Go Phish

On Dec. 31, Phish, the shaggy-haired, endearingly dorky quartet from Burlington, Vt., will return to the stage after a two-year hiatus. Phish will play the New Year's Eve show at New York's Madison Square Garden, and then will set up shop in Hampton, Va., for Jan. 2, 3, and 4. All four shows sold out as quickly as ticket orders could be processed, and seats have been selling online for thousands of dollars each.

Most of the rock intelligentsia--the hardcore music geeks in their 20s and 30s (like me) who parlayed their obsessive love of The Smiths and Minor Threat into a career writing about music made and marketed for teenagers--will raise their formerly pierced noses at Phish's return to the scene. This is, after all, a band whose fan base is described (not totally inaccurately) as being "trustafarians"--white trust-fund babies who affect dreadlocks and tattoo their Saabs with GOT POT? bumper stickers. Phish? They're the guys whose elfish drummer wears a dress and sucks on vacuum cleaners.

That quick and easy categorization is unfortunate. Phish is one of the most restlessly creative rock bands working today, more reminiscent of the jazzy explorations of the late, great Frank Zappa than the roots- and blues-oriented Grateful Dead, the band to which Phish is most often compared. Like Zappa, Phish delights in razor's-edge tightness and child's-play whimsy. Like Zappa, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio can be beautiful and pyrotechnic, sometimes within one 30-second period. And like Zappa, Phish's nonsensical lyrics and sophomoric subject matter keeps the band from truly breaking out in to the mainstream.

Four recently released CD sets nicely illustrate Phish's talents. The sets, each containing four discs, are live recordings ($26 each, or $99 for the all 16 discs, on phish.com) from Halloween night '94, '95, '96 and '98. On Halloween, Phish dresses up in a musical "costume" by covering another band's album in its entirety; the four featured here are The Beatles's "White Album," The Who's "Quadrophenia," The Velvet Underground's "Loaded" and Talking Heads' "Remain in Light." (Each set contains between two and three hours of original music as well.) Each volume of the burgeoning "Live Phish" collection has its highlights. The band's treatment of the Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll" shows Phish can rock as hard as they want and while "The White Album" gets strangely perfunctory treatment, it's still a trip to hear the band riff on "Piggies," to say nothing of "Revolution No. 9."

But it's the band's tribute to "Remain in Light" that best captures Phish's peculiar genius. When "Remain in Light" came out in 1980, it represented the final step in the Talking Heads' assimilation of dense African polyrhythms; the opening track, "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)," married David Byrne's increasingly neurotic and alienated lyrics to herky-jerky guitar and a jarring carpet of drumming. Phish, a band famous for 20-minute explorations of songs with absurd lyrics like "Golgi oh woe is me, you can't even see the sea," dives headfirst into the Heads' paranoid masterpiece; Anastasio's scrunching guitar work is brilliantly dense, and the glee the band takes in unpacking the layers of lyrics ("the heat goes on ... and the heat goes on") is impossibly infectious.

The first time I heard this version, I broke into a huge grin; this is what musicmaking should sound like. "Crosseyed and Painless" highlights drummer Jon Fishman's and bassist Mike Gordon's rhythmic acuity, and "The Great Curve," complete with horn section, actually speeds up the original's already frenetic pacing, proving Phish is as good a trance band--160 beats per minute, anyone?--as they are a jam band. This opening trio of songs is so tight and so much fun that when it's time for the album's one hit, "Once in a Lifetime," it feels more like a much-needed easing up rather than a climax.

Later in that 1996 concert, Phish played a wonderfully soaring 15-minute version of its original "Simple," a song built on a repeating guitar line and working off a gleefully existential theme. "We've got it simple," Phish sings in unison, "cause we've got a band, and we've got cymbals in the band." Phish does have it thankfully simple--they do what they love, and they do it with headfirst abandon.

But there are stretches of these Halloween shows that are tedious, and the last Phish show I went to almost drove me to tears. The pot-drenched teens, eyes scrunched tight and fingers in the air, are not the people with whom I want to spend my nights, and for every transcendent melodic exploration there was another seemingly pointless breaking down of this or that chestnut like "You Enjoy Myself."

I suspect that's why Phish, a band whose fans rabidly follow it from city to city, took the first two years of the new millennium off--they wanted a chance to decompress from the pressure of having 20,000 blissed-out neohippies hanging on their every note. More than anything else, Phish is four guys who are great at doing what they love. The "Remain in Light" set shows that, and also illustrated how the band can free themselves from the expectations of their fans. (The Dead, after all, fell prey to needing to play the same rotation of songs until the end of time, and it more or less stopped their creative exploration in their later years.)

Phish's return to active touring life will occasion its share of press, a lot of it tongue-in-cheek, a lot of it of the "look at those crazy kids" variety. If you've been turned off by the band's image, or by the dippy Phishhead always trying to turn you on to his dog-eared bootleg of some 1991 show from the Somerville Theatre, give yourself a chance to check them out anew. Spend 25 bucks on the "Remain in Light" set, "Live Phish, Volume 15." You may end up asking yourself: well, how did I get here?