Friday, May 03, 2002


I thought a natural way for approaching Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio's self-titled solo album was to write about it along with one of the band’s similarly phresh multidisc live sets. I e-mailed a friend at the label for Trey and the band. The friend said I could be serviced with the Trey disc, which I received promptly.

But, the note continued, “Unfortunately, we do not send out the Phish live packages as they are quite costly and consists of a number of discs.” Okay, I thought they were single discs, like the nutty live Pearl Jam scheme of a few years ago, something like 26 simultaneous live shows released. Most of these Phish live sets are, in fact, 3-disc affairs, but some are two-disc sets that retail for $20 on the official Phish Web site. I was annoyed enough to recall the notion that “friend at a record company” is an oxymoron. But I’ve known and liked this person for 30 years, so I thought more about it.

It’s really about the harsh budgetary realities that have stricken her industry as well as mine, the newspaper/magazine publishing business. And it seems that both of our industries are stuck in business models that in good times work well, but in bad times reveal their obsolescence.

The record business model is stuck in the 1950’s. Or perhaps the 1350’s. The labels are fiefdoms, the artists serfs who toil on their lordship's land. They send hundreds of serfs into the fields without real regard to their ability to do the job they are supposed to do. (This, in the parlance of A&R philosophy, is “throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks.”) The palace does not provide the proper tools to promising workers: This old-fashioned notion, known as “artist development,” went out the door with the first round of musically savvy moguls who got too rich too care, or were unceremoniously defenestrated by the short-sighted Young Turks who took their place.

Phish has flourished in this Medieval atmosphere by playing the court jester, witty truth-tellers that could give wise kings not just belly laughs but insight. And while the princes of commerce laughed, Phish strolled off in broad daylight, taking their tools (guitars, drums, microphones, amplifiers) and wandering the countryside entertaining fellow serfs, bridging some of the distance between their positions in the court of culture and those who would pay a farthing or shilling to be amused. They left the palace, and after a few years they were playing The Palace. And then the Gardens, and the Forums, and then The Colosseum’s.

At this point, it doesn’t matter much or not whether the royal accounts at AOL-Time Warner are satisfied with Phish’s record sales: The Phish economy is based largely on touring revenue, with “dry goods” such as CD's sold online, t-shirts, stickers, baseball caps and other memorabilia ensuring a fine profit margin as well. When I read recently about Page McConnell selling out a show at Manhattan’s Roseland Ballroom without any advertising or promotion, my reaction may have been, “Who is Page McConnell” had I not been casting my line in the Phish pond lately.

For all that, “Trey Anastasio” may be more “commercial” than any of the (few) studio recordings I’ve heard by Phish. “Alive Again,” the disc opener, is particularly persuasive, with percolating percussion and a steady blast of latin horns riding bareback on Trey’s dancing guitar lines. “Cayman Review” continues the Caribbean bounce, a little like mid-period Steely Dan without the cynicism. “Push On to the Day” is inspirational Phish-hop with a Bob Weir bridge and the continuing cornucopia of horns. “Drifting” never reaches beyond its slick surface, but “At The Gazebo,” in which Trey is backed by a string and wood ensemble, is a worthwhile stretch. The lengthy (11:22) “Last Tube” opens pleasantly but its repetitiveness over such a stretch of time seems one of Anastasia's few moments of excessive self-indulgence. “Mr. Completely” is completely fine, a tip of the hat to the Beatles’ circa or just pre-”Revolver,” and it’s title sums up what Trey accomplishes in this set of fine playing and playful songwriting.

I was still hungry to hear the Phish kept its drive alive for nearly 20 years (formed in Vermont, the band is now on ‘hiatus’), compare some of their live work to Trey’s accomplished studio adventure. Not willing to pay industry-standard prices to experiment with the unfamiliar, I did what any sensible music lover does, and went to the medium upon which Phish Nation was built: The Internet.
There are hundreds of Phish tracks available at any given time on peer-to-peer sharing endeavors like Gnutella and LimeWire. I limited myself only to tunes that Phish has covered by other artists. That’s no limitation at all, since Phish revels in being the ultimate bar band.
What I downloaded stunned me with the range of their enthusiasms and the almost random joy of venturing into the mouth of the music business monster--as long as it was other people’s material. A jokey “Smoke On the Water” allows them to indulge in some snide but funny rock criticism: (“ “ ‘Smoke On the Water’ and ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ are the same fuckin’ song,’ they say between riffs, before breaking into the Stones’ “Miss You” for a fade. “Ooh Child” shows affection for its (Five Stairsteps, early ‘70s soul) source. Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealin’ ‘’ perfectly captures the ambiguity of Perry Farrell’s careening careerism, unsure of whether he’s moving forward or sliding backwards.
They do “Gin and Juice” (Snoop Doggy Dogg) and Bob Marley’s “Trenchtown Rock” with equal élan.
And, of course, there are the voluminous covers of Grateful Dead tunes. Phish is so secure of its own place that it fears not the comparisons to the band that gave it both an esthetic (improvise everything) and business (build a core and tour and more) model.
The earliest Phish I found online was from the at least semi-official Web site, Momadance..
The mission: "To fill the void during the hiatus, we will be posting some gems of days gone by. If you are in possession of a rare or classic show and would like to share it with the world, write us with the details."

That early tune, the Dead’s “Eyes of the World,” is from a gig at a Burlington, Vt. club in 1984, said to be from “the earliest circulating tape.” It’s not all bad: Trey is already an accomplished guitarist, a Garcia acolyte, of course. But the playing is extremely tentative; you can almost feel the stage fright. By 1990, in Ft. Collins, Colorado, they’ve got their confidence up. I was hoping “AC/DC Bag” would be a medley of AC/DC tunes; it wasn’t, but neither was it a false advertisement, since the set ends with “Highway To Hell,” played with neither sneer nor snicker.
Playing music, any music, is a joy for Phish in a very real, deep, and palpable way. That’s why Phish’s appeal can cut across generations: The joy is contagious. My online Phish epiphany was complete when I came across a download of “Terrapin Station,” one of the Dead’s signature tunes. Supposedly recorded August 9, 1998 (information on peer-to-peer sharing mechanisms is often inaccurate), this wasn’t just a version of the song: It got inside the song, its spirit, its majesty, its mystery. It made me smile, and smile, until tears rolled down my cheeks.

(c) 2002 Wayne Robins. All rights reserved. Comments? e-mail

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