By Brian L. Knight
After a tour of 22 shows that featured stops at Californias Greek Theater; performances at Farm Aid and the Bridge School Benefit; and a two day Halloween stand in Las Vegas, Phish finally returned to the friendly and familiar confines of New England. The band unofficially celebrated Thanksgiving by playing one concert in Albany and three in Worcester. Just like their other celebratory performances Halloween, New Years and the end of Summer, the Thanksgiving shows were no exception to Phishs rule of putting on top notch performances.
On October 27th, Phish released its newest album The Story of the Ghost. As in the case of just about every other Phish album, the songs on The Story of the Ghost have been tried and tested in concert for some time. One of the tunes, Guyute, has been part of the bands repertoire since 1994 while the remaining tunes made their concert debut during the past couple of tours. Over a two-year period, the band recorded over 39 songs in Bearsville Studios in upstate New York (the site of their previous album, 1996s Billy Breathes). All of the songs instrumentation was recorded in one take with vocals added later. Since the band had been playing most of the songs during the previous year and a half, the recording process was relatively easy. The real difficult part was reducing the amount of songs in order to make a more manageable fourteen-track album.
"The Story of the Ghost" marks a new route in the bands musical direction. There is less emphasis on the solo and more focus on the collective groove. This transition is not only shown on the album, but also in Phishs live performances as well. Since day one, Phishs music stressed extended jams and solos; but these days, the band is concentrating on creating a unified sound. The extended jams are still there, but the band utilizes a different approach and creates a different feel. This is accomplished through the band members contributing textures to a song instead of solos. The band rarely shares a note, beat or rhythm and each member tries to fill in the musical gaps and voids created by each other. A Phish concert is no longer defined by simply listening to Trey Anastasio rip on a guitar. It is now characterized by choosing any instrument to listen to and realizing how its offsets the sounds created by the other instruments.
This transformation in Phishs musical approach signifies the maturation of the band. It appears that the band is preparing for the future by creating a sound that is representative of all four members. With the old formula of Anastasio writing the majority of the songs and taking the leads, there was an unforeseen potential of battling egos or creating a band inequality. To some degree, this fact has been proven by the bands recent Modus Operandi of rarely playing tunes from Anastasios senior thesis " The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday" (AKA Gamehendge). While attending Vermonts Goddard College, Anastasio wrote a mythical story in which 7-10 tunes wove a tale that resembled "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" meets "Excalibur". The tunes that comprised Gamehendge were originally a major component of the Phish live show. As the band developed itself as a collective, the "Gamehendge" tunes became less and less predominate within the Phish set. Since a vast amount of its tunes were written by all four band members (as well as lyricist Tom Marshall), "The Story of the Ghost" suggests, on a compositional, musical and lyrical scale, that Phish is moving towards a new level of maturity.
Although Phish deserves to be proud of their latest studio effort, "The Story of the Ghost" does not dominate their live concerts. Over the last two months, Phish has been actively promoting the album through publicity appearances and promotional events, but their live shows have remained diverse and eclectic. With a new album, one would expect a "Story of the Ghost" tour yet a supporting tour has never been a characteristic of Phish. The band plays to support all of their songs. During the bands 4-day visit through New England, Phish played "Ghost" tunes such as Meat, Moma Dance, Roggae, Wading In the Velvet Sea, Limb By Limb, Guyute and Birds of a Feather. In all, the band played seven of the fourteen tunes from their new album. Considering the band performed close to 70 tunes during the same period, tunes from "Story of the Ghost" comprised just a small amount of the total songs played. In contrast, older songs that have never made it to a Phish studio album Buffalo Bill, Makisupa Policeman, Buried Alive, Mikes Song, I Am Hydrogen, Weekapaug Groove, Dog Log, Kung, AC-DC Bag (a Gamehendge tune), Possum (another Gamehendge tune), Punch You In The Eye (a quasi Gamehendge tune), Tube, Sanity, Gumbo, Simple and Runaway Jim were also played during these performances. In addition, some new unpublished tunes such as When The Circus Comes, Vultures, Driver, Carini, Dogs Stole Things, Piper and Sleep were played. Perhaps these were some of the twenty-five tunes that were recorded at Bearsville Studios but never made it to the album. In total, Phish played over 20 songs that have never been recorded in a studio. In addition, Phish played 4 tunes from 1998s Junta, 4 from 1990s Lawn Boy, 7 from 1992s Picture of Nectar, 3 from 1993s Rift, 7 from 1994s Hoist and 2 from 1996s Billy Breathes. It seems like Phish was supporting all of its albums more than just "The Story of the Ghost". This fact is even supported further by the amount of cover tunes (19) that the band played.
Even though Phish has recorded nine different albums, played over 1000 concerts and written 200 original tunes, it seems to be their cover songs that really light a spark under the seat of the fans. Over the years, Phish has taken bold stabs into the world of cover tunes. They have played entire albums by the Who, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, the Talking Heads and the Velvet Underground; experimented with modern rock tunes by Nirvana, the Breeders and the Beastie Boys; and jammed out old time classics by Queen, Jimi Hendrix, Edgar Winter and the Frank Zappa. The band is never scared to take a crack at an old or new tune and sometimes the song is performed with precision and other moments it is characterized by spontaneity.
