Phish is an American rock band noted for its musical improvisation, extended jams, exploration of music across genres, and devoted fan base. Formed at the University of Vermont in 1983, the band's four members performed together for over 20 years until an official breakup in August 2004. The band reunited in 2009 for three shows at the Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia, and have resumed their former activities with a full summer tour, a new album entitled Joy, and a planned October festival in Indio, California.
Their music blends elements of a wide variety of genres, including rock, jazz, progressive rock, psychedelic rock, funk, bluegrass, reggae, country, blues, and classical. Each of their concerts is original in terms of the songs performed, the order in which they appear, and the way in which they are performed.
Although the band has received little radio play or mainstream exposure, it has developed a large and dedicated following by word of mouth, the exchange of live recordings and selling over 8 million albums and DVDs in the United States. Rolling Stone stated that the band helped to "...spawn a new wave of bands oriented around group improvisation and superextended grooves," calling them "the most important band of the Nineties."
Phish was formed at The University of Vermont in 1983 by guitarists Trey Anastasio and Jeff Holdsworth, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman. For their first gig, at a Halloween dance in the basement of the ROTC dormitory, the band was billed as "Blackwood Convention", a reference to a bidding convention in contract bridge. Their second gig ??? and their first billed as "Phish" ??? was November 3 in the basement of Slade Hall at UVM, though another source gives the date as December 2. The band was joined by percussionist Marc Daubert in the fall of 1984, while the band was first promoting themselves as a Grateful Dead cover band. Daubert left the band early in 1985, and Page McConnell joined on keyboards in September. Holdsworth left the group after graduation in 1986, solidifying the band's lineup of "Trey, Page, Mike, and Fish" ??? the lineup that has remained to this day.
Following a prank at UVM with his friend and former bandmate Steve Pollak ??? also known as "The Dude of Life" ??? Anastasio decided to leave the college. With the encouragement of McConnell (who received $50 for each transferee), Anastasio and Fishman relocated in mid-1986 to Goddard College, a small school in the hills of Plainfield, Vermont. Phish distributed at least six different experimental self-titled cassettes during this era, including The White Tape. This first studio recording was circulated in two variations: the first, mixed in a dorm room as late as 1985, received a higher distribution than the second studio remix of the original four tracks, circa 1987. The older version was officially released as The White Tape in 1998.
By 1985, the group had encountered Burlington, Vermont luthier Paul Languedoc, who would eventually design two guitars for Anastasio and two basses for Gordon. In October 1986, he began working as their sound engineer. Since then, Languedoc built exclusively for the two, and his designs and traditional wood choices have given Phish a unique instrumental identity. Recently, however, Languedoc has begun crafting guitars on custom order and, on a very limited basis, to the general public through local music shops.
As his senior project, Anastasio penned The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday, a nine-song concept album that would become their second studio experiment. Recorded between 1987 and 1988, it was submitted in July of that year, accompanied by a written thesis. Elements of the story ??? known as Gamehendge ??? grew to include an additional eight songs. The band performed the suite in concert on five occasions: in 1988, 1991, 1993, and twice in 1994 without replicating the song list.
Beginning in the spring of 1988, the band began practicing in earnest, sometimes locking themselves in a room and jamming for hours on end. Dubbed "Okipa Ceremonies" (also spelled Oh Kee Pa), one such jam took place at Anastasio's apartment, and a second was at Paul Languedoc's house in August 1989. The band attributes the sessions to Anastasio, who discovered the concept in the films A Man Called Horse and Modern Primitives. The product of one of these sessions was included in the band's first mass-released recording, a double album called Junta, later that year.
On January 26, 1989, Phish played the Paradise Rock Club in Boston. The owners of the club had never heard of Phish and refused to book them, so the band rented the club for the night. The show sold out due to the caravan of fans that had traveled to see the band.
By late 1990, Phish's concerts were becoming more and more intricate, often making a consistent effort to involve the audience in the performance. In a special "secret language," the audience would react in a certain manner based on a particular musical cue from the band. For instance, if Anastasio "teased" a motif from The Simpsons theme song, the audience would yell, "D'oh!" in imitation of ?·) In 1992, Phish introduced collaboration between audience and band called the "Big Ball Jam" in which each band member would throw a large beach ball into the audience and play a note each time his ball was hit. In so doing, the audience was helping to create an original composition.
