Phish is a U.S.-based band known for musical improvisation, extended jams, blending of genres, and dedicated fan base. Originating at the University of Vermont in 1983 (with the current line-up solidifying in 1985), the band's four members—Trey Anastasio (guitars, lead vocals), Mike Gordon (bass, vocals), Jon Fishman (drums, percussion, vacuum, vocals), and Page McConnell (keyboards, vocals)—performed together for nearly 20 years before going on hiatus in August 2004. They reunited in March 2009 for a series of three consecutive concerts played in the Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia, and have since resumed performing regularly.
Phish's music blends elements of a wide variety of genres, including funk, progressive rock, psychedelic rock, folk, country, jazz, blues, bluegrass, and pop. Although the band has received little radio play or mainstream exposure, Phish has developed a large and dedicated following by word of mouth, the exchange of live recordings, and selling over 8 million albums and DVDs in the United States. Rolling Stone stated that the band helped to "...spawn a new wave of bands oriented around group improvisation and extended instrumental grooves". They remain a very popular and successful touring act.
Formation and The White Tape: 1983–1986
Phish was formed at the University of Vermont in 1983 by guitarists Trey Anastasio and Jeff Holdsworth, bassist Mike Gordon, and drummer Jon Fishman. For their first gig, at Harris-Millis Cafeteria at the University of Vermont on December 2, 1983, the band was billed as "Blackwood Convention". ("Blackwood convention" is a term from the card game contract bridge.) The band was joined by percussionist Marc Daubert in the fall of 1984, a time during which they promoted themselves as playing Grateful Dead songs. Daubert left the band early in 1985, and Page McConnell then joined the group on keyboards and made his debut on May 3, 1985, at a show at Wilks/Davis/Wing Dormitory on Redstone Campus at the University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont. Holdsworth left the group after graduating in 1986, solidifying the band's lineup of "Trey, Page, Mike, and Fish"—the lineup to this day.
Following a prank at UVM with his friend and former bandmate Steve Pollak—also known as "The Dude of Life"—Anastasio decided to leave the college. With the encouragement of McConnell (who received $50 for each transferee), Anastasio and Fishman relocated in mid-1986 to Goddard College, a small school in the hills of Plainfield, Vermont. Phish distributed at least six different experimental self-titled cassettes during this era, including The White Tape. This first studio recording was circulated in two variations: the first, mixed in a dorm room as late as 1985, received a higher distribution than the second studio remix of the original four tracks, c. 1987. The older version was officially released under the title Phish in August 1998.
Jesse Jarnow's book Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America details much of the bands early years at Goddard College, including the band's early relationship with fellow Goddard students Richard "Nancy" Wright and Jim Pollock. Pollock and Nancy were musical collaborators, experimenting with multi-track cassette records to be broadcast on local radio. Phish adopted a number of Nancy's songs into their own set, including "Halley's Comet", "I Didn't Know", and "Dear Mrs. Reagan", the latter song being written by Nancy and Pollock. Jarnow argues that despite an eventual falling out between the members of Phish and Nancy, Nancy and his music was highly influential to Phish's early style and experimental sound. Pollock continued to collaborate with Phish over the years, designing some of their most iconic concert posters.
The band's actions demonstrate an identity with their "hometown" of Burlington, Vermont. By 1985, the group had encountered Burlington luthier Paul Languedoc, who would eventually design four guitars for Anastasio and two basses for Gordon. In October 1986, he began working as their sound engineer. Since then, Languedoc has built exclusively for the two, and his designs and traditional wood choices have given Phish a unique instrumental identity. Also during the late 1980s, Phish played regularly at Nectar's restaurant and bar in Burlington. In 1992 the album A Picture of Nectar, named as a tribute to the owner, featured a large orange with Nectar's photo superimposed subtly within the orange.
The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday and Junta: 1987–1989
As his senior project, Anastasio penned The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday, a nine-song concept album that would become Phish's second studio experiment. Recorded between 1987 and 1988, it was submitted in July of that year, accompanied by a written thesis. Elements of the story—known as Gamehendge—grew to include an additional eight songs. The band performed the suite in concert on five different occasions: in 1988, 1991, 1993, and twice in 1994 without replicating the song list.
