Phish has been on tour nearly all summer, and they’re not stopping anytime soon. The hip Vermont-based jam band will continue rocking into autumn as they play the west coast through November. Phish has been going strong since the 1980s, and their cult-like following is only increasing with each new generation of earthy-crunchy, Trader Joe’s-loving neo-hippies. Though the band has never received any type of mainstream airplay, Phish’s dedicated fan base has ensured continuous success, picking up where the Grateful Dead left off (the post-Garcia attempts of Ratdog, Furthur, and Phil Lesh & Friends try as they might, can’t replace their former frontman’s distinctive stage presence). A fusion of psychedelic rock, jazz, funk, and bluegrass, Phish’s wide-ranging sound draws substantial influence from the Dead with lengthy instrumental solos, groovy lyrics, and loyal fans who consider themselves family, or “phamily,” as they follow the band from show to show and often around the country.
Few bands create this type of tight-knit community. Deadheads became a phenomenon in the 1970s as fans made sizable efforts to attend and record as many shows as possible, producing the thousands of concert bootlegs that are floating around today, yet it wasn’t until another twenty to thirty years later that another band generated a similar fandom. In a 2006 Rolling Stone article, Brian Hiatt wrote of Pearl Jam, “They toured incessantly and became one of rock’s great arena acts, attracting a fanatical, Grateful Dead-like cult following.” As a Pearl Jam lover myself, I admit to seeing them six or seven times over the past few years, but that’s nothing compared to the serious fans who boast of the hundreds of shows they’ve attended.
What builds this type of unyielding support? After all, Grateful Dead and Pearl Jam have disparate sounds and reputations. But they do have one thing in common – solid, charismatic lead singers. Jerry Garcia and Eddie Vedder are icons to the psychedelic rock and grunge scenes, respectively, without which their bands would not be the same. Their voices are unique and their personalities carry and shape the bands they front. Similarly, Trey Anastasio, lead guitarist and vocalist for Phish, defines the funky group and brings that extra level of admiration and love that characterizes the band’s image. When I saw Trey Anastasio play a solo show in Philly in 2010, the same amount of enthusiasm circulated through the Electric Factory that would at any full-band Phish show. It’s unfortunate for the other musicians, but groups like Dave Matthews Band, U2, and Nine Inch Nails would not survive if Dave Matthews, Bono, or Trent Reznor decided to resign their posts.
It is the fans who impose this near-cult-of-personality onto singers, idolizing them like gods. Be it the substances, the like-minded people they meet at shows, the resonant music, or the combination of all three, fans become so strong that they form their own sub-cultures. As was the case with the Grateful Dead, and now with Phish, followers have created a community so large that at nearly every show someone from the “family” is present. Ken Kesey, writer and long-time pal of the Grateful Dead, once said, “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” Phish fans are fiercely devoted, and even if the guitar solos get a little sloppy or the lyrics border too acid-dreamy (whose hands and feet actually look like mangoes, even in a metaphorical sense?), Phish heads will defend their band until they’re too tired of exchanging negative energy. They believe the concerts to be more of a religious experience rather than mere events, and many attendees have confirmed that you either get it or you don’t. But it is a curious thing. One wonders what it’s really all about.
Having just released their twelfth studio album, Fuego, Phish has consistently provided audiences with enough flavorful jams to make gluten-free toast for their thousands of admirers. Though I mostly only listened to them when I lived on a large organic farm in western Massachusetts, I still enjoy spinning Billy Breathes and Farmhouse from time to time. Now the question becomes, will you phish this fall? Chill with Trey this Halloween at the MGM Grand in Vegas? Will you get on the bus?
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