In an experiment known as "The Rotation Jam", each member would switch instruments with the musician on his left. On occasion, a performance of "You Enjoy Myself" involved Gordon and Anastasio performing synchronized maneuvers on mini-trampolines while playing their instruments.
Phish, along with Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and The Beatles, was one of the first bands to have a Usenet newsgroup, rec.music.phish, which launched in 1991. Aware of the band's growing popularity, Elektra Records signed them that year. The following year A Picture of Nectar was complete: their first major studio release, enjoying far more extensive production than either 1988's Junta or 1990s Lawn Boy. These albums were eventually re-released on Elektra, as well.
The first annual H.O.R.D.E. festival in 1992 provided Phish with their first national tour of major amphitheaters. The lineup, among others, included Phish, Blues Traveler, The Spin Doctors, and Widespread Panic. That summer, the band toured Europe with the Violent Femmes and later toured Europe and the U.S. with Carlos Santana.
Poster for Phish's 1995 Halloween extravaganza
Phish began headlining major amphitheaters in the summer of 1993. That year, the group released Rift packaged as a concept album and with heavy promotion from Elektra including artwork by David Welker. In 1994, the band released Hoist. To promote the album, the band made their only video for MTV, "Down With Disease", airing in June of that year. Foreshadowing their future tradition of festivals, Phish coupled camping with their Summer tour finale at Sugarbush North in Fayston, Vermont in July of 1994, that show eventually being released as Live Phish Volume 2. On Halloween of that year, the group promised to don a fan-selected "musical costume" by playing an entire album from another band. After an extensive mail-based poll, Phish performed The Beatles' self-titled album ??? as the second of their three sets at the Glens Falls Civic Center in upstate New York. Following the death of Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia in the summer of 1995 and the appearance of "Down With Disease" on Beavis and Butthead, the band experienced a surge in the growth of their fan base and an increased awareness in popular culture.
In their tradition of playing a well-known album by another band for Halloween, Phish contracted a full horn section for their performance of The Who's Quadrophenia in 1995. Their first live album ??? A Live One ??? which was released during the summer of 1995 became Phish's first RIAA certified gold album in November 1995.
During this fall tour, the band challenged their audience to two games of chess, with each show of the tour consisting of a pair of moves. The band made their move during the first set, and, during the break between sets, the audience members could vote on their collective move at the Greenpeace table. The audience conceded the first game at the November 15 show in Florida, and the band conceded the second at their New Year's Eve concert at Madison Square Garden. Having played only two games, the score remains tied at 1-1. This year-end concert would later be named as one of the greatest concerts of the 1990s by Rolling Stone magazine.
Phish retreated to their Vermont recording studio and recorded hours and hours of improvisations, sometimes overlaying them on one another, and included some of the result on the second half of Billy Breathes, which they released in the fall of 1996. Alongside traditional rock-based crescendos, the album has more acoustic guitar than their previous records, and was regarded by the band and some fans as their crowning studio achievement.
That summer, they mounted their first two-day festival ??? The Clifford Ball ??? at a decommissioned Air Force base in Plattsburgh, New York. Between 70,000 and 80,000 people were in attendance; MTV was on-hand to document the experience. In Phish's own makeshift city, Great Northeast Productions created an amusement park, restaurants, a post office, playgrounds, arcades, and movie theaters. Aside from six "traditional" sets, the band rode a flatbed truck through the campground, serenading the audience at 3 a.m. The concert's production company went on to host six more Phish festivals.
By 1997 jams were becoming so long that several sets contained only four songs; their improvisational ventures were developing into a new funk-inspired jamming style. Vermont-based ice cream conglomerate Ben & Jerry's launched "Phish Food" that year and proceeds from the flavor are donated to the Lake Champlain Initiative. Part of Phish's new non-profit foundation, The WaterWheel Foundation was also composed of two other now-defunct branches: The Touring Branch and the Vermont Giving Program.
The Great Went, Phish's second large-scale festival, was held that summer at Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine, just miles from the Canadian border. The official count for the show was an impressive 65,000 people, qualifying the festival to be the largest city in Maine. For many fans however, the crowd felt larger. Band and audience collaborated yet again in a colossal work of art: individual pieces of art by fans were connected to a large piece of art by the band. A giant matchstick was lit, burning the resultant tower to the ground.
