By Jeff Miller
Growing up in LA's rock scene means spending your formative years building hipster credibility; writing about music in LA, as I've been doing for the last decade or so, often means working to maintain it. So there's a certain implicit shame when I admit a couple things about myself: I'm an unabashed fan of the much-derided Vermont jamband Phish, and I traveled - excitedly - this past weekend to Hampton, VA, for their first shows since breaking up nearly five years ago, following a muddy farewell festival in Vermont (it should be shamefully, or shamelessly, acknowledged that I traveled cross-country for that show, too.)
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I've always wondered why people with otherwise "good" musical taste loathe Phish, and this weekend, I think, confirmed my suspicion: they've never actually listened to them. If they'd download the shows from this weekend (all available, for free, at LivePhish.com), they'd hear something they like, whether it's precise musicianship ("Harry Hood"), freewheeling, white-funky interplay ("2001"), serious, heartfelt ballads ("Waste," "Bug"), and, yes, songs with silly, ridiculous, often-nonsensical lyrics ("You Enjoy Myself"). They'd also hear covers songs from bands they likely love - from the Beatles "A Day In the Life" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," to the Rolling Stones' "Loving Cup," played with passion and verve that shows an unquestionable reverence for the source material, imbued with playfulness rarely found in an arena-sized band that's not the Flaming Lips.
No, I think people hate Phish not for the music, but because of the fanaticism their fans represent - a fanaticism I finally came to terms with this weekend, as I went to two of the three shows (as thousands of other fans did) with my finger in the air, hoping for a "miracle" ticket (I got in.) It's certainly what sets their stereotype apart, and their fans are happy to oblige: ask a Phish fan what the band's lighting guy's name is, and you'll likely get a lengthy treatise about Chris Kuroda, whose washes of blue and red and orange made their way among not just the band and the Hampton Coliseum but gigantic, human-sized balloons that were later let loose like massive, squishy jellyfish on the rabid crowd. I'm also a big enough Wilco fan that I've traveled cross-country to see them, too, and I couldn't tell you who runs their lights; it's almost like the minutae that surrounds Phish sometimes seem important as the band themselves.
Buy into it, though, and you've bought into a scene that's much further out of the mainstream than any indie rock scene in America - a bold notion for anyone who's credibility-obsessed in the first place. It doesn't mean I'm quite ready to wear my Phish shirts to Spaceland, but it definitely means I'm not going to apologize to anyone for already booking my plane ticket to Bonnaroo.
- Jeff Miller