Article & Photos by Skip Tapp
When I first considered writing this article I planned to approach it from the perspective of an old Deadhead from the late 60’s through the 70’s, which I am, attending his first Phish shows at the 2009 New Year’s Run in Miami. I sought to compare the music of both Phish and the Grateful Dead as well as the Deadheads of my era to the Phish Heads or Phans of today.
I rarely listen to any of the Grateful Dead music outside of my era, the late 60’s to the late 70’s. I know a lot of Deadhead’s will want to debate me on this issue, but to me the Dead peaked in the early 70’s. I, like many Deadheads at the time, felt betrayed by the Dead with the release of Go To Heaven in 1980, with it’s hint of Disco.
Phish Heads often debate what might be the greatest era of Phish music. Some say, “Oh it has to be the early 90’s.” While others say, ” It has to be 1996-1997.” It’s all subjective anyway. I have listened to Phish from all of those era’s and it’s my belief that Phish just might be playing the best music of their lives, now. This four day run of shows in Miami might very well be the best musical experience I have ever had in my life.
It is hard to compare both bands sound, musically, as the Dead, for most of the time, was made up of 6 musicians, with an extra drummer and extra guitar to Phish’s 4 musicians. The influence of the extra drummer and especially the extra guitarist can make a big difference in the sound of the music.
“Phish and the Grateful Dead are not the same band. It must be said they were and remain one of my favorite bands. In fact, the Dead are one of the most important American bands, if not the most important. To me, the Dead are a genuine link to traditional American music. They moved music history forward. Jerry Garcia was as important a figure in this country’s music history as Bill Monroe or Elvis. Phish has learned a lot from them. They are an influence. But, that said, we are also very different. The most important lesson we learned from the Dead was how to be a live band.” — Trey Anastasio, New York Post 1/1/99
Although Trey says the bands are very different they are more alike then many biased Deadheads or Phish Heads would like to think. Both bands perform a free-form rock & roll encompassing elements of folk, jazz, country, bluegrass, and pop — although Phish seems to adhere more to jazz-derived improvisation than the Grateful Dead’s folk Ameicana tradition.
For instance, old country songs, Phish performed on Wednesday night, “Dixie Canonball”, a country tune made famous by Hank Williams in 1949, while the Grateful Dead regularly perfromed tunes by Marty Robbins and Merle Haggard, such as “El Paso” and “Mama Tried.”
Both Trey Anastasio and Jerry Gracia both admit to being highly influenced by one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all times, Django Reinhardt . In this run of shows , “Stash” and “Punch You in the Eye” are two songs played with highly influeced jazz styles.
Phish will jam and improvise on any song at any time, while the Dead fell more into a first set of playing “short” songs and leaving the extended jamming to the second set.
Both Deadheads and Phish Heads are devoted fans who often comprise a traveling community – hitching rides from one show to the next when the bands tour. So devoted that when each band plays the first chords of a song they immediately know what the song is and are always attempting to guess what the opening song of a show will be. So knowledgeable of the music that it’s one big sing along with each song played. Sitting behind me at Tuesday’s show was a family of five from Orlando, a married couple with three sons ages 7, 9 and 11. Each boy’s knowledge of Phish’s music was amazing, and each had his own guess as to what the opener would be. Both band’s fans build a temporary community in the parking lots, Dead Heads dub theirs “Shakedown Street”, where everything from clothes to art and food and drinks could be had.
While drugs are common at both bands shows, one of the more noticeable groups is “The Phellowship”, a group that celebrates seeing shows sober together similar to the “Wharf Rats” found at Dead shows. But what most come for is the music. Having four days of shows at Phish’s 2009 New Year’s run gave the fans the opportunity to hear their favorite songs as the band will dig deep into their repertoire so as not to repeat a song over the entire run.
Attendance grew with each show as did the energy and intensity. Monday’s show had approximately 12 – 13,000 in attendance in the 19,600 capacity American Airlines Arena. Tuesday’s show was around 15,000, Wednesday maybe 17,000 and Thursday’s New Years Eve show looked to be almost completely sold out.