Phish returned to Limestone in the summer of 1998 for the Lemonwheel festival, drawing 60,000 fans. Phish headlined Farm Aid in October, sharing the stage with Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and Paul Shaffer. Again, altering their approach to studio releases, the band recorded hours of improvisational jams over a period of several days and took the highlights of those jams and wrote songs around them. The result was The Story of the Ghost in October and the instrumental The Siket Disc released the following year. On Halloween in Las Vegas, Nevada, the group performed Loaded by The Velvet Underground; two nights later they played Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon unannounced and in its entirety to an audience of 4,000 in Utah.
In 1999, the band decided to forgo the annual summer festival to prepare for the New Year's Eve millennium celebration. However, at the eleventh hour, Camp Oswego was held in July at the Oswego County Airport in the upstate New York town of Volney, with 65,000 in attendance.
For the Millennium Celebration, Phish traveled to the Big Cypress Indian Reservation in the Florida Everglades. Of the major New Year's Eve concerts around the globe ??? Sting, Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel ??? at 85,000, Phish had the largest attendance of any paid concert event that night. During ABC's millennium coverage, Peter Jennings and World News Tonight reported on the massive audience and featured the band's performance of "Heavy Things". Called "Big Cypress", the enormous festival culminated with an extended seven-and-a-half hour set that began at midnight and ended at sunrise.
2000 saw no Halloween show, no summer festival and no new songs: May's Farmhouse contained material dating from 1997. That summer, the band announced that they would take their first "extended time-out" following their upcoming fall tour. During the tour's last concert on October 7, 2000 at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California, they played a regular show and left without saying a word as The Beatles' Let It Be played over the sound system.
The hiatus allowed the members of Phish to explore more deeply their musical side projects. Anastasio continued the solo career he'd begun two years earlier, formed the group Oysterhead, and began conducting an orchestral composition with the Vermont Youth Orchestra. Gordon made an album with acoustic guitar legend Leo Kottke and two films before launching his own solo career. Fishman alternated between Jazz Mandolin Project and his band Pork Tornado, while McConnell formed the trio Vida Blue.
Over two years after the hiatus began, Phish announced that they were getting back on the road with a New Year's Eve 2002 concert at Madison Square Garden. They also recorded Round Room in only three days. In their return concert, McConnell's brother was introduced as actor Tom Hanks. The impostor sang a line of the song "Wilson," prompting several media outlets to report that the actor had "jammed with Phish."
At the end of the 2003 summer tour, Phish held their first summer festival in four years, returning to Limestone for It. The festival drew crowds of over 60,000 fans, once again making Limestone one of the largest cities in Maine for a weekend. In December, the band celebrated its 20th anniversary with a 4 show mini-tour culminating at Boston's Fleet Center. During the Albany date on this tour, Phish invited founding member Jeff Holdsworth onstage for the first time since 1986.
In order to avoid the exhaustion and pitfalls of previous years' high-paced touring, Phish played sporadically after the reunion, with tours lasting about two weeks. After an April 2004 run of shows in Las Vegas, Anastasio announced on the band's website that after a small summer tour the band was breaking up. Their final album at the time, Undermind, was released in late spring.
The band jammed with rapper Jay-Z at their second Brooklyn show in the summer of 2004, and performed a seven-song set atop the marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater during The Late Show with David Letterman to fans who had gathered on the street, a move reminiscent of The Beatles' final performance on the rooftop of the Apple building in London. Their final show of 2004 ??? Coventry ??? named for the town in Vermont that hosted the event, remains the last Phish festival to date. 100,000 people were expected to attend.
After a week of rain that prompted rumors of a sinking stage, Gordon announced on the local radio station that attendees should turn around, no more cars were being allowed in. As only about 20,000 people had been admitted, many concert-goers abandoned their vehicles on highway roadsides, shoulders and medians and hiked to the site, some as far as thirty miles. With the number of people that walked in, the crowd grew to an estimated 65,000 in attendance.
The band broke down crying onstage several times during the final concert, most notably when McConnell choked up during the ballad "Wading in the Velvet Sea" and elicited Anastasio to say a few words of farewell. Coventry was an emotional goodbye for Phish and for its audience; an end to Phish's chapter in rock music. With little help from radio, music television channels and album sales, Phish became one of the top ten grossing live acts in North America. As Rolling Stone put it:
Given their sense of community, their ambition and their challenging, generous performances, Phish has become the most important band of the Nineties.
