I have found that many of my life’s most profound discoveries and other turning points have happened at random, at those times when I wasn’t even looking for something new.

Once I catch wind of something I’ve been missing out on, I have to sit and wonder how much else I’ve turned a blind eye to over the years. If the discovery is important enough to you, it could alter your whole outlook for the rest of your life.

Regular readers of the Musical Record blog will know that music is one of my lifelines. It has its duty, its role to play, right there with my family, my alone time, the food I eat.

As such, my connection to music has been well established over the last 15 years that I’ve been seriously listening to it. That is to say: I know what music I like and what I would like. That knowledge comes from near-constant listening, studying, and self-examining. Over the years, without having done the research, I felt like I fully understood why we like the music we like.

Well, before the year 2019, I thought I knew everything I ever would about my musical tastes. But then, one of those unexpected discoveries burst into my life. It hit like a train, and the effects were nearly the same: my musical knowledge seemed to shatter and lie broken all over the ground.

But this wasn’t a scene of destruction. Rather, it was the breaking down of norms that is necessary if one really wants to learn and grow.

This was my first contact with a rock band called Phish, and here is the story of how Phish taught me to love something I had never truly respected: live music.

phish purple lights

Live Music and Me
Enter: Phish Concerts
What Is a Phish Concert Like?
“Ghost”
Theatrics
A Few Personal Notes about Song Favorites
2/28/03 “Bathtub Gin”
2/28/03 “Back on the Train”
7/22/97 “Mike’s Song”
So, Why Do I Love Live Music Now?

Live Music and Me

When I connect to certain artists on deep levels–with Bob Dylan, say, or Leonard Cohen–then, rather than just skimming the hits off the top, I like to dive deep. And inevitably, once I get through the studio discography, I’m left with the artist’s live output.

This is where things have gotten sort of murky for me over the years. Until quite recently–literally 2019–I wanted almost nothing to do with live recordings. I’ve been to plenty of concerts in my life, but mostly for the excitement of seeing one of my favorites in person.

Indeed, until last year, I had long held a negative opinion of live music, for this reason: I disliked how different the songs often sounded compared to their studio counterparts.

You can take that in multiple ways. Probably many people like the variations. I didn’t. I would get annoyed when a song that I knew well was so altered that, were it not for the lyrics, I would never be able to tell it was the same song. Dylan likes making those kinds of changes in concert.

I also never liked how concerts seem to make everything sound somewhat rushed and sloppy. When you’re an artist putting on a show, you’ve got thousands of people in front of you, and just one chance to sing each song.

As a result, I found that many performances I had been to sounded like rehearsals, with my favorite instrumental parts or vocal inflections from the studio glaringly absent or just trampled over in the rush of the show.

Compare all that to studio recordings, in which the artist has plenty of time to work through the songs with the band and producers. Musicians can go into the studio with unfinished songs and work them out with the recording time they’ve booked.

The slow progression to perfection eventually allows the studio album to be completed and released. Then, when I hear that album for the first time and happen to love it, I know I can return to it anytime I want, with all the sounds staying exactly the same for the rest of time.

This setup was unbeatable to me. I stuck to the studio stuff and didn’t really budge toward live albums. This was the case even with Bob Dylan, an artist to whom I have the strongest of connections through music and emotions.

So, what happened to explode this world and, in effect, show me the error of my thinking?

Enter: Phish Concerts

The short answer is that Phish kicked down the doors to my musical heart and started spewing funky jams and psychedelic space journeys all over the place.

To contextualize that somewhat: my now-buddy Steve became my coworker and started playing Phish on the office Spotify.

phish red lights

I don’t know if I can do justice to my initial reaction to Phish concerts. Here was a band that for the last almost 40 years had been specifically known as a live act. So they had a lot of practice at the whole live experience. They relished it, and so did the fans.

At first, I would waffle between thinking all Phish sounded the same and thinking I liked some songs, but only sometimes. Ultimately, I wasn’t totally buying it yet, all the jamming.

But the familiarity principle eventually took its toll on me. More listening meant I was able to pick out more details, and I slowly started paying more attention.

After a few months, I realized that all the live music I had heard to that point seemed to be falling off a cliff.

Something I may have thought at the time was: “Why have I been letting some poorly recorded Buddy Guy from the 1970s color my opinion of live music, especially when I now have access to this obviously creative and zany jam band that’s having such a good time being different in concert?”

What Is a Phish Concert Like?

What struck me, and still does, about Phish was how many things the band can be in a single concert performance.

