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Phish swims against tide

After two decades of groundbreaking music, the band decides to go out on top rather than wait for a long, slow slide. This weekend marks its final shows.

By PHILIP BOOTH
Published August 15, 2004

Phish, in a move as unpredictable as any of the other creative and business decisions made by the world's greatest jam band, has named the time and place of its dissolution: After this weekend's Coventry festival concludes tonight in the band's home state, Vermont, Phish will be finished.

Some fans have been devastated by the news, if the online chatter is any indication. Others, particularly longtime devotees, have reluctantly come to terms with it.

"I know there are people out there who feel frustrated and betrayed, but I am not one of them," Dean Budnick, author of the recently published Jambands: The Complete Guide to the Players, Music and Scene, said recently via e-mail. Budnick, a well-known figure in the jam band movement, founded and edits jambands.com and is a senior editor at Relix magazine.

"Part of what made the Phish experience so vital has been the band's palpable enthusiasm and a sense of adventure," said Budnick, 38. "If the group as a whole doesn't feel it can maintain that, then I agree that they should step away."

The death of Phish marks the end of an era.

Rock, funk and jazz-rooted improvisation have intermingled in Phish's music since the band formed in 1983. The group's success helped spawn an increasingly eclectic jam band scene, with acts as varied as Govt Mule, String Cheese Incident, the Disco Biscuits, Keller Williams, the Derek Trucks Band, and Medeski, Martin and Wood.

But Phish is irreplaceable. Lead singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman accomplish something onstage that few bands have been able to do.

With hundreds of originals and covers at their fingertips, they move from tune to tune with great ease, often veering off into extended improvisations that move from psychedelia to hard rock to bebop to dub reggae to jazz fusion to barbershop vocals.

They don't do it just to be clever. Their sound is the result of musical adventurers traveling far-flung terrain, usually without embarrassing themselves and nearly always with the consent of very generous fans. At least, that's what the band has been about during its peak performances.

I was at Phish's February and August 1993 shows at the Ritz Theatre in Ybor City. The first performance, which featured such favorites as Foam, Fee, Tweezer, You Enjoy Myself and Jimi Hendrix's Bold As Love for the encore, was ear-opening. The second one made me a convert, and I caught other concerts, including the final Tampa area appearance, at the USF Sun Dome in 1995.

I never attended any of the Phish festivals, including the sprawling Big Cypress in South Florida at the end of 1999, the band's final shows in the state. Still, the group has spoiled me - and other phans - for other bands: Few rock acts - Los Lobos is one possible exception - have demonstrated as much creativity and commitment to their art, not to mention Phish's nearly extrasensory musical interplay.

In recent months, Phish activity has accelerated, beginning with a June appearance on David Letterman's show and the release that month of the uneven Undermind, the band's final studio recording. IT: A Phish Concert Special, documenting the band's 2003 festival in Maine, has aired on some PBS stations, and the double-disc DVD of the program is scheduled for release in October. The Coventry festival is sold out (an attendance of about 70,000 is expected), but selected movie theaters around the country, including Regal Citrus Park in Tampa, are offering simulcasts of the concerts, which conclude tonight.

So why is Phish quitting, and why now?

The short answer, according to Anastasio: The band has reached a creative dead end and wants to leave with its reputation intact (as opposed to, say, the way the Rolling Stones keep hanging on). Of the foursome, Gordon has been the most reluctant to split up.

The breakup was announced May 25 on the band's Web site. "We should end it now while it's still on a high note," Anastasio said. "We love and respect Phish and the Phish audience far too much to stand by and allow it to drag on beyond the point of vibrancy and health. . . . We're done."

Budnick thinks the timing is right.

"Part of the Phish journey has been a collective one, a partnership with their fans," he said. "Frankly, for many years it all seemed like a giant inside joke among the group and its faithful. So if the band members can't quite maintain that creative spark and focus, out of respect for their supporters it was time to bring it to a close. I think that people who have been watching and listening to the band for many years have been able to detect a slight waning of that focus. So, all in all, I do think it was a rather courageous move, and it really does show such a great deal of respect for their fans."

Anastasio has scored success with various solo recordings and tours and with Oysterhead, his supertrio with Primus bassist Les Claypool and Police drummer Stewart Copeland. McConnell leads Vida Blue. Sometimes filmmaker Gordon has released a solo disc and worked with Leo Kottke. And Fishman has toured with the Jazz Mandolin Project and Pork Tornado.

So, though Phish will be no more, its members will continue as leaders of other bands and/or collaborating with others.

For phans, and fans, that will have to be consolation enough.

IF YOU GO: The movie theater simulcast of Phish's final show is at 5:30 p.m. today at Regal Citrus Park Cinema, Citrus Park Town Center Mall, Tampa. Tickets are $20 at the box office or online at regalcm.com/phish/.

[Last modified August 12, 2004, 13:27:10]


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