The Corrections: A Defense of Phish

Brian Michael Payne is a Buddhist prodigy. Throughout this “The Corrections” series, writers have been grappling with the question of slept-on albums. But for my entry, I wanted to share...
By    August 15, 2013

Brian Michael Payne is a Buddhist prodigy.

Throughout this “The Corrections” series, writers have been grappling with the question of slept-on albums. But for my entry, I wanted to share a correction made to my music listening habits that has affected my entire life. It’s a journey I’ve just started on and one of the most rewarding corrections of my listening life. You see, one month ago, I decided that I really liked Phish.

Sometime in mid-June, I started to get fed up with how political everything was.Yeezus had just come out and the discourse machine was going full swing. And it’s not like I wasn’t a part of it. It seemed like you couldn’t listen to Taylor Swift or Tyler, The Creator without it being about something. It could be cooling with age, but I wanted to listen to music that wasn’t about anything.

Around the same I finally got around to reading Steve Hyden’s piece on whether Phish should be considered great, which was intriguing but also unconvincing. So I did what I think all music fans (and writers) should do – I just started listening. But I also wanted some guidance, so I reached out to Rob Mitchum, the OG music critic who was mentioned in the Hyden piece.

Me: What are some good concerts to start with Phish?

Mitchum: Huge Question! Answer this multiple choice on what you’d prefer: a) prog b) classic rock c) funk d) spacey ambient. You are allowed more than one answer.

Now that I’ve spent more time both getting to know Phish and getting to know the getting to know Phish process, I recognize that this is a very common way to introduce someone to the band. I chose b) classic rock, and Rob sent me to this concert. (Oh, by the way, did you know that you can stream basically every Phish concert ever? Ill get back to that later.)

I’ll admit that it didn’t quite do it for me, but I stuck with it. I reached back out to Rob saying that I was hoping there would be more guitar solos, and he responded,

Interesting, people don’t usually ask for more solos. You might want to go earlier then.

So I went earlier, and that’s when I really started getting into Phish.

A few notes about my preferences. My favorite band is probably Pavement. My favorite single artist is Kanye West. I love genuinely challenging art. But my one true weakness is guitar solos. I can hardly think of anything better than a barely-contained squall of amplifier feedback being shaped in real time like blown glass. I crave hanger-sized waves of sound, huge volumetric amounts of air being blown past. This love of solos has taken me to Coltrane, Miles, and McLaughlin. Its obviously been a big part of my appreciation of Malkmus. And its even informed my understanding of the later Kanye, he of the indecipherable AutoTune vocal solo.

Early 90s Phish, specifically 1993, specifically August 1993, would become my entry point for really enjoying Phish. When I pinged Mitchum back with this info, he replied: A popular choice! The three holy months for Phish fans are 8/93, 12/95, and 12/97. Nice, I had basically settled on the Ramadan of Phish fandom, which was fitting since just up and deciding to get into Phish at age 30 is sort of like converting to a new religion.

Here’s a little interstitial thing about Phish. It is insanely easy to get their music. I don’t mean in a Mega/Sendspace/BitTorrent way. I mean as in there’s a Google Spreadsheet that has free and legal download links to damn near every show Phish has ever played. There’s PhishTracks, which has streams of many, many complete Phish shows. And then theres LivePhish, where you can purchase crystal clear soundboard quality versions of every modern Phish show and many old shows in MP3 and FLAC formats.

I’m a person who can (and has) spent hours and hours organizing and systematizing a 350GB music library. (I don’t believe in streams, apparently.) Phish’s Library of Congress-sized canon plays right into my hermetic collector/OCD music tendencies. It might not be for everyone, but it decidedly is for me.

Back to August 1993. It really is one of the greatest musical events of the past twenty years. The band played 18 shows in 30 days. Each show was between two and a half to three hours. (They played over 3,000 minutes according to my iTunes.) During this stretch, they regularly busted out 20+ minute exploratory jams. But that vastly undersells what was happening. If a jam band conjures up the image of a patchouli-enclouded cadre of dreadlock-having white boys noodling around on their respective instruments while little pools of audience sway and/or engage in hacky sack cyphers then you’d be sort of right but mostly wrong. During August 1993, Phish was a band that sounded like they were battling to the death with devils inside themselves, at stake being the very reason for their objective existence. (Seriously: just go listen to the Maze-Fluffhead-Stash run in 1993.) Says Mr. Miner (a foremost Phish writer;),

During this summer, Phish sounded like they were playing for their lives every time they hit the stage, and essentially, that is exactly what they were doing. On the verge of breaking from of the pack of H.O.R.D.E-style bands, Phish dedicated the entirety of their lives to making Phish the craziest live experience and most enticing music in the scene.

