For a while in the mid/late 1990s, Phish were America’s best rock band.
Now their best music is behind them, but they continue to deliver the most rock’n’roll value for your dollar in this year of our Lord 2022. And every time out, even if only for a few minutes, they remind you that they’re still the best improvisatory rock band of all time.
Here are some recommendations for newcomers to Phish.
Note: Nothing here will cause controversy among fans.
I’m a ‘digital native’ and need video, is there video?
Yes. The IT documentary is good, though Trey is in bad shape; its concert footage is superb. Bittersweet Motel is telling but unpleasant and is mostly about the 1997-98 scene/moment. The recent Trey documentary, Between Me and My Mind, is stirring and beautiful, but not really about Phish. The film of Walnut Creek 97 features astonishing music — peak-era Phish, just a killer show. But the film’s ordinary.
I’m old and like books, are there books?
Which studio album should I hear?
Phish’s reputation rests on their live shows and specifically on their extended collective improvisations, rightly so. Their studio albums show off other sides of their musical personality with mixed results.
- For naked chops, start with Rift. This is Phish’s pure prog album, with their most consistently well integrated instrumental and vocal material.
- For the pure experimental mid-80s weirdness, pair Junta (their first proper album, still startling in its precocity and reach) with ‘The White Tape,’ their 1986 demo tape and a perfect encapsulation of their early cerebral-pranksters identity.
- For a balanced mix of chops and effortful silliness, try one of two albums: (1) A Picture of Nectar. Shorter tunes, a hyperactive ‘jukebox’ album — but ‘Stash’ and ‘Guelah Papyrus’ and ‘The Mango Song’ are seriously strange showoff numbers, and the ‘Tweezer’/’Reprise’ duo captures something essential about their relationship to rock’n’roll. (2) Billy Breathes, a mellower LP with more acoustic strumming and a ramshackle feel — this was the longtime consensus pick for Best Phish Album, and it still might be. But it’s not a showpiece like Rift and Nectar. It’s just a lovely, faintly lonely rustic rock album.
- For dreamy weirdness, pair Story of the Ghost with its outtakes collection The Siket Disc. The latter isn’t even an album proper but together these two discs offer a glimpse of practice-room Phish at their effortless late-90s peak, when intuitive groove replaced forebrain-tickle as the creative focus and primary pleasure.
- For strange creativity in late middle age, see Fuego, which has some clunkers but also some fine pop tunes and a stirring run of three full-band compositions to close. Sigma Oasis is a surprising, at times lovely late-career effort, but you might cringe so hard at the lyrics you pull a muscle.
Which live album should I hear?
Phish’s official live releases are well chosen and are the heart of the band’s project. Like the studio albums, they capture the band at specific points in their journey. It’s important to bear in mind that post-1997 Phish often sounds like an entirely different band, for reasons (I suspect) not unrelated to the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995.
Since 2003, every new Phish show has been made available through livephish.com — we’ll deal with those below.
- The standard intro live Phish album is/was A Live One, a sprawling buffet from when they prized howling intensity above delicacy and/or groove. This is their Live/Dead, showcasing one side of their work at length, too early to capture the full spectrum of their creativity. There’s a half-hour ‘Tweezer’ full of surreal antagonism, but the real meat is the magnificent ‘Hood,’ perfectly realized ‘Stash’ and ‘You Enjoy Myself’ jams, and a pounding ‘Chalk Dust Torture’ that’s parseable for non-fans. This was the initial argument for Phish as best 90s rock band…the trouble is, within two years they didn’t sound like this anymore.
- The official New Year’s Eve 1995 release is one of the few no-brainers in the band’s history: it’s the consensus best Phish show of its era, unrelenting in its creative drive and intensity. This was their first peak, the culmination of all their early work on a big stage (Madison Square Garden). Of all their pre-1997 shows, this is the easiest recommendation. (Niagara shares its vibes but gets weirder, darker.)
- If you like NYE 1995, you’ll like Chicago 94, two shows from the A Live One era, showcasing the band’s fluent improvised segues. Still, there’s something a little callow about 1994 Phish at times.
- Slip Stitch and Pass is literally the show — at a club in Hamburg — when the band transitioned from increasingly funky rock to a different sort of pleasure altogether. If you like Story of the Ghost and especially Siket, this live release will speak to you. It’s a single disc, mostly stacked with jams.
- Hampton/Winston-Salem 97 captures an all-time classic run of three shows — but if you’re not already into Phish, the 17-minute ‘Emotional Rescue’ opener, a gag song followed by a dull funk jam, might turn you off forever. Yet discs 4-6 show the very best of the band’s funk era. This is music every single Phish fan should hear, but it’s not an ideal entry point.
- Discs 2 and 7 of the Amsterdam box achieve sublimity.
What about the ‘Live Phish’ series?
