There are a lot of measurements used to rate a band -the number of Top 10 hits, gold and platinum albums, sold-out arena or stadium tours, etc. But what about fan devotion?
The Grateful Dead were known for their mid-60s free concerts in the park (often Golden Gate) as the San Francisco scene was percolating. Just about every other band was focused on making it 'big." The Dead just played. Over their extended career they sold millions of records but more importantly, they created The Deadheads - die-hard fans who followed the group and relished The Dead experience.
If The Dead was just about selling albums they likely wouldn't have made it out of the '60s. What they created was a free-flowing concept where shows mutated from one night to the other. It was more than extended solos. There was a genuine sense of magic- and if you missed a show it could be your loss.
Not many bands have tried to replicate The Dead's "long strange trip" but the most successful (in terms of fan passion) was Phish.
Phish formed at the University of Vermont in '83. But for their first gig, which fell on Halloween (concerts on that day later became a tradition) in the ROTC building's basement, they called themselves Blackwood Convention. At their second show a few days later, also in a basement, only this time it was in UVM's Slade Hall, they were Phish and posed as a Grateful Dead covers band.
In '88, Phish released their debut album "Junta." A bit later, the owners of a Boston club refused to book the band because they were "unknowns", so Phish rented the club for the night. A caravan of hometown fans traveled to see the band. As a result, the venue was sold out - a foretelling of things to come.
Signed by Elektra Records in '91, Phish's major label debut, "A Picture Of Nectar" landed the next year as the band became a headliner. They soon became regarded as a premier jam band. While countless bands play the same songs, the same way and in the same order every night, no two Phish concerts were identical - either in terms of the set list or how the songs were performed. Also, many bands got locked into a genre while Phish melded styles - Country, Rock, Reggae and Jazz, to name a few.
In addition to the expected studio-recorded albums and "traditional" live albums, Phish also issued a series of complete concerts, "Phish Live." Of their albums, "Junta" and "A Live One" reached platinum (one million units sold) while "Lawn Boy," "A Picture Of Nectar," "Rift," "Hoist," "Billy Breathless" "Slip Stitch And Pass," "Hampton Comes Alive" (nice pun on the notorious Peter Frampton set) and "Farmhouse" went gold.
The sales figures were impressive, over 8 million albums and DVDs sold in the United States, but where Phish really excelled was building one of the most loyal and dedicated audiences since the Grateful Dead. Tent cities sprang up at Phish outdoor concerts. Bad weather, impassable roads (for cars) or no available parking couldn't deter a Phish fan from their destination. Fans also traded concert tapes and experiences as part of a community that social media managers could only dream about.
In an attempt to avoid burn-out, Phish went a two-year hiatus in '00. During the downtime members busied themselves with solo projects. People who expected a "rested" Phish to return to a full schedule were disappointed when their '02 return was followed only by sporadic activity. After a couple years, Trey Anastasio announced on the band's website that the Phish was breaking up after a small '04 summer tour. The band did a "victory lap" and fans gave them a great send off with over 100,000 showing up for the final farewell concert in Vermont.
Funny thing. Playing countless concerts each year is exhausting. And when it stops there's a tendency to miss it. And side projects are just that. They're a great creative outlet but there comes a time when a musician needs to get into a groove with fellow musicians who have shared experiences, tastes and expectations. When it's gone, it leaves a big hole.
So it was hardly surprising that Phish, after playing at a former tour manager's wedding in '08, announced three reunion shows - which were followed by a tour.
With Steve Lillywhite (U2) producing, Phish recorded their '09 album "Joy," containing "Time Turns Elastic." It seems to - especially for Phish... and their fans.
And musicians are often also fans. Anastasio, a Genesis aficionado, inducted the group into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010. Phish performed two Genesis songs, "Watcher Of The Skies" and "No Reply At All."
Several months after Phish completed 29 show tour they unfurled the live release "Alpine Valley 2010," which was where and when the CD/DVD package was recorded.
Sourcing past performances, Phish issued "Hampton/Winston-Salem '97," a box set containing 3 shows presented in their entirety. The '11 release also had never-before-heard material from soundchecks at both venues.
Phish headlined Bonnaroo 2012 with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Radiohead. Following a summer tour, Anastasio, who had a solo career dating back to the late '90s, issued his ninth album, "Traveler." Recorded in Bridgeport, CT, the set contained performances by the Trey Anastasio Band, The National's drummer Bryan Devendorf and vocalist Matt Berninger and Bon Iver.
Phish celebrated their 30th anniversary in '13 by playing favored venues. Next, they rolled out "Fuego," the group's first studio effort since '09's "Joy." It was produced by Rock legend Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, KISS, Pink Floyd).
1987 The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday
1990 Lawn Boy
1992 A Picture Of Nectar
1996 Billy Breathes
1998 The Story Of The Ghost
1999 The Siket Disc
2002 Round Room
Official Live Albums:
1995 A Live One
1997 Slip Stitch And Pass
1999 Hampton Comes Alive
2005 New Year's Eve 1995 - Live at Madison Square Garden
2006 Live In Brooklyn
2006 Colorado '88
2007 Vegas '96
2008 At The Roxy
2011 Alpine Valley 2010
2011 Hampton/Winston-Salem '97
2001 - 2003 Live Phish Volumes 1 - 20
2004 - 2005 Live Phish (various dates)
Many Jazz labels in the '50's and 60's were fond of putting alternate takes on albums. Jazz lends itself to improvisation and many of the best Jazz albums were recorded in small, dank clubs - with good acoustics. So if the 6:42 version of "Take The 'A' Train" didn't do it for you, then perhaps the 7:02 take from the following evening would. Actually, one version might be superior but the alternate had a killer piano solo - a definitive performance. It's much the same experience listening to the voluminous Phish catalog.
"Billy Breathless," containing the uptempo "Character Zero" is the best studio album. But many would argue that Phish is far better in front of an audience, Though "A Live One" sold more copies, "Slip Stitch And Pass," their second live album, is better.
Trey Anastasio Studio Albums:
1998 One Man's Trash
2000 Trampled By Lambs And Pecked By The Dove (with Tom Marshall)
2002 Trey Anastasio
2004 Seis De Mayo
2006 Bar 17
2007 The Horseshoe Curve
2009 Time Turns Elastic
2008 Original Boardwalk Style
2010 TAB At The TAB