTERHEAD (a trio of ANASTASIO, LES CLAYPOOL and STEWART COPELAND) on 2001’s `The Grand Pecking Order’, and generating the kind of kinetic momentum which made his live `Plasma’(2003) so compelling. While Trey had a lot more besides up his sleeve, MIKE GORDON sprouted wings to find collaborative sustenance alongside jazz-folk artist LEO KOTTKE (`Clone’ in 2002 and `Sixty Six Steps’ in 2005); McConnell roped in a few buddies (John Speck and Russell Batiste) to come up with adventurous albums under the guise of VIDA BLUE.
Back at the PHISH farm, the quartet were papering over the cracks with umpteenth studio set, UNDERMIND (2004) {*7}. Unbeknown to the majority of their fanbase, PHISH were about to take a long-earned rest, and with this near Top 10 alt-rock sea-change, they’d managed to make the passage easier. One track in particular, `A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing’ managed to borrow main lines/harmonies of SALT-N-PEPA’s `Whatta Man’, but with the band’s usual foray into neo-psychedelia, the second half of the track was almost drowned out in sound. Other pieces such as `Army Of One’, `Nothing’ and `Crowd Control’ recalled VAN DYKE PARKS, STEALERS WHEEL or part-time Deadhead, BRUCE HORNSBY, but their complex and carefree aspect was catered for by way of `Scents And Subtle Sounds’ and the cooky title track.
Without a contract to speak of, Rhino Records were able to provide a home for PHISH’s un-archived, triple boxed-set live farewell: LIVE IN BROOKLYN (2006) {*7} – recorded at KeySpan Park on June 17, 2004.
With their own albums to do, PHISH’s sabbatical lasted just under five years, when it was announced there were plans to release a comeback on their own JEMP imprint. Like baseball, their appeal was strictly for Americans, so a “World Series” of concerts was highly unlikely. Roping in Steve Lillywhite for a second turn at the decks, the #13 stats for JOY (2009) {*6} seemed promising. They’d lost none of their GRATEFUL DEAD quirks and traits, and in `Time Turns Elastic’ (clocking in at over 13 minutes) and the not so time-consuming `Twenty Years Later’ and `Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan’, the future just might’ve been on their minds.
Finally, just as PHISH-heads were thinking their band had done another bunk, up to the surface came 12th studio album, FUEGO (2014) {*8} – and it was a whopper. Opening with their “song-of-the-year” title track – think JANE’S ADDICTION in bed with The MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA – the self-serving PHISH came up trumps. Rolling along with all the prog-rock, jazz-rock and psychedelia in nine chanthemic minutes of guitar solos and military drumming, this is a song one must hear. It therefore eased the entry of cool cut, `The Line’ and the country-rock-weaving `Devotion To A Dream’. If estranged beginner’s-guide Brit fans wanted a PHISH set to stumble upon, then this Bob Ezrin production was where it was at. Pity then that the `Fuego’ piece was out there in the cosmos, but that was typical of the all-encompassing PHISH, a band who could on the one hand tease and frustrate and, on the other, catching one hook line and sinker. `Winterqueen’ was one of their most beautiful ballads, while one could almost float on the CSN-like airwaves of anchor, `Wingsuit’.
Guaranteed a place at the higher-end of the Billboard charts no matter what Anastasio and Co scaled up and still filling stadia Stateside, BIG BOAT (2016) {*7} was more a group effort than its predecessor; Page afforded three tracks this time around (`Home’, `Things People Do’ and `I Always Wanted It This Way’), as well as Mike and Jon contributing `Waking Up Dead’ and `Friends’, respectively. For an hour or so it was full-steam-ahead (Ezrin back at the wheel), but there were so many funky pop-rock diversions to hold one’s attention, one could almost hear MEN AT WORK for `Blaze On’ or some soul singer on `Tide Turns’. The set concluded with the multi-layered `Petrichor’, a track first trialled with a full orchestra in 2014, which went some way to restore the balance.
© MC Strong 1996-2004/GRD // rev-up MCS Oct2016

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