It seems weird to think about today, but twenty years ago Phish were basically on par with Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic, etc. You may think they’re still are on par with those bands. You’d be vastly wrong.

Phish’s music is, to say the least, divisive. I don’t really get why, though. The lyrics and singing, yes, are not the music’s high point. But lyrics and singing are not really the high point for a lot of music. Some genres, singer-songwriter or opera, say, value those but rock and roll; Phish’s genre, generally doesn’t place a premium there. The vocal aspect of Phish, for me, creates a sort of mantra, the breath if you will, that inhabits the music. And the music, wow. There’s really no other music like it. The band has a range and ambition to their musicianship that never exceeds their technical ability, and it is significant. They can turn on a dime from slap-bass funk to abstracted post-rock to easy listening muzak jams. In a given 2.5 hour show, you can be taken from Prince to Prince Caspian and back again. You really never know what you’re going to hear, but with 30 years of experience and skill, you can be sure you’ll be taken there with mastery and aplomb.

But Let’s jump ahead ten years and talk about Phish circa right now. I’ll preface my thoughts by saying I possess a complete dilettante knowledge of Phish. What I know is basically a rounding error. Harris Wittels, host of Analyze Phish (on the same podcast network as Shots Fired), seems like he has a literal encyclopedic knowledge of every song the band has ever played. There are tons of fans who have gone to tens or hundreds of shows and can think of their five or ten favorite instances of a given song. I’m still clumsily hacking my way through thirty years of shows and cultural legacy.

The band has two holy trinities: Type I, Type II, Type III and 1.0, 2.0, 3.0. The first refers to two types of jams;. Type I jamming is just a jam, on the songs written melody. Type II jamming might change key, allude to other songs, and introduce totally new structures into a song. Type II jamming is somewhat controversial, but is generally understood to be a late 90s phenomenon where a funk element is introduced to an otherwise un-funky song.

Phish 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0 refers to epochs in the band’s existence. Phish 1.0 covers the band from inception to its first hiatus (1983 to 2000); Phish 2.0 is when the band picked back up to its second hiatus (2002 to 2004), which is also known as the oxy years and an indelicate reference to frontman Trey Anastasio’s substance abuse problem. Phish 3.0 covers the re-pickup to present day (2009 to right now).

The dirty little secret of Phish fandom is that it’s relatively uncontroversial to say that Phish 1.0 was the band’s peak (with many mini-peaks within that era) when in fact Phish 3.0 more accurately reflects the predominate experience of Phish’s current fans. Think about it: if you’re 20 years old, then you were born in 1993 and you started going to shows within the last few years, ie, Phish 3.0. Not only that, but all of Phish 3.0’s concerts are available in hi-fidelity, great-sounding audio whereas much of Phish 1.0 exists as generally decent-sounding but not nearly as good-sounding bootlegs. Suffice it to say, if you’re a younger fan, you’re probably sick of hearing grungy oldsters bloviating about Phish 1.0.

All of which brings us to right now. Phish just concluded its summer 2013 tour, celebrating their 30th anniversary. The five week tour saw massive ups and downs. Some shows were abridged or rained out entirely. There were points of controversy (a Second City sketch gone wrong in Chicago) and points of near universal praise (Tahoe’s 36 minute “Tweezer”.) Either way, Phish right now is Phish at one of their all-time greatest points. Combined with the ability to video stream all their shows and/or download them the day after, there has literally never been a better time to be a Phish fan.

Finally, being a Phish fan, contrary to the publicly ridiculous idea the phrase may conjure. is actually one of the most peaceful outposts in all of music fan-dom. The community is rabidly positive, and there are virtually no trenchant social-political stakes. Joining this community, even just tentatively, has been one of the best musical corrections I’ve ever made, and one I recommend you try as well.

MP3: Phish – “Bouncing Round the Room (6/7/09)”
MP3: Phish – “Fee” (Live Phish)


Other Recommended Listening:

2013–08–04: Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, San Francisco, CA

08–13–1993–08–13: Murat Theatre, Indianapolis, IN

10/31/1996–10–31: The Omni, Atlanta, GA

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