Beginning in the spring of 1988, members of the band began practicing in earnest, sometimes locking themselves in a room and jamming for hours on end. One such jam took place at Anastasio's apartment, with a second at Paul Languedoc's house in August 1989. They called these jam sessions "Oh Kee Pa Ceremonies", saying the name was chosen by Anastasio after seeing the films A Man Called Horse and Modern Primitives, which depict fictional and misappropriated versions of a Mandan Indian ceremony. The product of one of these jam sessions was included in the band's first mass-released recording, a double album called Junta, later that year.
On January 26, 1989, Phish played the Paradise Rock Club in Boston. The owners of the club had never heard of Phish and refused to book them, so the band rented the club for the night. The show sold out due to the caravan of fans that had traveled to see the band.
Lawn Boy and A Picture of Nectar: 1990–1992
By late 1990, Phish's concerts were becoming more and more intricate, often making a consistent effort to involve the audience in the performance. In a special "secret language", the audience would react in a certain manner based on a particular musical cue from the band. For instance, if Anastasio "teased" a motif from The Simpsons theme song, the audience would yell, "D'oh!" in imitation of . In 1992, Phish introduced a collaboration between audience and band called the "Big Ball Jam" in which each band member would throw a large beach ball into the audience and play a note each time his ball was hit. In so doing, the audience was helping to create an original composition.
In an experiment known as "The Rotation Jam", each member would switch instruments with the musician on his left. On occasion, a performance of "You Enjoy Myself" involved Gordon and Anastasio performing synchronized maneuvers, jumping on mini-trampolines while simultaneously playing their instruments.
Phish, along with Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and The Beatles, was one of the first bands to have a Usenet newsgroup, rec.music.phish, which launched in 1991. Aware of the band's growing popularity, Elektra Records signed them that year. The following year A Picture of Nectar was complete: their first major studio release, enjoying far more extensive production than either 1988's Junta or 1990's Lawn Boy. These albums were eventually re-released on Elektra, as well.
The first annual H.O.R.D.E. festival in 1992 provided Phish with their first national tour of major amphitheaters. The lineup, among others, included Phish, Blues Traveler, The Spin Doctors, and Widespread Panic. That summer, the band toured Europe with the Violent Femmes and later toured Europe and the U.S. with Carlos Santana.
Rift, Hoist and Billy Breathes: 1993–1996
Phish began headlining major amphitheaters in the summer of 1993. That year, the group released Rift packaged as a concept album and with heavy promotion from Elektra including artwork by David Welker. In 1994, the band released Hoist. To promote the album, the band made their only video for MTV, "Down With Disease", airing in June of that year. Foreshadowing their future tradition of festivals, Phish coupled camping with their Summer tour finale at Sugarbush North in Warren, Vermont in July 1994, that show eventually being released as Live Phish Volume 2. On Halloween of that year, the group promised to don a fan-selected "musical costume" by playing an entire album from another band. After an extensive mail-based poll, Phish performed the Beatles' White Album—as the second of their three sets at the Glens Falls Civic Center in upstate New York. For their 1994 New Years Run, Phish played the Civic Centers in Philadelphia and Providence as well as sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden, which were their debuts at each venue. Following the death of Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia in the summer of 1995 and the appearance of "Down With Disease" on Beavis and Butthead, the band experienced a surge in the growth of their fan base and an increased awareness in popular culture.
In their tradition of playing a well-known album by another band for Halloween, Phish contracted a full horn section for their performance of The Who's Quadrophenia in 1995. Their first live album—A Live One—which was released during the summer of 1995, became Phish's first RIAA certified gold album in November 1995.
Phish retreated to their Vermont recording studio and recorded hours and hours of improvisations, sometimes overlaying them on one another, and included some of the result on the second half of Billy Breathes, which they released in the fall of 1996. Alongside traditional rock-based crescendos, the album has more acoustic guitar than their previous records, and was regarded by the band and some fans as their crowning studio achievement. The album's first single, "Free", peaked at No. 24 on the Billboard Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart and No. 11 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, becoming the band's most successful chart single of their career.
