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The Quartet is actually a Trey

By Benji Knudsen

For years, Vermont’s Phish has strongly defended its stance as being a quartet of equals. With recent albums like Billy Breathes, The Siket Disc and The Story of the Ghost, the quartet emphasized that there was no real front man/leader of the band. The same has been true for the live performances, as they focused on collective, rather than solo, improvisation. The truth is that they have been living in a state of denial - guitarist Trey Anastasio is the undisputed leader of the band. The hints have been there right from the beginning. During their early days, when Phish were a fledgling bar band, it was Anastasio’s mind bending improvisations that sent the crowd’s swooning. It was his songs that he wrote with friends Steve Pollack and Tom Marshall that gave the band it’s initial repertoire. It was his "rock opera", Gamehendge, that elevated Phish from being some noodling Grateful Dead offspring to being the flagbearer of progressive/jazz originality. As the band arose from obscurity to concert record breakers in a short but exciting fifteen years, the band searched to redefine itself. There was an inherent camaraderie amongst the band members and they wanted each member to get an equal share the pie.

Of course, there are no popularity problems for each band member amongst the hard-core Phish fans. When pianist Page McConnell was recently married, there was most likely a large throng of female Phish fans who cried the day away for "cute member" of Phish was no longer on the market. Drummer Jonathan Fishman is the Keith Moon/John Bonham of the band as his off and on stage antics easily win him much appraise. The same applies for the quirkiness of bassist Gordon as his strange dressing style and hair colorings have made him an enrapturing enigma. On top of all that, McConnell, Fishman and Gordon are extremely adept musicians and soloists whose skills require no further propaganda. There playing speaks for itself. The trio has been integral to the Phish jamming experience since the band’s inception, but their songwriting contribution has been of a limited scale. Although McConnell’s playing and singing is a major component of the Phish repertoire, his writing has been constrained to a few instrumentals. Gordon’s "Mikes Song" is an all-time favorite and his bass playing has provided major propulsion for the Phish sound and Fishman’s drumming has unbelievably kept time with the constant Phish tempo changes and his trombone/vacuum playing interludes have been a fan favorite for years. Despite this, Gordon and Fishman have limited contributions in terms of creativity/songwriting - Anastasio has been the undeniable primary creative output.

The media spotlight belongs to Trey Anastasio. He is the one that is revered as a veritable musical god. Recent music events have contributed to this factor. Back in March, he was a featured performer for the Tibet Concert with an eclectic group of musicians including David Byrne and Phillip Glass. The show was far from any noodling fest that Anastasio is known for, and it reflected the avant-garde/compositional side of the guitarist. He is the only guest musician on the latest album, Lettin’ Go (Telarc Jazz), by blues guitarist Son Seals. The liner notes give full credit to Phish, but it is Anastasio who shared the studio time. The album is a fine blues album that features Al Kooper on Hammond B-3 throughout and Anastasio sitting in on "Funky Bitch" – a song that Phish has been playing together for years.

In New Orleans during the final weekend of 2000 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Anastasio comprised 1/3 of the all-star band Oysterhead. Along with Les Claypool of Primus and ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland, Anastasio worked up a slew of originals for this one time concert. The show was primarily a Claypool vehicle as the songs had more of a "Primus feel" than a "Phish feel", but seeing Anastasio enclosed in his little enclave of pedals, drums and instruments, he was the indubitable instrumental superstar of the three. It was most likely Anastasio’s presence on that bill that drove ticket prices for the show up to $2,000 on E-bay. Such a blind faith, frenetic appreciation for Anastasio made Claypool quip during the show: "Who the heck paid $2,000 to get in here? I don't know if it's the brightest thing you've ever done, but I hope you're having a good time." Claypool took a further jab at the fans by saying: "I am going to sell Trey’s dirty underwear for $50." This same blind appreciation for anything Phish that sold out the show also brought the house down with applause. For three people who never played together before, they received the response like it was a Zeppelin reunion tour. They did an excellent job at crafting a set's worth of songs, but to jam out for 20 minutes into uncharted territories, it requires familiarity amongst the players and not simply widespread fan popularity.

