Peak Phish: Is the Mystery Gone?

Source: Photo by Rene Huemer © Phish 2017

In this essay, I argue Phish has peaked. I’m not sure where they can go from here. This kind of scares me as a fan. Let me explain.

People often compare Phish fandom to sports fandom. It can be obsessive. There are numbers and statistics to pore over. Like sports, with Phish, we never know what they are going to do. But, there is another angle. I have found in my history with the band, I often “root” for them. By this I mean I hope for them to go in certain directions. Whether or not they do is always an exciting mystery. Will they or won’t they? Will they open with a particular song? Will they jam this version of “Tube” just a bit longer?

More than anything, I root for them in the jams. This was a big deal for me in the late 1990's when I saw them most. I rooted for a “style” of jamming that was based on full band improvisation. I rooted for Trey to not play “too many notes.” Yet, my highest rooting was always for that spontaneous “bliss” moment ; what some call “buttery” Phish: full on major-key beautiful and melodic themes that reach a soaring peak. Phish always had beautiful peaks (these peaks were hard-wired into Reba, Hood, Slave and others), but starting around 94 type-II jams could develop into this kind of organic, blissful, glory-hose Phish. But here’s the thing: in the 90s, these kinds of ‘bliss-peaks’ were actually rare. Jams more often went into funk, or space, or something more hard-blues-rock edgy. The bliss-peaks were few and far between and I always went to shows hoping — rooting — for the band to produce one for me (my shining moment was probably the 8/1/98 Tweezer — a beautiful blissy jam for the ages — and now the subject of an entire “Beyond the Pond” episode!).

This was my experience as a Phish fan into 2.0 and the breakup. Rooting for groove-oriented full band improv and bliss peaks. Yet, in 3.0, this kind of changed. From 2009–2012, I rooted for them just to regain consistency. I rooted for them to simply jam at all. Or, to jam with direction/purpose. This was the period of ripchords, or jams that sort of meandered around and never “got there.” Like the 1990's, bliss-peaks were also still pretty rare. When they did “get there,” we loved it. We cheered like sports fans. I once argued (and still believe) that Summer 2012 was the “turning point” where Phish finally got back to where it once was improvisation-wise. This culminated with the confidence in their own jamming expressed by the Fuck Your Face show. I do not believe that the band could have pulled off that in 2011. This lead to an absolutely monumental 30th anniversary year of 2013, the amazing creativity of the Haunted House set of 2014, Magnaball and perhaps another culminating peak for the band with the Baker’s Dozen this past summer. One characteristic aspect of this period has been the consistent ability to conjure amazing, blissful, beautiful melodic peaks in most jams. Some have even suggested that the shift from minor to major keys for a bliss jam has become a crutch for them. Throughout this period, Phish has become so consistently awesome, it’s almost as if I don’t have to root anymore. I just know. This was so evident to me the past four shows at Madison Square Garden. Every jam was just bursting with full-band interplay and communication. Each blissful peak seemingly more amazing than the last. It just seems so effortless now.

But, here’s the thing, I’m worried this kind of bores me. They are so consistently excellent, it takes the “will they or won’t they” mystery out of the experience. It’s like being a St. Louis Cardinal fan (which I am) and having them take the field and winning — every game. Now, clearly, this is my problem. Many people would probably rightly ask: why don’t you just enjoy the good music and get over your expectations and anticipations (after all, isn’t music about enjoying the moment)? I will try. But, I have to admit, something constant about my Phish fandom has always been the anticipation, the wondering, the mystery of what will come next. Now I feel I know what is coming. To be fair, this past weekend, there were some genuinely interesting and different jams (the Ghost and DWD comes to mind). There was also the new-ness of Trey’s new rig and sounds. Also, clearly, the Baker’s Dozen reignited this totally Phish sense of mystery about what they will do. But, let’s face it — that was an awesome thing, but it was ultimately an awesome gimmick. For me, the sense of mystery was always a more mundane aspect of the music itself, the random show, and the next show — always mystery. Now, I’m kind of feeling like that is gone for the first time in my history as a fan — and again this kind of freaks me out.

For me, Phish has always been about a narrative of change and development. They played the tight song-based shows in the early 90’s. 93–96 saw a new commitment to long, spontaneous improvisation. 97-present has remained about full-band groove-oriented Phish. 3.0 was about climbing back to their previous greatness. In my view, in only the last few years they have perfected this form of music. But where do they go from here? Where is the narrative, man?

I have an additional concern. This past YEMSG run was absolutely amazing — on the jam front. But, people are quietly whispering that there was a slight problem. (A) They barely played songs that are hard “epic” compositions. And (B) When they did it did not go particularly well. “I’m Hydrogen” completely fell apart. So did “Fluffhead” (there were parts where Trey just simply dropped out and stopped playing entirely). “Reba” and “Split Open and Melt” were sketchy at best. (In more positive news, “YEM” was solid….except for the relatively easy chord-climb to the “Boy, Man..” part). But my concern is not to nit-pick these particular performances. My concern is: how long can we reasonably expect this band — this 34 year old band, with members in their 50's — to play this incredibly hard, intricate music? I mean, isn’t there going to come a moment — in a decade or sooner — where they simply can’t play “Foam” anymore? Or more apocalyptic — “You Enjoy Myself”? I honestly am shocked and grateful that they still are able to play these tunes (and sometimes they play them really well). But, I think these songs are just so central to the essence of Phish. Even if Phish continues its improvisational mastery with 28-minute jams aplenty, if they can’t play “Fluffhead” is it really a true Phish show? (Of course, we faced down this prospect before in 2003–2004 when the song went missing).

So, that’s where I’m at. Lots of questions. I’m wondering where Phish can go from here? What can they possibly do to revive the sense of mystery about their improvisation? How can they really continue to play the hard songs? Is peak-Phish also a static — even boring — Phish? Luckily for me, I’ve got at least 6 months or more before I need to try to answer these questions. The long winter of no Phish has begun.