Phish fans — or, if you prefer, phans — were abuzz at the inaugural Rothbury Festival in western Michigan during July of 2008.
Three members of the band — guitarist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon “Fish” Fishman — were playing during the weekend with separate projects. The group had been apart since announcing a breakup in the spring of 2004, but the members had appeared as guests on each others’ albums, so the idea of the three playing together seemed like a real possibility.
And it happened. Gordon joined Anastasio during his
closing-day set, and the guitarist returned the favor a few minutes later with Gordon's band. But the real treat came when Fishman hopped on the drum kit for a version of the Beatles’ “She Said, She Said,” sending the Phishheads in the field into a state of dancing delirium.
Phish wasn't entirely back — keyboardist Page McConnell wasn’t there, after all — but it was certainly a precursor to the reunion that started earlier this year in Hampton, Va., and has continued with a new album, “Joy,” and live performances throughout the year.
“We had been talking about (a reunion) by that point, anyway,” Gordon, 44, says of the Rothbury performances. “That was just sort of a landmark where everyone was getting along great, so we figured we might as well play together.
“The fact that I went and did my own thing, put my own band together, and all the (Phish) members did their stuff to grow as individuals made it more possible to come together as a group in a healthy way, which is what was most important to us.”
Formed in 1983 in Burlington, Vt., Phish quickly built a following in the so-called “jam band” community with its heavily improvised shows and a musical approach that blended a variety of genres, including various forms of rock, jazz, R&B, reggae and even country and bluegrass. It wasn't an easy fit for radio play, but Phish followed the model of forebears such as the Grateful Dead with a grass roots outreach and plenty of touring that built a substantial following, allowing it to headline major festivals and arenas and selling eight million albums and DVDs over the years.
It also began a Halloween tradition of covering another band's entire album — this year Phish played the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” in Indio, Calif. — as well as regular New Year's Eve spectacles. And its own series of outdoor festivals such as the Clifford Ball, the Great Went and a millennium celebration in the Florida Everglades drew tens of thousands.
Ben & Jerry’s even named an ice cream flavor, Phish Food, after the group.
“They always bring their A-game,” notes Dave Schools of Phish contemporaries Widespread Panic. “They're always striving for something different. They used the opportunities at hand, and they definitely had a plan. They designed themselves to be huge, and they pulled it off with remarkable grace and aplomb.”
Gordon, meanwhile, contends the growth was organic. “We didn't know what we needed to get bigger or anything,” he says, “but we knew we were on this path where we felt like pioneers just trying to do this music and make it unique and as credible as possible. Nothing else was going to get in the way of that.”
The path wasn't always smooth. Anastasio, 45, who’s the band’s chief songwriter and guiding force, acknowledges that around the time of the 1996 album “Billy Breathes” “we had just about had it on every level. There was arguing, and there were minor threats of, ‘That's it! I'm outta here! I'm done with it!’”
Phish did go on hiatus between 2000-2002, which allowed the four musicians to explore opportunities outside the band.
But even though it released a pair of new studio albums and toured subsequently, Gordon says there was clearly a need for them to spend more time apart.
“We had been doing the same thing since we were 18 years old,” the bassist explains. “We could have called this another hiatus, but I think we all had to really think Phish was over, that the thing we had leaned on, that was the center of our identities, was gone in order to get our adrenalin flowing in different ways.”
McConnell, 46, adds that Phish “took up so much of our lives, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. It was an amazing experience but all-consuming at the same time. If it hadn’t ended when it did, we wouldn't be talking about my record (2007’s ‘Page McConnell’), which I spent a year and a half making, or anything the other guys are doing.”
Phish reunion talks intensified after Rothbury, according to Gordon, including recording plans for “Joy,” which debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard 200 chart in September and features eight songs written by Anastasio and one each by Gordon and McConnell. The group toured during the summer, jamming with Bruce Springsteen at the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, and kicks off a winter tour this week at Detroit's Cobo Arena.
“Phish is just so easy to put in the work and the practice and then just sort of jump on the wave and ride it out,” Gordon says. “Phish is already successful; the work has already been done. If anything feels weird about getting back to Phish is that I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of my own path. With (Phish) the wave is already there.”
The new Phish world order, Gordon says, allows the band to coexist with the members’ outside projects. The bassist — whose first proper solo album, “Green Sparrow,” came out in 2008 — hopes “to write three albums worth of stuff” for 2010, and he says Anastasio, McConnell and Fishman are also working on their own music.
“There’s just a lot of potential to be tapped into and discovered — for all of us,” Gordon says. “We have that pioneer feeling about the music again, but it's not just for the band. And I think that’s necessary so that when we are Phish there’s a lot of adrenalin and a lot of energy and excitement, too. It’s the best of all possible worlds, I think.”
Phish performs at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (Nov. 18) at Cobo Arena, 301 Civic Center Drive, Detroit. Tickets are $50. Call (313) 471-6611 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.
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