All of this Anastasio activity is not to say that the other band members have not been busy too. Both Anastasio and McConnell partook in the memorable Phil & Phriends concerts in San Francisco. These shows finally bridged the gap between the two concert phenomenon – Phish & the Grateful Dead. Although often inaccurately compared musically, these shows finally eliminated any degrees of separation between the two entities. Page McConnell played on Lost and Gone Forever, the latest album by the Massachusetts band, Guster and Gordon and McConnell joined members of the Meters for a benefit album titled Get You A Healin. Gordon is also busy with his other passion, filmmaking and playing bluegrass with legends like Vassar Clements while Fishman returns to the populace by playing in a small bar band, Pork Tornado. Out of the pictures that circulated the Internet this past year, there was one with Page McConnell with Fran Drescher and one with Anastasio and Kid Rock. Who is the biggest rock star? McConnell gets kudos for hanging with the ex-disco dancing nanny but come on, the Kid rocks.

 

The latest indicator of Anastasio taking the lead is the new Phish album, Farmhouse. Most of the tunes were first introduced during Anastasio’s 1999 solo tour. Four of the album’s songs, "Gotta Jiboo", "Sand", "First Tube" and "Heavy Things", were penned along with Russ Lawton and Tony Markellis. These two formed the rhythm section for Anastasio’s tour, which also introduced another Farmhouse tune, the acoustic instrumental "The Inlaw Josey Wales"(featuring a guest appearance by Bela Fleck & Jerry Douglas). Lawton and Markellis were key players in the creation of the songs as they developed from a mental concept into a full-blown, well-crafted song. For some reason, I think that Anastasio is simply giving the two musicians some credit where credit is not necessarily due. This is a something that has been occurring in Phish for years. In The Phish Book, Page McConnell spoke to author Richard Gehr about the incarnation of the song "Simple" and, ultimately, the Phish songwriting process: " Even though we came up with the arrangement together, "Simple" was definitely Mike’s tune in terms of lyrics and melody. Trey sometimes gives us credit for songs he'’ written as much as Mike wrote this one, and we’ve all made contributions to the Marshall/Anastasio songs along the way. But on occasion Trey will generously say ‘Let’s call it a band composition,’ even though I might not have had any more to do with the song than I did with another one. He doesn’t have to do it, but it’s a nice gesture."(The Phish Book, pg. 161) In retrospect, the Trey Anastasio tour loses a bit of credibility. Instead of getting an opportunity to hear the side of Anastasio that we could not see in Phish, we simply saw a series of "rehearsals" as Anastasio was preparing his songs for the Phish repertoire. At least with the other members of the band, their outside efforts reflect their own individuality.

The remaining tunes on Farmhouse were written with Anastasio’s long time friend, Tom Marshall, and none of the remaining Phish members were given any writing credit. Arguably, this unilateral approach to the creation of the album has positive repercussions. In the past, the band has overstepped its capabilities in trying to make a joint effort album. The results were often muddled and not indicative of the true Phish sound. For Farmhouse, there were zero attempts to create a collective album and as a result, for the first time in years, a Phish album actually sounds somewhat like the live Phish experience. This may have to do with the infusion of live audience sounds (a la "Diamond Dogs" or "Bennie and the Jets") on songs like "Piper", but it most likely has to do with Anastasio calling the shots. There were no attempts to make every band member happy, just an attempt to make a well-polished album. One thing that holds true with Farmhouse is that it contains some of the most radio friendly songs recorded since 1994’s Hoist. Songs like "Heavy Things" and "Gotta Jiboo" both have the potential to become tunes that get beaten into your cranium through typical radio station over-rotation. The unsung hero of Farmhouse? It would have to be the closing instrumental "First Tube". The song reveals the long suppressed high energy jamming that was once synonymous with the band. No aimless lackadaisical space funk jams, just upbeat well-directed and complex instrumentation.

As long as the band stays together and their live improvisation and collective sense of entertainment remains integral, most people don’t give a hoot about who is writing the music. The name of Phish’s publishing company is called "Who is She? Music". Maybe is can be called "Who are They? Music". To a fan, the songwriting credit is secondary to the actual sound created. My concern is history. The 1974 Genesis album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was primarily a Peter Gabriel vehicle and ultimately, his swan song with the band. The Velvet Underground’s Loaded was loaded with Lou Reed and after its recording, Lou Reed packed his bags. By the time Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity came around, the Police was Stung. Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut was the final requiem for the long running Rogers Waters/Pink Floyd relationship. History shows that as soon as a band becomes overtly one-sided in terms of songwriting and production, the internal synergy disintegrates. Hopefully history will not repeat itself.

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