Story of the Ghost and Farmhouse: 1997–2000
By 1997, their improvisational ventures were developing into a new funk-inspired jamming style. Vermont-based ice cream conglomerate Ben & Jerry's launched "Phish Food" that year and proceeds from the flavor are donated to the Lake Champlain Initiative. Part of Phish's new non-profit foundation, The WaterWheel Foundation was also composed of two other now-defunct branches: The Touring Branch and the Vermont Giving Program.
To celebrate the new millennium, Phish hosted a 2-day outdoor festival at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, in Big Cypress, Florida. The highlight of this festival began when Phish took the stage at 11:35 p.m. on December 31, 1999, and continued to play until sunrise on January 1, 2000, approximately 8 hours later. This concert has been referred to as a peak musical experience by the band.
2000 saw no Halloween show, no summer festival and no new full-band compositions: May's Farmhouse contained material dating from 1997 and original material from Anastasio's 1999 solo acoustic/electric club tour. That summer, the band announced that they would take their first "extended time-out" following their upcoming fall tour. During the tour's last concert on October 7, 2000, at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California, they played a regular show and left without saying a word as The Beatles' "Let It Be" played over the sound system.
Round Room, Undermind and break-up: 2001–2004
Over two years after the hiatus began, Phish announced that they were getting back on the road with a New Year's Eve 2002 concert at Madison Square Garden. They also recorded Round Room in only three days. In their return concert, McConnell's brother was introduced as actor Tom Hanks. The impostor sang a line of the song "Wilson", prompting several media outlets to report that the actor had "jammed with Phish".
At the end of the 2003 summer tour, Phish held their first summer festival in four years, returning to Limestone for It. The festival drew crowds of over 60,000 fans, once again making Limestone one of the largest cities in Maine for a weekend. In November - December, the band celebrated its 20th anniversary with a four-show mini-tour of shows in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.
In order to avoid the exhaustion and pitfalls of previous years' high-paced touring, Phish played sporadically after the reunion, with tours lasting about two weeks. After an April 2004 run of shows in Las Vegas, Anastasio announced on the band's website that the band was breaking up after a small summer tour.
Their final album (at the time), Undermind, was released in late spring. In the summer of 2004, the band jammed with rapper Jay-Z at one show, shot a video called "Live in Brooklyn" for broadcast in movie theaters, and performed a seven-song set atop the marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater during the Late Show with David Letterman to fans who had gathered on the street, a move reminiscent of The Beatles' final performance on the rooftop of the Apple building in London.
Their final show of 2004—Coventry—was named for the town in Vermont that hosted the event. 100,000 people were expected to attend. After a week of rain that prompted fears of a sinking stage, Gordon announced on local radio that no more cars would be allowed in, though only about 20,000 people had arrived. Many concert-goers parked their vehicles on roadsides and hiked to the site; an estimated 65,000 attended the emotional finale.
Reemergence, Joy and Fuego: 2008–2016
Phish received the Jammys Lifetime Achievement Award on May 7, 2008 in The Theater at Madison Square Garden. After performing three songs together at the September 2008 wedding of their former tour-road manager, Phish announced that they would perform three reunion shows on March 6, 7, and 8, 2009, at the Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia. Following the reunion weekend, the band played thirteen shows of a summer tour, including an inaugural concert at Fenway Park and headlining Bonnaroo 2009 in June with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Beastie Boys, and Nine Inch Nails. During their first set of the second day, Phish was joined by Springsteen on guitar for "Mustang Sally", "Bobby Jean", and "Glory Days". Twelve additional dates in July and August were announced as a Late Summer Tour, including four nights at Red Rocks, two nights at The Gorge, a stop in Chicago, and several nights in the Northeast.
Phish's fourteenth studio album, Joy, produced by Steve Lillywhite, was released September 8, 2009. A single from the album, "Time Turns Elastic", was released on iTunes in late May. The band announced a "save-the-date" for a three-day festival on October 30 & 31 and November 1. Phish.com contained an animated map of the United States, and individual states were slowly removed from the map, leaving California. Confirming several rumors, the band announced that Festival 8 would take place in Indio, California. Footage from Festival 8 was released in April 2010 as a 3D movie titled "Phish 3D". In the late spring and summer of 2010, the band completed a two-legged, 29-show tour. The August Alpine Valley shows have been released as a DVD and CD. Phish made their Hollywood Bowl debut and headlined the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in August. They played a show in Essex Junction, Vermont on September 14, and the more than $1.2 million in proceeds were donated to Vermont flood victim relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.
