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

by Jesse Lauter on September 23, 2013

Ultimately, my divorce from the band was positive for my musical growth, just as it was for the band members themselves. I was completely isolated from all things Phish for nearly six years (although I did write an essay about their business practices that got me accepted into college), until I was invited to see the “reborn Phish” at Jones Beach on June 9, 2009. Obviously I was curious, so I went, and then I went the next night, and then again, and again... Phish returned to my heart with a profound force that I couldn’t have anticipated. They reclaimed their position as one of my favorite bands.

Everybody loves a good comeback but there’s something to be said about the return of Phish. In my opinion, they sound better than ever. Sure, what do I know? I saw one show when I was in the second grade and a few others sometime after. But I know how they sounded in all their periods and though it might not be the adrenaline-filled insanity and youthful vigor of the old days, this band approaches music with a grace and maturity they couldn’t have achieved in their twenties and thirties. Simply compare the live recordings of now to the tapes of yonder. Their style is arguably more relevant, because they were a “playlist band” that arrived well before our current playlist culture. In my opinion, Phish is aging like a fine wine. It’s very similar to how people feel about seeing Neil Young in the present than the early years-- both started off great but seem to only get better with time. I’ve come across many long-time fans who agree, some of whom work with the band.

So I saw one show in Phish 1.0, three shows in Phish 2.0, and thus far, a grand total of forty-five shows in Phish 3.0 (for those not in the know, 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 are the fan’s demarcations for the three different eras of Phish, synonymous with the eras of the internet’s development). Yet I’d never done a full leg of a Phish tour. So when the band announced their run from The Gorge to Lake Tahoe to San Francisco and concluding at the Hollywood Bowl, I knew this was something that couldn’t be missed.

Even though I have seen them dozens of times, I don’t think of myself as an obsessive Phish fan, at least compared to some, including a majority of my friends. I don’t remember setlists (though I know notable concerts in the band’s history), I don’t know stats, and I don’t go into a show expecting to see the best Phish concert ever or any specific song. I go to each show with an understanding that these are four fallible human beings, just like you and me, who when at their optimum, create a surreal sound with great scope, dexterity, and personality. I generally have a positive feeling after leaving each show because I have faith in this band and what they’re doing. I trust their muse.

It’s important to mention that Phish is approaching their thirtieth anniversary this December. This has meant more attention in the mainstream media, a place where Phish has had their sporadic moments in the sun. There was a recent article in the Huffington Post entitled “Dephending Phish: It’s Not Them, It’s You,” a real turn-off of a title to anyone who isn’t a Phish fan. There was an article in The New Republic entitled “Gone Journophishin,” about Phishhead “Washington insiders” and their private listserve dedicated to the band. There was also a Grantland article entitled “Is Phish A Great Band?,” which to me is a silly question to ask in the first place. Yes, they’re a great band; an extremely significant band in rock history with a legacy that is revealing itself more as time passes. They will undoubtedly be inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall Of Fame upon first year of eligibility.

But the most revealing piece was an interview Trey did with Jeffrey Brown on the PBS NewsHour, which aired just before the east coast leg of summer tour. In the interview, Brown taps into Trey’s recent endeavors in classical music and Broadway. The complete interview goes way deeper. At one point, Trey addresses the band’s relationship with their fans.

TA: We [Phish] were talking about how lucky we feel to be part of such a loving community and that means the audience as well as the band members. A lot of the people who come see us have been coming for 20, 30 years.

JB: ...and they come many times.

TA: And I know them. A lot, I don’t know by name but there’s people that I look out and see, and I really, genuinely feel a connection to.

JB: Really.

TA: Absolutely. I have, as strange as this sounds, relationships with people who stand, like, 10 rows back and dance that I recognize and I walk on stage, and I say, hi, and it's a good feeling, and we start playing. I have never spoken a word to them.

JB: That strikes me as sounding unusual for a rock band.

TA: Well I know it sounds weird, but it’s the dead-on truth.

JB: What’s the relationship? What do... How do you... How...

TA: It feels like a healthy expression of joy and celebration....Everybody wants to belongto something. Everybody wants to be included and music to me has been a pathway to community and kind of a welcoming. Y’know,an inclusive atmosphere where people can express themselves and be part of something in a healthy way.

A little later on in the interview, Trey expresses his ultimate intent for his audience.

TA: When I’m playing with Phish or when I’m playing with any of the bands that I play with, I watch the audience all night, and I want people to have a good time and I want people to be in a state of release, y’know? It’s a reason for living for me if I see somebody lit up in the audience. That’s enough for me. It’s not really about the band playing well. I want to see somebody momentarily released from the drudgery of normal life.

JB: Really.

TA: I mean that with all sincerity. I think thats probably the underlying theme to all of these musical projects, because it was that for me. Music saved my life when I was young.

JB: You mean literally?

TA: Yes, literally. And when I was old actually. But it’s always sort of been there for me, when things are going wrong.... It’s always been a healthy escape for me and a parachute when things are going wrong. So if I can provide a tiny bit of that for somebody else, nothing could make me happier.

This confirmed something I already knew, but I’m not sure most Phish fans recognize or are comfortable admitting. I believe Phish is a rock’n’roll replacement for church, synagogue, what have you. Trey is the reverend, Page, Mike and Fish are the ministers, and together they have formed the greatest traveling-psychedelic-gospel-rock band imaginable with the intent to release you “from the drudgery of normal life.” And I am not ashamed to confess I am a nearly lifelong member of The Church of Phish.

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