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Few groups have taken more critical abuse in recent years than Phish, if not in the form of outright animosity from hipsterdom-at-large, than in the guise of backhanded bemusement on the part of the mainstream media, ready to dismiss the band as nothing more than a curious replay of Sixties nostalgia. This was best summarized by ABC News's Peter Jennings, who upon woozily entering his 23rd straight hour on the air New Year's Eve, introduced the band thus: "If you don't know Phish, think Grateful Dead, at least in terms of their dedicated followers." But the four performers that ABC cameras then cut to, playing onstage in the Florida Everglades before an encampment of 80,000, looked more like refugees from their high school A/V club than countercultural pioneers.
Indeed the Grateful Dead, Jr., tag is an unfair one -- for the Dead as well as for Phish -- and a comparison based solely on a snapshot of the two group's similarly neohippie attired, VW bus traveling, set-list quoting fan base. Even a brief listen to Phish's actual music, though, reveals a gaping aesthetic chasm between the two outfits. For one thing it's hard to imagine the Dead everlaunching into a barbershop quartet number. One of Phish's crowd-pleasing encore moves, it's the epitome of bourgeois whiteness, and the very thing from which the Dead were hell-bent on fleeing. But then Phish is a band that has never shied away from its middle-class suburban roots, which may help explain both the current size of its mass following, and why so many of the devoted (springing from the same social strata) chose to travel from all across America to spend four days in a swamp for their millennium celebration.
Guitarist/singer Trey Anastasio, drummer Jon Fishman, bassist/singer Mike Gordon, and keyboardist Page McConnell are musicians who came of age at the cusp of the Eighties within the liberal-arts college milieu of Burlington, Vermont, never feeling quite at home in any of the then-existing countercultures: punk, New Wave, jazz, or hippie revivalism. So they nipped pieces from each, carving out a "counter" counterculture, in the process creating a new audience in their own image. In the beginning this musical goulash often ended in a tedious rehash of Seventies prog-rock. The past few years, however, have seen a welcome shift toward Neville Brothers-styled mellow boogies and sprawling Krautrock jams (minus the Germanic angst) that rarely lose sight of their groove; crisp harmonics dominate, though wrapped in a dreamy gauze.
For those curious but unwilling to shell out the $60 for Phish's latest release, Hampton Comes Alive, a six-CD set that captures the band live in its entirety (warts and all) across two nights in Hampton, Virginia, last November, consider the more economical single disc Slip, Stitch, and Pass.Containing the highlights of an intimate 1997 club gig from Germany, Slipopens with an invitingly gooey take on the Talking Heads' "Cities," sliding into Phish's own "Wolfman's Brother," a tune that recalls peak-era Little Feat as Anastasio's liquid guitar work melts over the rhythm section's satisfying in-the-pocket crunch.
Still, even the band members themselves concede music is only part of their appeal. "It's a cult phenomenon, and it's a pretty coolcult phenomenon," explains Phish's Mike Gordon in an interview prior to the New Year's Eve concert. That may be the best way to approach Phish's runaway success: a $13 million gross for the group's millennium shindig, on top of the more than $90 million grossed over the last three years of incessant touring. Not bad for a band that has yet to have a radio hit, or even place a video into rotation on MTV. "The great thing about this band is that we value musical adventure as opposed to performance or an idle mentality," Gordon adds. "If we're having an experience, then the fans are having an experience withus. We're not playing atthem. There's a feeling we're all in it together."
Driving into the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation off I-75, the site for Phish's four- day blowout, the radio displays the disparate source elements feeding into the band's music, as well as the sense of humor tying them together. Located at 91.7 FM is Thin Air Radio, Phish's own pirate station broadcasting live from an on-site trailer. On Thursday afternoon, prior to the first of five sets Phish will play over the next two days (including a New Year's Eve midnight to sunrise set), DJs Pistol Stamen and Mr. Sparkle (a nod to a particularly bizarre Simpsonsepisode) flow through a wonderfully diverse mix. Music ranges from altrockers Sonic Youth and Mercury Rev, to rap standards from Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys, to vintage chestnuts from the Kinks and the Rolling Stones circa Exile on Main Street.Located in the heart of the Everglades' newest city, operating in the conscious shadow of Woodstocks '69 and '99, the DJs manage to maintain a black sense of humor about it all, a tone dramatized by Stamen's continual playing of sound bites from Gimme Shelter,the documentary of the notorious 1969 Altamont concert. Originally conceived as a replay of Woodstock's utopian peace-and-flowers vibe, Altamont ended as more of a symbolic denouement to that era, with Hell's Angels bikers (acting as stage "security") setting upon bewildered flower children with pool cues, eventually stabbing one concertgoer to death. Stamen repeatedly loops Altamont's headliner Mick Jagger halting the Stones midsong to deliver an effete, ineffectual plea to the crowd: "People please, who's fighting and what for?" It's clear that at least within the Phish organization itself, there are few doe-eyed illusions about either the New Year's concert or the Sixties legacy Phish labors under in the media. One might even take such an attitude to be downright ghoulish, or simply, a healthy response to a surreal situation, the coolcomponent of a cool cult phenomenon.