When Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995, the smart money in the New Dead lottery was on Phish — but then it had already been so for those aware of the band. Formed in 1983 at the University of Vermont, the quartet was among the first-born children of the Dead, heavy on improvisation and eclecticism and self-marketed via a grassroots stew of constant touring on the college circuit, a mailing list, hotlines and, later, Internet sites. By the mid-’90s, with practically no airplay, Phish had quietly hooked one of the largest and most devoted followings of any such band.
The Dead tag is both a compliment and an albatross — and not quite fair to Phish. Frank Zappa and Sun Ra are equally valid touchstones for the group. Like them, Phish draws from a broad musical palette (rock, jazz, bluegrass and country, just for a start). Like them, clever and sometimes arcane humor is part of the mix. And, like those forebears, Phish’s music can be brilliant one moment, ponderous the next. The four musicians truly live to jam; they even practice improvisation via round-robin-style drills. But outside of performance settings, Phish can phlounder as easily as it can phloat.
Junta, initially a cassette sold at shows, is a not-ready-for-prime-time event. The musicianship is clearly outstanding: guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell are inventive soloists, while bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman form a supple, versatile rhythm section. Their songwriting skills are not as finely developed at this point, however, and the group resorts to looooong, solo-filled pieces-eleven minutes of “David Bowie,” twelve minutes of “Fluff’s Travels,” more than 25 of “Union Federal.” Lawn Boy is a marked improvement, more cohesive even given the band’s tendency to ramble and to favor style (solos) over substance (songs). Nevertheless, there are some good yuks in the title track, “Bathtub Gin” and “Run Like an Antelope.” Two particularly strong numbers — “Bouncing Around the Room” and “The Squirming Coil” — have remained concert favorites and appear on the live album.
A Picture of Nectar is Phish’s best album, as well as its most varied. It wouldn’t be accurate to call them tunesmiths yet, but there’s a greater dedication to letting the songs dictate when and where the extended instrumental passages are appropriate. Phish infuses “The Landlady” and “Stash” with samba and other Latin ingredients, takes a cocktail jazz path on “Magilla” and does a bit of country two-stepping on “Poor Heart.” But many of the album’s best moments come when Phish gets funky, as McConnell’s rich organ licks work in tandem with Anastasio’s guitar attack on “Llama,” “Cavern” and “Guelah Papyrus.” A Picture of Nectar also contains two versions of “Tweezer” — one funky, the other rocking — which is as close to a signature song as Phish has.
Rift and (Hoist) represent two problematic attempts to follow up A Picture of Nectar‘s progress. Where Nectar stayed mostly to one style per song, Rift tries to blend them together; the title track, for instance, interweaves country and rock elements. Produced by veteran Muscle Shoals keyboardist Barry Beckett, the album has its highlights — particularly the subtle dynamics employed in “Maze” and “Horn” — but many of the songs are either too cutesy (“Weigh”) or too convoluted (“Mound,” “It’s Ice”).
Produced by Paul Fox, (Hoist) finds Phish out of water; it’s the first album constructed entirely out of newly written material rather than road-tested songs. Consequently, the record feels unusually stiff and mannered, the antithesis of Phish’s aesthetic. A handful of numbers stand out — “Julius,” “Sample in a Jar,” “Scent of a Mule” — and the guest shots from Alison Krauss, Béla Fleck and the Tower of Power Horns add some new sonic dimensions, but the album lacks the material to really make the most of them.
A Live One puts Phish back in its element in all its stretched-out, indulgent glory. Spreading just a dozen songs over two CDs, Phish mixes fan favorites with an equal number of new tracks to make A Live One essential even to the tape-traders. “Tweezer” is the album’s epic, a 31-minute workout that bounces from the original arrangement into Hendrixy psychedelia, Return to Forever jazz fusion and bits that sound like outtakes from Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick. The album also contains strong renditions of “The Squirming Coil,” “Harry Hood” and “Stash”; the standout among the new tunes is “Simple,” a strong, winding rocker with appealingly silly lyrics (“We’ve got a saxophone / `Coz we’ve got a band / And we’ve got a saxophone in the band”).
With their popularity increasing, Phish seemed to long for a studio release that would stand on its own, independent of the live shows that, Dead-like, brought the group its audience. To that end, Billy Breathes found Phish hauling in commercial producer Steve Lillywhite and at least attempting to streamline things. “Free” starts the album with a no-frills rock vibe that showcases Anastasio’s guitar, which sounds a lot like Cream-era Clapton. “Train Song,” with its simple bluegrass harmonies, wouldn’t sound out of place on the Dead’s American Beauty. Yet Phish doesn’t have the gumption to write a whole album’s worth of clear-cut songs; it descends into plinka-plinka folk rock (“Talk,” the title track) and ends up in a no-man’s land neither pop nor psychedelic.
The band’s inevitable next live album, Slip Stitch and Pass, was recorded in Hamburg, Germany and finds the band busting out the hits both old and new (“Lawn Boy,” “Taste”). But, as usual, the live group is best at covering others, here showing proficiency in heavy blues (ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago”), quirky funk (Talking Heads’ “Cities”), even barbershop harmonies (“Hello My Baby”). A nice snapshot of Phish doing what it does best.
The Story of the Ghost is an attempt to jazz things up…literally. Tortoise have little to fear, but the album works in fits and starts, with tracks like “Birds of a Feather” utilizing Page McConnell’s newly lounged-up keyboards, plus a horn section, to maximum effect. The best thing here is the eight-minute-plus “Guyute,” which sounds like vintage Jethro Tull as it careens from delicate folk music to raucous improvisation and back again. The lyrics won’t win any new converts, with clumsy musings like “If I had a host of ghosts / living on my street / I’d jive and strive to stay alive / and offer them some meat.” Yet lyrics (nor singing on key for that matter) have never been the point with Phish.
Phish broke up, amicably, in 2004.
Crimes of the Mind is the belated release of a 1991 session with the Dude of Life-singer/songwriter Steve Pollak, a Phish phriend from New York who occasionally popped up at the band’s shows. The Dude is given to the same philosophical whimsy as Phish (“Life is a TV show/It should’ve been canceled long ago”), and the music is a bit tighter than the group’s — but only a bit. Surrender to the Air is a horn-powered instrumental ensemble assembled and led by Anastasio; among the players on the partly improvised Surrender to the Air are guitarist Marc Ribot, keyboardist John Medeski and Phish drummer Jon Fishman.