07/25/2013 02:28 EDT | Updated 09/24/2013 05:12 EDT

Dephending Phish: It's Not Them, It's You

I'm not saying Phish is inherently better than other bands, or that the Phish concert experience is superior to the typical rock concert. But I am saying that a bad Phish concert is infinitely more interesting than a bad show by, say, Jay Z. Because even a bad Phish show is bound to offer at least a few moments of firecracker brilliance.


Yes, Phish's lyrics can be pretty terrible. Many of their songs are filled with what could be characters from stoner nursery rhymes. Their sense of humour is corny as hell, and they have all these songs that ride on goofy nonsense gags. The band seems gleefully irreverent about this, though, always daring you to take them seriously, keeping you at a distance until you finally give in or bail.

Plus, what's up with the irritating pun in their name? Deeply uncool.

And, pick a genre! They play a little bit of everything, and it's hard to tell what's parody and what's earnest. But, for me anyway, worse than the accumulated silliness, are those too-frequent moments of on-the-nose sentimentality, those cloying ballads awash in "passion," like diary entries written by some pretentious 15-year-old. Those are the songs - and they have a lot of them! - that conspire to keep me at arm's length.

So, let's not kid ourselves, but...

"The Beatles may have been the best band in music history, but they sure wrote some terrible lyrics." This is my standard line when I tell people that I am going to see a Phish show and they laugh in my face. It's the thing that baffles me most about the widespread hatred for this band. If you can handle silly songs likes "Yellow Submarine," "Octopus' Garden," "Rocky Raccoon," "I Am The Walrus," "Mean Mr. Mustard," "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and goddamn "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," then how can you possibly complain that Phish is too puerile?

Or, conversely, how can you sit through pablum like "The Long and Winding Road," "Let it Be," or "Here, There and Everywhere" and whinge about Phish being too cheesy? No, that really can't be it. What's bugging you is something deeper, something much less easily shrugged off as a refusal of the apparent awfulness of any song called "You Enjoy Myself" (for instance).

Look, the thing is that you're being a snob.

Phish is, by any reasonable measure, a rather extraordinary American rock'n'roll band. This Vermont-based four-piece has had among the most unlikely, consistently entertaining, and inventive (not to mention successful) careers that I can name, despite being relegated to the fringes of the pop world. They have written a raft of terrific music, played thousands of concerts, performed highwire acts of improvisation in front of millions of fans, sold hundreds of thousands of records, and never had one hit song. Not one. You wanna talk about "alternative music"?

They built their career by, simply, playing concerts. Night after night, playing in front of people. They built a fanbase through word of mouth in those pre-internet late-1980s. Because they performed a different setlist every night, and because they improvised their way through their shows - this is the much-maligned "jamming," which is really just another word for spontaneous creative expression, so relax - people were encouraged to record their shows and trade them with friends. That was how I first heard them, sometime in 1992, and it was why I borrowed a fake ID and lied to my parents so I could catch their first Toronto show later that year. I needed to see what it was like to have this happen in front of me.

And I was changed.

Since, by its very nature, improvisation means unpredictability, it made sense to listen to as many versions of a particular song as I could find. It also made sense to see show after show, night after night. One evening's "Harry Hood" could be quite radically different in tone, mood, and affect than the next. As with any band, there would be "on" nights and "off" nights, but with an improv rock band you could also get "on" songs and "off" songs over the course of any given performance. And, since Phish (like their concert-focused forebears, The Grateful Dead - who, by the way, they actually sound nothing like) always played at least two complete 75-minute sets of music every show, they gave themselves the time and space to pick themselves up and try again if something didn't work.

It helps that the four men who have comprised Phish since their inception back in 1983 are such talented musicians. Jon Fishman (drums), Mike Gordon (bass), Page McConnell (pianos), and Trey Anastasio (guitar) are, each of them, blindingly virtuosic when they are on their game. But, surely, it is Anastasio who leads the charge, and his guitar - one of the most expressive, inventive, dynamic instruments I know - drives much of what you might hear on a typical evening.

Anastasio and his bandmates are masters of ebb and flow, of tension and release. They, like any good DJ, like any good electronica artist looking to send a rush through the dancing throng, have mastered the art of energy-building. Most, but certainly not all (for that would get tiresome), of the instrumental sections of their songs build from a quiet, peaceful segment through to a series of mini climaxes, rising up and then falling back, building again and then fading, climbing toward an inevitable peak that, by the time it is reached, the audience craves beyond reason. I have seen people practically melt down at such moments, seen them jumping up and down with tears streaking their faces, seen them beaming ear-to-ear even as they yelp through their ecstasy. (Yeah, a lot of people do drugs at Phish concerts. So what? I mean, really?)

But so this is why, for most of the past 30 years, Phish has served for many music nerds like me as a kind of antidote to the stale predictability of the "rock concert." I probably see 100 non-Phish shows a year. I love live music. But I get so tired of the same thing, the same approach, the same "professionalism" (which too often looks like "boredom" on their faces as band members "do their jobs"). And then, I go see a Phish show, and get to watch these guys head out onstage with only a vague sense of where even the first song is going to take them, what notes they are going to find themselves playing, what energy they are going to pull out of the air, what the hell is going to happen.

I'm not saying Phish is inherently better than other bands (at all), or that the Phish concert experience is superior to the typical rock concert. But I am saying that a bad Phish concert is infinitely more interesting than a bad show by, say, Vampire Weekend, The National, or Jay Z. Because even a bad Phish show is bound to offer at least a few moments of firecracker brilliance.

Back in 1995, I saw Phish play a song called "Tweezer" for something like 50 minutes. Somewhere in there, after the jam had moved from a riff-based rock song into a messy heavy metal section, and then into a dark and uncomfortable vocal jam, and then into a high-tempo locked-in country pattern, lead singer Trey Anastasio started singing The Who's "My Generation." It was utterly incongruous and totally thrilling, this cowboy version of a classic anti-establishment rock'n'roll anthem. It only lasted about a minute, and then we were carried off into the unknown again for awhile before they found their way back to the "Tweezer Reprise" to end the set.

But, wow, that "My Generation." No one knew why it happened, probably including Anastasio. It just felt right so he tried it. It worked. Not everything else did that night. But I was richer for having been there, watching a band try stuff onstage.

So, go see them. If you hate it, fine. But I urge you, if you're a music fan, not to close your mind to this band, this music, this concert experience. There's nothing like it. I mean, isn't that enough of a reason right there?

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