In Albany, Phish brought the house down with six amazing covers. The closed the first set with Led Zeppelins "Good Times, Bad Times". The band has been playing this tune since the late 1980s and it still keeps the crowds thoroughly pumped. This time around, it was Page McConnells vocals on the last stanza that amazed the audience. During the second set, Phish started out by playing the jazz-fusion groups, Deodata, interpretation of Strausss Also Sprach Zarathustra (AKA 2001). A little later, they broke out the Whos Drowned from the album Quadrophenia. This 1973 rock opera was played in its entirety during Phishs 1995 Halloween concert. Later in the second set, the band jammed out of their classic instrumental, You Enjoy Myself, with a version of Janes Addictions "Been Caught Stealin". After playing the Beatles "Something" for its encore, Phish parodied every concert goers' musical request by playing Lynard Skynards "Freebird". This wasnt your ordinary version of the classic, for the band sung the entire song in a cappella. Not just the words, but the instrumentation and soloing as well.
During the first night of the Worcester shows, Phish made a theme out of the evening via playing Jerry Cole and the Spacemens Wipeout. Throughout the course of the second set and encore, Phish revisited the popular 50s surf tune by leading the instrumental in and out of their own songs. The band also showed their knack for spontaneous covers when they briefly jammed into the English Beats Mirror in the Bathroom during the closing guitar solo of Chalkdust Torture. The second evening featured versions of the blues standard Crossroads; Neil Youngs Albuquerque and an incredible rendering of the Rolling Stones Loving Cup.
By the third night, the band really turned it on by playing Weens Roses Are Free. Besides being signed by Elektra Records, Phish and Ween share a special spot in modern rock and roll. They both emphasize their live performances, which are defined by their eclectic repertoires of jazz, country, funk and rock & roll and they have both created a cult like status amongst their fans. It was the seventh time that Phish has played Roses are Free, which was recorded on Weens 1994 album Chocolate and Cheese, and it was an example of Phish tipping their hats to their musical contemporaries.
Of course there are also the tunes that Phish might as well call there own, yet they are still considered covers. Tunes like Funky Bitch, Yamar, My Soul, Hello My Baby, Paul & Silas My Old Home Place and Timber Ho, which Phish regularly plays, were penned by others yet Phish has definitely brought them into their own fold.
The highlight cover tune of all of the shows came during the last Worcester performance. As Phish was closing out the first set, Anastasio invited fellow Vermonter Seth Yacovone out with the band. Yacovone, the youthful guitar prodigy from northern Vermont, took the stage with the confidence of a seasoned touring veteran and led the band into an extremely bluesy Pain and Suffering which not only featured the quick fingers of Yacovone but his powerful vocal as well. One tune wasnt enough for Yacovone and Phish, so they broke out Derek and the Dominoes "Layla". During the early 1970s, Eric Clapton wrote "Layla" which is about the love triangle between Clapton, the Beatles George Harrison and Patti Boyd. There were no love triangles on stage this night, just an incredible duet featuring the trading of guitar solos between Anastasio and Yacovone.
Yacovones presence on the stage was not his first association with Phish for he played at the Clifford Ball in 1996. In a 1998 interview with the Vermont Review, Yacovone spoke of the band: "I am a big Phish fan. They do really well at listening to older music and not trying to create radio friendly music." Although he did an amazing job at composing himself, Yacovones excitement must have been bursting out of his head. Yacovones presence on the stage was another great example of Phish showing respect to their fellow Vermont musicians. In recent years, Vermont musicians such as Heloise Williams, Dave Grippo, Tammy Fletcher, Gordon Stone, James Harvey and even Ben and Jerry have joined Phish on the stage.
In closing, credit must be given to Chris Kuroda, the lighting maestro who has been with the band since 1989. With his masterful use of mineral oil diffused smoke machines and a vast array of lights, Kuroda is often considered the 5th member of the band. He does a lot more than just shine a spotlight on the band; for his sense of rhythm and pulse pushes the music into new directions. Through the light show, a Phish concert is transformed way beyond a listening/dancing event and into a full blown audio-visual experience. It is the combination of sound and vision that makes a Phish concert a full sensory experience that should not be missed.
Regardless of what tune they are playing, who they are sharing the stage with or what the lights are doing, Phish maintains the constant of putting on an amazing performance. In a given show, the music can consist of a full blown rocking tune like Possum or Llama; the exploratory reggae of Makisupa Policeman; and the electric freewheeling jams of Run Like An Antelope and You Enjoy Myself. Phish leaves no musical style untouched and has become the definitive eclectic band. Throughout the course of a performance, the audiences reactions can range from sweaty dance to cerebral confusion and there is a little something for every type of music fan. Since their peak touring years during the early 1990s when they played over 100 shows a year, Phish has reduced their annual performances to approximately 40 shows. With tours in Europe and across the United States, that leaves minimal New England time. Although they are not going anywhere soon, the combination of growing popularity and sporadic touring will create a high demand for the band and subsequently, difficult tickets. So if you are one who is procrastinating to see the band, stop doing so. See these guys while you can.