For Phish, A New Attitude
Monday, November 17, 1997
By MICHAEL MEHLE, Scripps Howard News Service
Even as Phish was ascending the throne as America's biggest jam band, its
members worried something was amiss. Namely, they thought they weren't jamming
Sure, there was plenty of improvisation; a Phish show without it is like a
Kiss concert minus pyrotechnics. But to the members of the Vermont quartet,
the improvisation was following the same, predictable path.
So the band began to loosen its set lists and song structures. Some songs
began to take on a slower, funkier groove, and Trey Anastasio's guitar work
wasn't as likely to be the focal point of the extended jams. But beyond such
tangible differences, keyboardist Page McConnell says, the band adopted a new
"There has been a certain playing style that has developed this year, a
certain kind of improvisation that's the next evolution, hopefully, for us,"
McConnell said of the band. "It's difficult for me to put my finger on what it
is and what it isn't, except to say that it feels a little different to me the
way we're jamming."
The new approach started to develop at the end of the band's last American
tour. Phish had spent the past three years growing from a cult phenomena to
one of the country's top touring forces.
In small part, the band filled the void left by the Grateful Dead's demise;
in larger part, the combo cultivated its own fervent following hooked on the
group's dizzying ability to jam on the blues, a cappella harmonies, jazz
excursions or old Talking Head covers. Like the Dead before it, Phish has
attracted a nomadic fan base that treks across the country.
Expanding popularity aside, the band began to feel stagnant while performing
in large arenas earlier this year.
"We had just moved into arenas for a lot of these towns, so night after night
we were in these half-empty arenas, which are generic-looking from the
inside," McConnell said. "It's soulless. They don't have a vibe. They're big
metal buildings with Budweiser signs. And I think that we were starting to let
go at that point because we felt, 'What does it matter?' Let's just try to go
for it and make it happen.'
"We started to ask ourselves the question, 'Why does the jamming feel like
we're always playing the song the same way? Why does it always go like this,
when it could go like this?' We asked these questions even though we didn't
have the answers."
The band - McConnell, Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman
- began to find the answers and a new direction while playing in Europe, where
its popularity lags behind its success in the States. Performing before crowds
of 500 to 2,000 people, the group felt free to let itself adventure.
"You can't plan on this sort of thing - a creative burst," McConnell said.
"Things were looser. There was less pressure, less big-show hype. There was
less everything, and we were all feeling real loose.
"It helps when you try these things in a smaller club. There's less pressure.
You can't deny it."
One night in particular captured what Phish thought was the next step for the
band. "Slip, Stich and Pass," the group's second live release, captures the
band's show at a club in Hamburg, Germany, last March.
"It was a small show, a bar gig with 500 people there," McConnell said. "I
could reach out and touch people. There was a certain intimacy, and that show
seemed to capture that bar-band spirit we have had for so many years, even
though in the States we're not necessarily a bar band anymore. In the rest of
the world we certainly are."
There will be more live albums in the future, McConnell said, although the
band is now concentrating on its next studio effort.
"I don't think we've made the great album that we have the potential to
make," he said. "There's some real talent in the band, and it would be a shame
if we couldn't put together some kind of a different and really unique
And the master plan for the band?
"The master plan of the band is to stay together," the keyboardist said.
"That's something bands don't do. Bands don't stay together. What do you do
to achieve that? You try to keep everyone as happy as possible. And that's
what we're doing."
(Michael Mehle writes for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.)
Copyright 1997, Naples Daily News. All rights reserved.
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