I don’t just mean that on a musical level. Those elements are there: I love funk music, and Phish is nothing if not oozing funk out their ears. They’re also a straight rock band a lot of the time, and what musical genre is more accessible than rock?

However, as strange as this sounds, take the music out of it for a moment. What gets me and probably fans everywhere about Phish is the band members’ abilities to jam, sometimes for a half hour or more, while never losing pace with one another.

Listen to singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio slip into a rhythm and have keyboardist Page McConnell instantly back him up, and know how to do it tastefully. Then, pay attention to the rhythm section of bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman as they intuit how to give it all as much or as little force as the piece needs.

Anyone who knows Phish understands that this kind of improv is no surprise. The real surprise is always in what you’ll get on a given night, how one song will transition to another, and where the song will take everyone.

See, when Phish plays a show, they’re aren’t like most bands. They don’t go out there and repeat a setlist from the night before. And, even if they did, it wouldn’t actually be the same set.

Now, what do I mean by that? Phish is as cohesive a unit as there ever has been on a stage. The band creates conditions whereby an existing song can take off by itself and become something that nobody expects. There are Phish songs that can be 7 minutes one night and 19 minutes the next.

As you might expect from what I’ve said so far, the differences between these song versions aren’t just in the length. The whole feel–the mood, the rhythm, the atmosphere, the places the song goes–all of this changes from performance to performance.

In the Phish universe, there are type I jams and type II jams. Type I jams are more traditional songs; a song’s structure holds throughout the performance and ends as you might expect. There’s plenty of room for interesting and surprising jamming in the middle, but we’re not nuking the fridge.

Meanwhile, type II jams go off the rails, usually by a lot. Type II performances break down the song structure completely and become different animals. Trey may go off into no man’s land,  but the others are right there with him, keeping time, holding the experience in place.

These are where the jams get nasty, crunchy, you could even say. The band might spin us a dark tale, or get progressive and take us through space and time for a while, as the moody rhythms wind their way through places you’ve never been. And this can all be done without any singing whatsoever.

“Ghost”

Here’s a perfect example of the type of differentials I’m talking about. Take a classic like “Ghost,” the 7/23/97 version of it. This is 26 minutes of funk-infused jamming that drives along at a swift clip before bringing things down about 20 minutes in.

It’s classic type II, as we expect one thing to be the case but are then smoothly transitioned into something else. The places your mind goes in this type II can be astounding (by the way, it’s performances like this one that can run a Phish concert to three hours or more).

Next, go to 11/17/97’s “Ghost.” The Stevie Wonder-style funk returns, but this time, we’re at mid-tempo and able to catch our breath a little more. As we go on and hit the 7-minute mark, things get spacey. Page’s piano comes in and lends almost a nostalgic air to the performance.

By about 11 minutes, we may as well be floating on a cloud, as the overall tone of the song has become calmly euphoric. Page knows exactly how to complement Trey, and Fishman and Mike are always present in the back, keeping us moving.

Then, at about 15 minutes, we gracefully transition back to the core of the song. The musicianship is nothing short of stunning, akin to a jazz or classical band hitting every step just right.

Finally, listen to “Ghost” from 7/6/98. This is a type I song. As I said, there’s sufficient time for some jamming in the middle, but we never leave the structure behind.

Now, I don’t want you to think that a type I Phish song is boring in any way. The band might stay within the established structure of the song, but that doesn’t mean that this night’s type I “Ghost” is going to be anything like the type I “Ghost” they play the next night or next week or whatever it is.

Here’s an example of how this 7/6/98 version is different. We ease along for about 7.5 minutes before Trey starts riffing on his own. The band keeps him grounded in “Ghost,” but still, there he goes, charting his own course.

Things really take a turn at about 10 minutes in, when Trey hits his pedalboard and fires away into a full-on guitar party. It’s a jam! It just happened that way, and it still fits right into the type I “Ghost” format.

Now, tell me who in the audience knew that was going to happen in exactly that way? Maybe Phish fans knew what they could expect–what had the potential to happen–but no one had any idea where this performance was going until it went there.

To cap off this perfect event, listen to how “Ghost” transitions so elegantly into a cover of “Cities” by Talking Heads. It’s so smooth that you don’t even know what’s happening until you’re in it.

The thing is, we just enjoyed such good feelings with “Ghost” that to end it all so abruptly would be jarring. Instead, we ease right into something new and different in the tasteful way that Phish handles just about all their musical decisions.

It should be plain to see by now that, for someone like me who is at this moment still “getting into” Phish, it would seem that the great diversities of a Phish concert are more than enough to absorb.

