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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Reunited and it pheels so good: Phish is back!

By Will Chilton

Last month I received an e-mail confirming something I have dreaded since the early morning of Aug. 16, 2004. The Vermont-based jam band Phish had announced their reunion tour. The wee hours of that day marked the end of Phish’s two-day Coventry festival, the last stop on their farewell tour. Along with 80,000 others, my father and I tolerated a farcical amount of hardship to attend this concert, hell-bent on witnessing what was relentlessly plugged as Phish’s epic last stand.

The week prior to the event, heavy rains flooded the festival grounds in northern Vermont, so badly that it became impossible for the venue to accommodate all of the fans’ cars and tents. A horrific traffic jam resulted, and, along with 30 miles of our concert companions, my father and I spent the night in our car on the rural Vermont highway. By the morning, it was clear that cars were not getting us to the event. Rather than accepting defeat, thousands of irritable fans ditched their vehicles, gathered as much camping gear and booze as they could carry, and began walking several miles to Coventry. My father and I joined the leagues of first-world refugees, embarking on the “headiest” Hajj in history.

It took me awhile to admit to myself that as far as Coventry went, the ends did not justify the means. Phish frontman Trey Anastasio was too blatantly inebriated to play cohesive psychedelic rock, and despite an overwhelming adolescent devotion for my favorite band, after several days of poor sleep, malnourishment, deplorable hygiene, wading through fields of mud, and breathing nothing but secondhand pot smoke, I had become wholeheartedly attached to the notion that Phish would never play again. Thus I became irate at the announcement of a reunion less than five years after Phish’s “pharewell.”

Since Coventry, I have prayed that my ability to resist this stigmatized band would never again be tested. Admittedly, the crux of this agony stems from the fact that I actually assessed whether or not I could feasibly attend the reunion.
This poses the obvious question: What is it about Phish is so compelling that people will readily shirk their duties and surrender their trust funds to attend a Phish show?

The short answer is, they play an exemplary concert.

Phish holds the traditional rock arrangement of four talented musicians: guitarist Trey Anastasio, drummer Jon Fishman, bassist Mike Gordon and keyboardist Page McConnell. What sets them apart from other groups is that their most fundamental element lies in band dynamics, rather than song writing. Thus, if any member dies, or decides to quit, the band is done. No one is dispensable and no one will be replaced.

Since the early 1990s, Phish has played exclusively in major arenas and amphitheaters. If the entire tour doesn’t sell out completely, each show is heavily attended. Phish never tours with an opening act. Instead, their basic show consists of three hours of music, divided into two sets with an intermission, all under a stunning light show.

If you see three consecutive Phish shows, you will not hear a single song repeated. Their song inventory is vast, and they don’t prioritize their singles. They take the stage uncommitted to play anything in particular, and will routinely improvise off a chosen song, jamming for extended lengths of time. This spontaneous nature of the concert sparks higher energy music and gives each show its own vibrant characteristics. In terms of music, no one ever knows quite what to expect from a Phish concert. As a result, many Phish fans will relentlessly follow the band to each stop of their tour, hoping to witness the band’s most exceptional moments.

Phish’s cult following conforms to the psychedelic stigma of tie-dye clothing and gateway drugs. The “phans” themselves are a delightful, though not particularly inspiring bunch of hippies, frat-boys, geeks, and burnouts, or pretty much anyone who grew up in the affluent suburbs of Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Many fans subsidize the expenses of unofficially accompanying Phish on tour through mercantile operations in this casual marketplace. Prior to each concert, the fans congregate in the venue parking lots to barter and trade a wide variety of goods including, but not limited to, burritos, beer, cigarettes, hemp jewelry, niche-specific t-shirts, colorful glass pipes, Jell-O shots, granola bars, hallucinogens, bootleg CDs, glow sticks, cannabis-laced pastries, and of course, Phish tickets. The fans are generally friendly, and always up to talk about music and socialize. After all, they are profoundly committed to searching for a good time.

Between the dynamic music and colorful entourage, one might wonder why Phish decided to discontinue their career, especially as they remained amongst the nation’s top grossing acts at the time of their breakup. The answer is as simple as it is predictable: drugs. According to the band, after 1998, their scene became too heavily saturated with hard drugs for them to control. From then on, Phish tried everything to balance their drug-induced careers with their personal lives and families.

By 2004, after 21 years of touring, Anastasio decided that he could no longer manage both, and he called the band off permanently. In Dec. 2006, he was arrested for DUI and the possession of pharmaceutical pills prescribed to someone else. He also had a bag of what he claimed to be hashish, which drug analysis later revealed to be heroin.

Anastasio spent over a year on heavy probation, as well as a few days in jail. Mandatory sobriety apparently brought him a fresh perspective, and after his probation ended earlier this year, Anastasio hinted at his eagerness to reunite Phish. Last month, these rumors came to fruition upon the announcement of their reunion via

In classic Phish “trying-to-cut-back-on-the-drugs” touring style, the reunion will be limited to three consecutive dates at one of their favorite arenas. Despite these efforts, I remain highly skeptical that a reunion won’t cause Phish to reunite old habits.

The reunion is scheduled for March 6,7, and 8, 2009, at the Hampton Coliseum in Virginia. Tickets sold out in under a minute, and the band plans to announce more tour dates in 2009. As much as it pains me to admit it, if Phish comes to my neck of the woods, I’ll probably cave in and try to get tickets.

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