Periodize Phish’s career for me, please
Comedy, surrealism, impatience, antagonism, audible effort1
Intensity, mastery, synthesis, aggression, clatter, independence, psychedelic noise
Groove, ambience, texture, fluidity, patience, psychedelic space (97-98 are the last years of perfect equipoise, and to me represent ‘Phish perfected’)
Rediscovery, resolution, peace, balance, second youth, rebirth (2009 tentative, 2010 longform improv experimentation, 2011 Fish’s drum chops fully back (8/15/11 is perfect), 2012 integrates, 2013-14 experimental restart esp. at Halloween)
Rebirth, integration, joy, settling in/down (Trey woodsheds for 6 mo. in 2015, kickstarting this era)
Which live shows should I hear?
The trouble with live shows is they’re unlikely to be perfect. The good thing about live shows is, they’re the truth.
What you should hear depends on what you’re after, based on the above chronology.
- I want prog rock: Try any of the official releases from 1994-95, the peak of Phish’s technical achievement. You can’t go wrong with this era — Phish batted 1.000 for two full years. Just an insane achievement.
- I want dark psychedelia: Same era plus 97-2000; post-97 there’s much less emphasis on attack-guitar, though cf. 11/19/97 or the final discs of the Winston-Salem box set for counterexamples.
- i want party funk: 1997-99 has your number. Summer shows from 1997/98 are the purest dance-funk of Phish’s career. If you want to sample a single segment, try the ‘Bowie > Cities > Bowie’ from the Ventura box set, lightning in a bottle from the moment when they could play ‘Bowie’ fast and clean and dangerous and then sit back and fucking groove real nice for a while, as if those two things were the same thing.
- I want electronic textures: Honestly, try a good recent show. Like the Dead in the early 90s, Phish have completely dialed in their sound and the band’s instrumental texture is tasty. The festival ‘disco tent’ and ‘ball square’ jams will do it too.
- I want to drift off with psychedelic soundscapes: The six-hour millennium set is your starting point, along with my beloved Fukuoka 2000. But definitely seek out some of the late-nite summer festival improvisations: 2003 Tower Jam, 1998 ambient set, the ball square and drive-in jams of recent years, and if you can find a good copy, the flatbed truck jam from summer 1996.
- I want haze and noise: 2003-2004 have them in spades. If you don’t need variety of form or sound, look up the June 2004 shows; avoid the August shows, they’re all shit. The peak of this era might be the August 2003 IT Festival, which showcases every aspect of Phish’s mid-career development except virtuosic showmanship.
- I want soul-searching lyrics: This is the wrong band for that, but try Trey’s 2019 Ghosts of the Forest project — written at his dear friend’s deathbed, far and away the deepest thing anyone in the group has done, with a couple of stone classic songs (‘About to Run’ deals more directly with his nature than anything else he’s written). The Trey movie deals with this project and it’s just beautiful.
- I want uplifting all-American music: Since 2015 Phish have been on an impressive run, moving more slowly than when they were young but playing with a depth and empathy they could never have managed at their peak. This is absolutely Phish’s (second) golden age, and any consensus top-30 show from the current era delivers every kind of rock-music pleasure, with two caveats: (1) Trey botches the written material sometimes, and (2) there’s a quality of settling and genial acceptance not only to the new songs but to most of the improv as well, meaning the generative antagonisms and arrogant aggression that added grit and spice to their early music is long gone. ‘Uplifting’ is right — it always makes me feel purely good. But there’s a difference between filling you with happiness and filling you with ambivalence you then happily clear away at the climax.
- I want 13 straight shows with no repeats: The 2017 ‘Baker’s Dozen’ is 13 concerts at Madison Square Garden, each night featuring donut-themed song choices, with no repeats. It’s the crowning achievement of Phish’s 21st-century second act, though it’s not really the best music even of its era. You can buy the whole thing on CD; it’s a better value than the Dead’s Europe 1972 box set, I think. Only a handful of pop musicians have ever put together a late-career turnaround and reinvention like this. I’m still in awe of them, after all these years.
- ‘Comedy’ comes first because for a long time it was central not just to Phish’s music but to their worldview. The lyrics aren’t just dumb, they’re deliberately silly surreal comedy; once you get this, the way the band mixed Zappa’s steely control and Beefheart’s mad surrealism, their early music opens up. Some of it is worth hearing, all of it is interesting experimental music — and its debt to the Grateful Dead is smaller than the band’s reputation suggests. ↩
- There’s a lot of good music from this era, and a handful of shows — 2/28/03, IT, maybe some of June 04 — are canonical. But overall it’s weak tea or worse, and bad drugs are the main reason. The anniversary run is unimpressive, the Vegas shows are bad, the August 04 run is terrible, and the farewell Coventry festival is a heartbreaking disaster. We can’t grade Phish on a curve, they deserve better. So do we, frankly — there’s too much good music in the world to bother with anything but Phish’s best. Note that they took years after returning in 2009 to reestablish themselves after Trey got clean, though a few early shows (e.g. 8/7/09) hinted at what was to come. ↩