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Jam band Phish brings fans a ray of light in dark times

With its tours now on hold, the legendary jam band offers fans a new studio album. And it comes close to the band’s trademark improvisational psychedelic live sound

Phish performing at The Met Philadelphia in December.
Phish performing at The Met Philadelphia in December. (Photo: Getty Images)

It can be surprising when you realize that Phish, the jam band with probably the biggest following today, are 37 years old. And that they have been relentlessly touring all these years. True, Phish did have two breaks—from 2000-02 and then again from 2004-09—but they got back each time, continuing their frenetic touring. Till now, of course, when the coronavirus pandemic has brought the world to a halt.

Like every other band, Phish have had to cancel tours and put their gigs on hold. So it was a pleasant surprise for fans when the band first live-streamed and then released a new studio album on 1 April.

Although Sigma Oasis is the band’s 14th studio album (their first, Junta, came out in 1989), diehard Phish fans will have you know that they prefer to hear Phish live. Phish’s gigs—they sell out large arenas such as New York’s Madison Square Garden routinely—are a spectacular experience. Rarely does a band connect as tightly with several thousands of its fans at concerts. Their sets are unpredictable; each time they pick up songs from their vast repertoire they give them a new twist, jamming, improvising and taking listeners to unexplored orbits. They choose classics and tunes by other bands as well, interpreting them in a way that has become a Phish trademark: You never know what they will do with it.

Phish fans are like a cult. Most are deeply loyal and many are as itinerant as the band itself and keep following it, as Deadheads did with the Grateful Dead in that legendary band’s heydays, and attending as many concerts as they can. And although Phish’s studio albums are mostly good, true Phish fans rate live performances and their recordings higher. And Phish do not disappoint them. They constantly release box sets of live performances, such as of their The Baker’s Dozen gigs in 2017, when they performed 13 shows in a row at the Madison Square Garden and did a total of 237 songs, none of them repetitions.

Besides bootlegs and streams from Phish’s own sites, fans have access to at least 17 albums of live Phish recordings. They are a trove because the band’s raison d’être is improvisational jamming, which happens in a full-blown form when they perform live. Psychedelic rock is the broad umbrella label you might be tempted to stick on Phish’s music but it doesn’t explain everything the band does. Phish are playful and experimental. Funk and jazz and blues also inflect their music. Guitarist, frontman and lead vocalist Trey Anastasio is a virtuoso. He and his bandmates—bassist Mike Gordon, drummer Jon Fishman and keyboardist Page McConnell—share a unique chemistry that has kept the band fresh, alive and rocking all these years.

It is on long songs that Phish’s true talent surfaces: Anastasio’s guitar riffs and melodic noodling attain trippy heights, McConnell’s keyboard takes cosmic flights, and Gordon’s bass lines, accompanied with Fishman’s drums, hold everything together.

While the purists among Phish fans don’t dismiss their studio endeavours, Phish’s studio albums tend to get underrated. For one, they are limited by duration. And recording in a studio can limit improvisations. But they too are worth exploring in depth. The early ones, such as Junta, Lawn Boy (1990), A Picture Of Nectar (1992), Rift (1993), Hoist (1994) and Billy Breathes (1996), served as entry points to Phish’s soundscapes and many (this writer included) became fans based on those studio albums.

It’s tricky for a band that earns its spurs on loosely constructed, jam-heavy, extra-long live performances to make studio albums that physically and technically restrict the length of their songs but still maintain the improvisational nature of their gigs. Yet they try. And most of these albums are a great complement to their live performances. The new one, Sigma Oasis, is particularly so. That’s probably because Sigma Oasis’ nine songs—they clock in together at an hour and 6 minutes—are long, and a couple of them, Everything’s Right (over 12 minutes) and Thread (over 11), are extra-long.

On Sigma Oasis, the band’s versatility is clearly evident. Many of the songs on the album have surfaced before at recent Phish gigs in some form or the other but the album, recorded late last year, showcases them together in a sequence that seems perfect.

For those who are already Phish fans, Sigma Oasis is a godsend because at least in the near future (and no one knows for how long), it’s unlikely there will be any Phish concerts. For those who aren’t that familiar with Phish, it’s an album that has the potential to turn them into fans. For Sigma Oasis is a loose but highly energetic set of songs that more closely approximate Phish’s live soundscape and the idiom of their concerts than some of their earlier studio efforts. In fact, at times they seem as if they are performing live instead of in a studio. There are interpretations of two recent concert staples, Mercury and Steam. And though some of their older albums may sound like the band is reined in by the restrictions of recording in a studio, Sigma Oasis comes closer to a live gig than much of their earlier discography.

The songs on Sigma Oasis—a mix of ballads, throwback rock and feel-good tunes—sound simultaneously nostalgic, harking back to the classic Phish sound of the 1990s, and innovative, breaking into fresh territory with a contemporary feel. For a Phish fan (and those who could become one!), this is just what the doctor ordered.


Five tracks by Phish to bookend your week

1. ‘Mercury’ from ‘Sigma Oasis’

2. ‘Thread’ from ‘Sigma Oasis’

3. ‘Everything’s Right’ from ‘Sigma Oasis’

4. ‘Chalk Dust Torture (Live)’ from ‘The Baker’s Dozen: Live At Madison Square Garden’

5. ‘Farmhouse’ from ‘Farmhouse’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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