The Case Against Phish: Why A Once-Great Band Should Have Stayed Dead

Dylan Stableford | May 29, 2009 4:00 pm

In 2005, at the height of Coldplay’s popularity, The New York Times published a scathing essay by Jon Pareles. “The Case Against Coldplay” argued that the self-pity of the Chris Martin-fronted band was calculated, and that its grandiose sound was built to prey on an unsuspecting populace. On the eve of Phish’s first summer tour in years, kicking off with a show at Fenway Park in Boston, Dylan Stableford offers a similar argument. Four years after playing what they said would be their last show in a muddy field in northern Vermont, Phish made their triumphant return in March, playing three sold-out nights at the Hampton Coliseum, a spaceship-like arena in Hampton, Virginia.By nearly all accounts, it was a joyous, cerebral, downright cathartic reunion for a band that had seemingly imploded under its own Dead-like weight—and for its rabid fans that spent four years musically destitute, with nothing to blindly follow. Everyone, it seemed, missed Phish—everyone except me. I loved Phish. One could even say I had a borderline unhealthy obsession with the band throughout high school and college in the ’90s, attending somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 Phish concerts (including an entire tour in the summer of ’96) and keeping my large collection of live recordings in heavy rotation when I wasn’t “on the road.” The band was a gateway drug through which I became addicted to music. Their selection of covers and, more often, their selection of house music in between sets led me to the heavier stuff—Zeppelin, Hendrix, Miles Davis, James Brown, Talking Heads—as well as designer aural narcotics—Medeski Martin & Wood, Pavement, Primus, Sun Ra, Tom Waits, Ween. In interviews, the band has said that its downward spiral began shortly after Big Cypress, their weekend-long, millennium-eve festival that took place at Big Cypress Indian Reservation in the Florida Everglades. That show ended with an eight-hour set that spanned New Year’s Eve 1999 and New Year’s Day 2000. For me, though, Phish actually peaked much earlier: In the fall of 1997, on a tour in which set lists were shortened so seemingly every song they played could veer into long, spooky, funky, unchartered territory—a sound not far removed from Headhunters-era Herbie Hancock, or James Brown’s Live At The Apollo. This isn’t to say that other peak moments didn’t happen in the ensuing years: If Phish only played remote, abandoned Air Force bases for the rest of their career like they did during the 2003 It Festival–set at the Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine–the world would be a better place. “We were lost for a couple years,” Anastasio said in a PBS documentary about that Maine show. Jon Fishman, the drummer, added: “Are we just gonna coast along, make a living and be this thing people follow around? If we’re gonna go forward, there has to be a renewal of purity of purpose.” And you’d be hard-pressed to find a band with purer intentions. Anastasio told The New York Times recently, “For people in hard times, we can play long shows of pure physical pleasure… They come to dance and forget their troubles. It’s like a service commitment.” (Don’t expect Phish to truly stimulate the economy until the drug laws change, though; Hampton police arrested 194 people and seized narcotics with a total street value of $1.2 million over the course of Phish’s three shows there.) But Anastasio’s addiction to heroin and painkillers accelerated the band’s decline. (The band’s “last” show, a 2004 concert in Coventry, Vt., was the Seinfeld finale of rock concerts: sloppy, forced egregiously unsatisfying.) And it led, ultimately, to his eventual arrest for DWI and drug possession in 2006. (Anastasio said he told the arresting officer “thank you.”) Anastasio’s rehabilitation and subsequent return to playing music is inspiring—particularly when you consider what happened his spiritual forefather, Jerry Garcia. And in 2003, Anastasio told PBS: “If we are going to be able to kickstart this group, something’s gotta change.” The problem is, not much has changed since 2003—except, perhaps, that Phish got a Twitter account. The March shows in Hampton were a hodgepodge of greatest hits, with only three new songs out of the 85 making up the set lists and very little pushing, or even leaning against, the envelope. And you can hear those problems in the band’s newest studio release, which is now for sale on iTunes. “Time Turns Elastic” is a 13-minute mini-rock opera filled with every bad Phish cliché imaginable: odd time signatures and rhythm changes, whimsical lyrics cribbed from a Sierra Club calendar, progressive noodling. (It sounds as if Anastasio has been listening to a lot of Zappa in rehab. Or the Disco Biscuits.) One of my favorite Phish concerts of the ’90s wasn’t a Phish concert at all—it was a one-off show by Anastasio at the Denny’s-turned-rock club Higher Ground under the name “8 Foot Florescent Tubes.” He threw down a set of ’80s-inspired dance-rock replete with synchronized dancers, keyboard loops, lo-fi props and costume changes—nearly a decade before American Apparel and Williamsburg made Day-Glo-mining cool. Inspired, unexpected, awesome. If only Phish had reinvented itself this time around. Maybe as a punk band, or a pop band, or techno or jazz or country or bluegrass or death metal (hey, Mike Gordon already wears the cutoff t-shirts). Maybe even—gasp—with a different name. Perhaps something else people are allergic to, like “Knuts.”