There was also your pick of after party shows and activities to attend. EOTO, Particle and the Heavy Pets all provided fans with more music to witness after Phish finished for the evening. The Heavy Pets also played an acoustic set at the Mock Show on Wednesday. The Mock Show had poster artists’ work on display and for sale, including posters by longtime Phish poster artist Jim Pollock.
Now, on to the music. To me, Phish music at times almost sounds like it could be used as a soundtrack for cartoons or even movies, but I don’t mean this in a negative way. Go back and watch some old Warner Brothers cartoons and focus on the music, you will hear that it can be kind of trippy. You can definitely hear the influences of Frank Zappa and Steely Dan, but it was also nice to have a touch of everything from country to reggae to jazz to that good old Psychedelic rock that the Grateful Dead from my era did so well.
Monday’s set list:
Set One – Sample in a Jar, NICU, My Soul, Roggae, Undermind, Bouncing Around The Room, Poor Heart, Stash, I Didn’t Know, Beauty Of A Broken Heart and Possum.
Set Two – Mike’s Song >Light >I Am Hydrogen >Weekapaug Groove, Alaska, Backwards Down the Number Line, Makisupa Policeman >Harry Hood >Contact, Character Zero
Encore – First Tube.
The show was 2.9 hours of music.
The highlight of the night for me was Mike Gordon’s bass-heavy reggae progressions during “Makisupa Policeman” into “Harry Hood”. At just over 18 minutes, the Harry was chock full of the complex jamming and improvisation that takes you to another world. Fishman also wielded his vacuum, performing a solo during “I Didn’t Know” with Trey proclaiming this was the last vacuum solo of the “oughts”. “Light”, from their latest album Joy, proves to be one the best jam vehicles from that recording with Trey’s guitar leading the way. The transition from this song into “I Am Hydrogen” was just classic. The night will most likely be known for the return of “My Soul”, a song that hadn’t been played since 2000. I could nitpick and say that the timing was off in “Roggae”, which it was, and that Trey was off key in several places, which he was, but, by the second set the band seemed to be warmed up and made up for the first set and we were off to a good start.
Tuesday’s set list:
Set One – Golgi Apparatus, Maze, Driver, The Connection, Wolfman’s Brother, Ocelot, Reba, Access Me, The Divided Sky, Cavern
Set Two – Kill Devil Falls, Tweezer >Prince Caspian, Gotta Jibboo >Wilson >Gotta Jibboo >Heavy Things > 2001 >Slave To The Traffic Light
Encore – Sleeping Monkey, Tweezer Reprise
This night, 2.7 hours of music.
This night started with an old favorite, “Golgi Apparatus.” “Maze”, “Wolfman’s Brother”, “Reba” and “The Divided Sky” highlighted the first set. The second set started off with another new song from Joy, a rocker called “Kill Devil Falls.” But this night will be known for it’s second set. The run of “Tweezer >Prince Caspian” and “Gotta Jibboo >Wilson >Gotta Jibboo >Heavy Things > 2001 >Slave To The Traffic Light.” As one fan put it, “Trey just melted my face off!” I thought, well I have heard all my favorite songs, what now? I had forgot just how deep Phish’s song catalog was, as there were many more favorites to come.
Wednesday’s set list:
Set One – Soul Shakedown Party, Runaway Jim, Jesus Just Left Chicago, Dixie Cannonball, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan, Corinna, What’s The Use?, Tela, Gone, Rocky Top, Chalk Dust Torture, David Bowie
Set Two – Sand, The Curtain With, Lifeboy, Back On The Train >Wading In The Velvet Sea, Hold Your Head Up > Love You >Hold Your Head Up, Free, Boogie On Reggae Woman, Run Like An Antelope
Encore – Frankenstein
This night, 2.8 hours of music.
