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Boy. Man. God. Fluff: My Life In The Church Of Phish (Part One)

by Jesse Lauter on September 23, 2013

Jesse Lauter is a music producer, engineer, and mixer who has worked with The Low Anthem, Elvis Perkins, Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Group), James Blood Ulmer, Blind Pilot, Marco Benevento, Surprise Me Mr. Davis, and Dawes. He is currently producing a tribute album to Bob Dylan’s overlooked 1980s catalog, featuring Bob Weir with members of The National, Gene Ween & Slash, Built To Spill, Craig Finn (The Hold Steady), Deer Tick, Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket), Blitzen Trapper, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Langhorne Slim, Reggie Watts, and Widespread Panic.

In this two-part essay he offers an extended look at his longtime musical relationship with Phish as well as his take on the group's recent West Coast tour.

I saw my first Phish show when I was eight. A few years prior, my older sister Rachel introduced me to the band with their first album, Junta. As a kid, my favorite bedtime “story” was Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” so nonsense-songs like “Reba,” fables of weasels named Fee, and tone poems like “Divided Sky” played to my highly active sense of fantasy. I was like Cameron Crowe’s character in Almost Famous, lucky to have an older sister who turned me on to something that would completely alter the course of my life.

Rachel and I tag-teamed and prodded our dad to take us to one of their shows. He caved and chaperoned the two of us and three friends on November 9th, 1995 to Atlanta’s Fox Theatre. So I saw the band in the fall of 1995, perhaps their most celebrated tour, just before they graduated from clubs and theaters to arenas and amphitheaters. Baring witness to Phish playing in 1995 is something I’m very proud of. There is no doubt in my mind this concert was the catalyst for my decision to dedicate myself to music.

As I grew older, Phish assisted my musical discoveries. I spent all my allowance on CDs and many of my purchases were informed by Phish’s influences. If you don’t know much about Phish, I like to describe them as a “consummate music-lover’s band.” Trey Anastasio (guitar), Mike Gordon (bass), Page McConnell (keys) and Jon Fishman (drums) are musical omnivores. With the combination of their musical prowess and cornucopia of influences, they are first-rate genre-benders. Cosmic explorers of music history if you will.

In the format of a rock quartet, Phish hits upon almost every genre-- funk, classical, bluegrass, electro, Latin, hip-hop, reggae, barbershop, the avant-garde, gospel. You name it, Phish plays it, and for the most part, with great consistency. Despite what some critics may think, they have exceptional original songs. Some are instrumental epics. Some are goofy ditties. Some are standard and serious. That being said, Phish covers other peoples’ material more than your average band at their shows.They cover classic rock (Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Little Feat, Frank Zappa), “old cool bands” (Talking Heads, The Velvet Undergound), “new cool bands” (TV On The Radio, Apples In Stereo), jazz standards, and traditional bluegrass. They are probably the only band in the history of rock that can respectfully cover the James Gang, Dizzy Gillespie, Bob Marley, and Bill Monroe in one night while playing their own original material. Simply look at the laundry-list of legendary artists they’ve shared the stage with and you’ll understand the breadth of ground they’ve treaded upon. Phish’s telescope has looked at the entire universe of music and in turn created its own musical solar system.

But I’m not really here to describe their sound to you. I’m here to tell you about my story with Phish and my thoughts on this misunderstood band and their fans as I embarked on their west coast tour this past summer.

A thing to note in my “Phishistory” is that I had a pretty significant gap between my first and second show. The next time I saw Phish was on March 1, 2003 in Greensboro, North Carolina. After my first Phish experience, my parents wouldn’t let me go to the Atlanta show the following year in 1996 (the celebrated Halloween show at The Omni where they covered Talking Heads’ Remain In Light in its entirety) and missed every local show thereafter due to summer camp. So in the nearly eight years between my first and second Phish experience, I took it upon myself to learn everything I could about this band. I spent hundreds of hours dubbing tapes and CDs (on a 1x burner), kept The Phish Companion (the penultimate encyclopedia of the band’s history, including all their setlists) by my toilet, was a consistent poster on “The Rhombus” (a now-defunct online community for fans to discuss everything Phish), learned Trey’s solos by rote or comped rhythm guitar to bootlegs, and became invested in music theory and composition. This was all before I got my driver’s license.

I caught the Greensboro show and then went to two more at Mountain View, California’s Shoreline Amphitheater on July 9 & 10, 2003. During that run however, something felt off. The band wasn’t the same. This wasn’t the Phish that was the source of my inspirations, the one that made me fall in love with music. Much has been said about this period just before “the break up,” and I was too young to understand the issues they were experiencing off the stage. Those problems were clearly translating on the stage, and in the end, I gave up on them. I stopped listening and caring about Phish one year before they called it quits in 2004.

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