During their break-up, members of Phish maintained various solo projects. Trey continued his solo career with his own band and performed with Oysterhead in June 2006. Gordon played with Leo Kottke and the Benevento/Russo Duo. At Bonnaroo in 2006, he played with his newest project, Ramble Dove, which is the name of the country outfit he fronted in his directorial feature Outside Out, and also joined Grateful Dead drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann along with Steve Kimock and Jen Durkin as the Rhythm Devils. Anastasio and Gordon toured as a four-piece with the Benevento/Russo Duo in the summer of 2006. McConnell debuted his new solo project at a festival in September 2006 held by jam band moe. and released his self-titled debut on April 17, 2007. Fishman has performed occasional shows with the Everyone Orchestra, The Village and the Yonder Mountain String Band, but had, for the most part, retired from the music business.
Phish received the Jammys Lifetime Achievement Award on May 7, 2008 in The Theater at Madison Square Garden. Jammys Executive Producer and Co-Creator Peter Shapiro said, "Few bands have meant as much to the improvisational music community as they have, so celebrating their career is something that is a natural thing for us to do."
Rumors of a Phish reunion began in earnest following a May 2008 Rolling Stone interview with Anastasio, where he was quoted as saying, "...at this point in time I would give my left nut to play five times in a row every day until I die." The following month, rumors began to circulate that a reunion was definitely in the works, as well as a studio collaboration with Steve Lillywhite, producer of 1996's Billy Breathes. A letter from McConnell appeared on Phish.com later that month, both tempering the rumors and giving them new life, saying that "the announcement of a reunion is premature. However, later this year we hope to spend some time together and take a look at what possible futures we might enjoy.... The prospect of Phish reuniting is something I consider very seriously, and I think about it a lot." McConnell went on to remind fans that "there is plenty of misinformation floating around. Try not to focus too much on secondhand sources and random gossip. If there is anything real to announce, it will come from the four of us as a group."
After performing three songs together at the September 2008 wedding of their former tour road manager, the long-awaited announcement from the four as a group came in October with the report of three planned reunion shows: March 6, 7, and 8, 2009 at the Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia.
Following the reunion weekend, the band played thirteen shows of a summer tour, including an inaugural concert at Fenway Park, and headlined Bonnaroo 2009 in June with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Beastie Boys, and Nine Inch Nails. During their first set of the second day, Phish was joined by Springsteen on guitar for "Mustang Sally", "Bobby Jean", and "Glory Days". Twelve additional dates in July and August were announced as a Late Summer Tour, including four nights at Red Rocks, two nights at The Gorge, a stop in Chicago, and several nights in the Northeast.
The rumor regarding the collaboration with Lillywhite became fact as they worked together on Phish's fourteenth studio album, Joy, which was released September 8, 2009. A single from the album, "Time Turns Elastic", was released on iTunes in late May. The band played nine of the ten tracks throughout the course of the first leg of their summer tour, starting with "Ocelot" on the first night of the tour. The band announced a "save-the-date" for a three-day festival on October 30 & 31 and November 1. Phish.com contained an animated map of the United States, and individual states were slowly removed from the map, leaving California. Confirming several rumors, the band announced that Festival 8 will take place in Indio, California. The band plans to perform eight sets over the three nights, including a new musical costume on Halloween.
Phish entered the foray of video games via Rock Band in 2009. Included in the Bonnaroo song pack, with other artists playing at the Bonnaroo Festival that year, is Phish's "Wilson" (December 30, 1994 at Madison Square Garden, New York, NY as released on A Live One), the first of their songs to appear in the game. A Phish "Live Track Pack" for Guitar Hero World Tour became available on June 25, 2009 for download for Guitar Hero World Tour. Recordings of "Sample in a Jar" (December 1, 1994 at Salem Armory, Salem, Oregon), "Down With Disease" (December 1, 1995 at Hersheypark Arena, Hershey, Pennsylvania) and "Chalk Dust Torture" (November 16, 1994, Hill Auditorium, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, as released on A Live One) have been released, compatible with X Box 360, PS3, and Wii.
Main article: Music of Phish
Phish's music is an eclectic blend of rock, jazz, funk, progressive rock, new wave, ambient, bluegrass, psychedelic rock, reggae, Latin, folk, blues, country, and classical. Their more ambitious compositions (such as "You Enjoy Myself" and "Guyute") are often said to resemble classical music in a rock setting, much related to the genre of progressive rock. The band has performed 620 individual compositions, of which 226 were originals (of the 244 they penned) and 394 covers.