This night the band played covers of Bob Marley’s “Soul Shakedown Party” which got the party started, ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up,” The Osborne Brothers “Rocky Top,” Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” and the encore, Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein,” during which Page played his white keytar. A real surprise to Phish fans was “Tela”, a seldom played ballad which hadn’t been heard since 1998. Something I was glad to hear was “What’s the Use,” from one of my favorite Phish recordings, The Siket Disc, an album full of spacy recordings. The first set ended with two more of my favorites, “Chalkdust Torture” and “David Bowie”. The “David Bowie” provides a fine example of that cartoon music I have referred too, during parts of the jams with the crescendos you could easily be watching a good vs. evil cartoon coming to a pinnacle. Also in the Bowie, I hate to make the comparison, but Trey’s lead in mid song really reminded me of Jerry Garcia and the jamming of the Dead. The second set opened with “Sand,” with Mike’s bass very prominent throughout the song. The highlight of the night for me, and perhaps even the highlight of the entire 4 night run, was “Back on the Train.” Now this is what I call jamming! This was mind bending face melting jamming at it’s finest, the boys took me, mind, body and soul and carried me to another dimension. This song jammed to a tremendous peak then slowed and flowed into the emotional ballad “Wading In The Velvet Sea.”
New Years Eve set list:
Set One – AC/DC Bag, 46 Days, Water In The Sky, Bathtub Gin, Punch You in the Eye, The Moma Dance, Guyute, Swept Away, Steep, Demand, Seven Below, Lawn Boy, Julius
Set Two – Rock & Roll >Piper, Simple >Theme From The Bottom, Shine A Light, Ghost > NO2, Suzy Greenberg
Set Three – Party Time >Auld Lang Syne >Down With Disease, Fluffhead, Joy, The Squirming Coil, You Enjoy Myself
Encore – Blue Moon, Loving Cup
This night, a whopping 3.8 hours of music!
The night started at the venue’s entrance where there was a parked car on the sidewalk with a sign reading, “This car was driven down from Vermont fueled by maple syrup” (more on this later). Being New Years Eve, “Auld Lang Syne” was teased in “AC/DC Bag” and in the second set “Ghost.” The first set favorite for me was “The Moma Dance,” a funky danceable tune. The second set opened with a cover of Lou Reed and the Velvet Undergrounds “Rock and Roll,” which flowed into, what is called on the Live Phish set list, the “Miami Jam,” which jammed nicely into “Piper.” Other second set highlights were “Ghost” which had some phenominal bass work by Mike and jammed into another rare spacy gem “NO2.” After the third set “Down With Disease” a large disco ball was lowered to the stage, opened, and Fishman climbed in complete with WWI pilot’s hat and goggles. The ball was closed and loaded into a large canon which was aimed at a large X that was in a net hanging down from the ceiling. Page fired the canon but missed and Fishman and the disco ball were nowhere to be found. A search for a new drummer in the audience ensued and “Sarah From Pittsburgh” was brought onstage to play and requested “Fluffhead”. We were fooled at first, saying how good she was, but as the band was leaving the stage at the end of the third set, from our seats on stage right, we saw Fishman dressed in the same clothes as “Sarah” complete with wig. The band wrapped up the evening with a 2 song encore, “Blue Moon” and “Loving Cup.” Upon leaving the venue, the car from Vermont was now smashed and smoking with the gigantic disco ball that had supposedly been shot through the roof.
The only negative from the entire 4 nights had to be the decline in the lot. What started out on Monday as a kind community full of good vibes and a place to shop a little and pick up a brew before the show turned into nitrous hell. After the Thursday show, as we were leaving the Miami police were everywhere busting the nitrous dealers.
The positive – the light show by Chris Kuroda – simply amazing, I’d have to rate his work even better then long time Grateful Dead light show artist Candace Brightman. I got to enjoy my first Phish shows, and share the experience with my daughter, Jennifer, and her boyfriend Brandon, both long time Phish Heads. This is a band that had many problems, both personal and drug related a short time ago, and now are back on their game and on fire, I have to say that Phish is definitely “The King of Jams!”