In June 2012, Phish headlined Bonnaroo 2012 with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Radiohead. Phish also performed for the first time ever a show in Oklahoma at the Zoo Amphitheater in August. For the fourth consecutive year, Phish has performed a set of sold-out New Year's shows at New York City's Madison Square Garden, which culminated with a three-set show to ring in 2013. Phish went back on tour in the summer of 2013 to celebrate their 30th-year anniversary which graced fan favorite venues such as Saratoga Performing Arts Center, PNC Bank Arts Center, Gorge Amphitheater, and Merriweather Post Pavilion while also stopping at new destinations such as Darling's Waterfront Pavilion and FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island. The band also announced a fall tour for the first time since 2010, including stops at Hampton Coliseum. The band recently completed a new album known as "Fuego." Phish debuted 12 potential tracks from their 2014 album, which was introduced as "Wingsuit," the working title of the album, during the second of three sets on October 31, 2013.
On July 1, 2014, Phish embarked on a 25-show tour including stops that wound a path from Massachusetts to the Midwest, and from the Mid-Atlantic to Georgia. For the third consecutive year, Phish played a three-night run of shows at Saratoga Performing Arts Center over the 4th of July holiday. Phish also made their first visit to Randall's Island in New York City. August 2014 ended with three performances at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, firmly establishing the annual Colorado pilgrimage as a Labor Day tradition for Phish fans. This tradition was upheld with three-night runs over the holiday in following years, bringing the total number of shows at this venue (and on this same weekend, taboot) to 18 as of September 4, 2016. The 2014 Fall tour included stops in Oregon, Washington, California, and ended in Las Vegas, Nevada, where Phish once again debuted new music on Halloween. The October 31, 2014 performance at MGM Grand Las Vegas featured a second set consisting of ten original songs inspired by a 1964 novelty record from Walt Disney Studios, Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House. 2014 ended with a three-set show on New Year's Eve in Miami, Florida, followed by three more nights of performances to ring in 2015.
2015 included a coast-to-coast Summer tour, including the aforementioned "Labor Day Run" at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Colorado. Although there was no fall tour, Phish's 10th Festival, Magnaball, was announced at the same time. The band returned to Madison Square Garden for a series of four shows, including a three-set performance on New Year's Eve. Two weeks later, Phish performed their first shows in Mexico as part of a three-night, all-inclusive resort package at Barceló Maya Beach in Riviera Maya. During the final night's performance, the band announced from the stage that they planned to record a new album following the shows in Mexico. According to comments from Fishman, the recording was completed by the following March.
- Studio albums
- Phish (1986)
- Junta (1989)
- Lawn Boy (1990)
- A Picture of Nectar (1992)
- Rift (1993)
- Hoist (1994)
- Billy Breathes (1996)
- The Story of the Ghost (1998)
- The Siket Disc (1999)
- Farmhouse (2000)
- Round Room (2002)
- Undermind (2004)
- Joy (2009)
- Fuego (2014)
Solo work and side projects
The members of Phish have worked on various musical side projects. Anastasio continued the solo career he'd begun in 1998, formed the group Oysterhead, and began conducting an orchestral composition with the Vermont Youth Orchestra. Gordon made an album with acoustic guitar legend Leo Kottke and two films before launching his own solo career. Fishman alternated between Jazz Mandolin Project and his band Pork Tornado, while McConnell formed the trio Vida Blue.