Theatrics

But then, there are the theatrics. What would a Phish show be without a little fun, juvenile or otherwise, along the way?

I’m talking about Trey and Mike’s synchronized trampoline jumping over the years, all while continuing to play and never losing time. I mean the novelty of Phish’s annual Halloween shows, in which the band covers an entire album of another artist (or their own). There’s also the craziness of their New Year’s Eve shows, in which audiences always get to experience some kind of surreal gimmick, such as the band riding a giant hot dog through the arena in 1994.

And obviously, “theatrics” also refers to the absolutely stunning light shows the band puts on, all controlled by the fifth member of the band, Chris Kuroda, who will improvise right along with the music. The images throughout this post give you a good idea of what I’m referring to.

phish yellow lights

A Few Personal Notes about Song Favorites

So, I’ve explained a lot about Phish here. We went into my discovery of them, some technical details about the way they work, and how a Phish concert usually proceeds. Here are some notes about a few of my favorite Phish performances.

2/28/03 “Bathtub Gin”

“Bathtub Gin” has been a Phish classic and fan favorite for a lot of years, and for good reason. Like probably most of the Phish repertoire, it’s a fun romp into the surreal and never really takes itself too seriously.

That playful opening and chill guitar riff are in fine form on 2/28/03. We drift along pleasantly for about 12 minutes before picking up the pace a bit. Trey shreds for a little while, and then we ease back into the relaxation and fun of the “Gin” main riff at about 19.5 minutes.

This is a long, fun adventure of a Phish staple, and I’ve drawn a lot of pleasure from working with it in the background, as it stirs up a current that takes me off into a more comfortable place.

2/28/03 “Back on the Train”

This is a top 10 Phish performance for me. No other version I’ve heard (so far) compares to this one. “Back on the Train” is lyrically a travel song about ideas traveling all around the world, turning one’s face to the wind, and going. The song drives along at a rhythmic clip, reminding me of a chugging train.

“Back on the Train” is profound to me in that it fills me with a self-confidence I never thought possible. It could be the cavalier lyrics or the rhythm that keeps on going through the whole performance, but I put this on when I’m happy or when I need to get happy.

The landscape of the song makes me think of a train leaving a station at the beginning, then heading out into the wilderness during the jam, and finally reaching the next station toward the end, with a lot of fun adventures along the way. I’ve listened to this performance during a lot of tense moments in the past few months, and it has always gotten me through.

7/22/97 “Mike’s Song”

The 7/22/97 version of “Mike’s Song” is all about the funk, and I would be nothing without a funky groove in my life. It’s 14 minutes of mostly funk jamming. The band is having a good time here, and it’s this kind of extended playing that can get me through work or a long drive, or really just sitting and chilling.

It’s also cool because, at about 10 minutes, things get dark and brooding. It reminds me of the sludgiest of Black Sabbath in the early days. That shift from the funky dance party to this slow, progressive meander is incredibly skillful and unexpected. It plays with your mind in a way that not a lot of other live music does.

So, Why Do I Love Live Music Now?

You should have a decent picture of Phish now. I repeat that my words can’t do them justice, but at least you know what you’d be getting into if you start listening to the band.

Phish is something that fans experience rather than simply listen to. I’ve been using the word “experience” throughout this post. It’s the best word to describe what listening to Phish is like.

Maybe with a lot of other artists, fans simply “listen” to them. I get that completely. We can’t all be Phish.

phish nye at msg

With Phish, though, you have to be all in. They don’t just make music; they create states of mind in their listeners that didn’t exist before. It’s a kind of magic that I don’t think I could generate on my own.

So, how did Phish get me to love live music? If no one else does what they do, why do I now appreciate other live performances, where before, I dismissed them as shadows of their studio betters?

It’s because Phish showed me that live music isn’t studio music and is never supposed to be. Whereas studio recordings essentially freeze an artist’s performance and emotions in time, live music is special in that it’s fleeting. It will never “exist” again. Just look at the three versions of “Ghost” above, and you can see that.

Sure, we have recordings of live shows, but no one live performance is exactly like another. This applies to all musicians. Each concert an artist gives is influenced by so many factors that seem to arise out of the ether. Setlists change, vocal inflections come and go, and even the mood of the artists on stage can affect how the performance sounds.

This is not something to be lamented or annoyed by. It’s what makes me appreciate a live performance for what it is. It doesn’t matter that it may not match a studio recording exactly or at all. Enjoying that live performance is about living in, and appreciating, the present moment.

I now have new ears for every note of live music I’ve ever heard. It’s been a beautiful rediscovery in that sense.

And it all started with Phish.