During their break-up, members of Phish maintained various solo projects. Anastasio continued his solo career with his own band and performed with Oysterhead in June 2006. Gordon played with Leo Kottke and the Benevento/Russo Duo. At Rothbury in 2008, he played with his newest project, Ramble Dove, which is the name of the country outfit he fronted in his directorial feature Outside Out, and also joined Grateful Dead drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann along with Steve Kimock and Jen Durkin as the Rhythm Devils. Anastasio and Gordon toured as a four-piece with the Benevento/Russo Duo in the summer of 2006. McConnell debuted his new solo project at a festival in September 2006 held by jam band moe. and released his self-titled debut on April 17, 2007. Fishman has performed occasional shows with the Everyone Orchestra, The Village and the Yonder Mountain String Band.
In March 2010, Trey Anastasio was asked to pay tribute to Genesis, one of his favorite bands, upon being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In addition to Anastasio's speech, Phish appeared and performed two Genesis songs, "Watcher of the Skies" and "No Reply At All". Genesis did not perform. On May 13, 2010, Phish played the Rolling Stones' "Loving Cup" on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The band was introduced by Keith Richards.
The music of Phish is "oriented around group improvisation and superextended grooves" that draw on a range of rock-oriented influences, including psychedelic rock, funk, reggae, hard rock and various "acoustic" genres, such as folk and bluegrass. Some Phish songs use different vocal approaches, such as a cappella (unaccompanied) sections of barbershop quartet-style vocal harmonies.
Some of their original compositions (such as "Theme from the Bottom") tend towards a psychedelic rock and bluegrass fusion, with more rock, jazz and funk elements than the Grateful Dead and other earlier jam bands like Pink Floyd. Their more ambitious, epic compositions (such as "You Enjoy Myself" and "Guyute") are often said to resemble classical music in a rock setting, much like the music of one of their heroes, Frank Zappa.
The driving force behind Phish is the popularity of their concerts and the fan culture surrounding the event. Each a production unto itself, the band is known to consistently change set lists and details, as well as the addition of their own antics to ensure that no two shows are ever the same. With fans flocking to venues hours before they open, the concert is the centerpiece of an event that includes a temporary community in the parking lot, complete with "Shakedown Street": at times a garment district, art district, food court, or pharmacy. For many, one concert is simply a prelude to the next as the community follows the band around the country. Their image and fan devotion could be compared to that of the Grateful Dead.
Because Phish's reputation is so grounded in their live performances, concert recordings are commonly traded commodities. Official soundboard recordings can be purchased through the Live Phish website. Legal field recordings produced by tapers with boom microphones from the audience in compliance with Phish's tape trading policy are frequently traded on any number of music message boards. Although technically not allowed, live videos of Phish shows are also traded by fans and are tolerated as long as they are for non-profit, personal use. Phish fans have been noted for their extensive collections of fan-taped concert recordings; owning recordings of entire tours and years is widespread.
Phish have hosted 10 festivals; the first was The Clifford Ball in 1996; the most recent was Magnaball in 2015. Each festival has attracted upwards of 30,000 fans. Only one festival (Camp Oswego) featured performances by bands other than Phish.
In other media and popular culture
Phish began appearing in video games in 2009. Their song "Wilson" (December 30, 1994 at Madison Square Garden, New York, NY as released on A Live One), appeared in Rock Band's Bonnaroo song pack, along with other songs by artists playing at the Bonnaroo Festival that year. A Phish "Live Track Pack" for Guitar Hero World Tour became available on June 25, 2009. Recordings of "Sample in a Jar" (December 1, 1994 at Salem Armory, Salem, Oregon), "Down With Disease" (December 1, 1995 at Hersheypark Arena, Hershey, Pennsylvania) and "Chalk Dust Torture" (November 16, 1994, Hill Auditorium, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, as released on A Live One) have been released, compatible with Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii. On August 19, 2010, it was confirmed that Llama would be a playable song in Rock Band 3, released on October 26, 2010.
Seattle Seahawks fans began mimicking Phish's song "Wilson" by chanting the song's opening line when quarterback Russell Wilson took the field during games. The new tradition started after Anastasio made the suggestion at shows in Seattle. NFL Films made a short documentary on the cultural phenomenon. Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos also uses the song as his walk-up music.
They also have an ice cream flavor named after them, Ben & Jerry's Phish Food, in recognition of their shared Vermont heritage. All of Phish's share of the proceeds from this flavor are donated towards environmental work to restore Lake Champlain.