My one and only commenter has asked why I haven't written about the announcement that Phish is retiring after this summer's tour, so I feel I should oblige.
If Phish doesn't want to play anymore, that's pretty much fine me. I do think it's somewhat draconian for the band to say to fans, this is the last concert we'll ever play. What's to prevent them from getting together and playing a tour every five years or so?
Personally, I've become less and less invested in Phish over the years, though they remain my favorite band. There two basic reasons: One, I just don't have the money to go to concerts across the country to see them play and Two, what they've been playing has made it less and less worth it for me to make that investment.
This isn't the time to write a huge encomium to Phish, to try to get everything in. But here's a short version.
In my view, Phish, which really hit their stride in 1990, topped out at their first major peak in 1994, which was the year I first saw them play.
I got in at the very end of the First Age of Phish, just as they were hitting the big-time. They were graduating from smaller venues like the Roseland Ballroom in NYC or the Warfield Theater in San Francisco -- 3,000 seat venues, typically theaters -- to 10,000 seat arenas. (Their growth, like that of the Dave Matthews Band, was explosive.) That winter their traditional New Year's Eve four-show run included their first appearance at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 30th (which became one of their homes during the NYE run) and a NYE show at the Boston Garden.
The years from 1990-1994 constituted a golden era that will never again be replicated. The band was hungry, the fan base was exploding and their song list was still small enough (relatively - they never repeated any of their 60-plus songs two nights in a row) that they would crush you in the head with their best material any given night you happened into a concert.
After 1994 they added new material and new fans, began playing major venues and adjusted to their newfound status.
Phish struggled to find a new sound in 1995 and 1996, with Trey Anastasio famously adding a drum kit to his onstage setup so that, during jams, he could submerge himself in the sound of the band and allow the other players more equal footing. Though Phish still kicked ass in its major shows (the New Year's run, Halloween, the festivals in Maine) including the NYE on 12/31/95 that ranks among the best concerts I've ever seen, some of the in-between shows were lackluster, as the band worked out its onstage difficulties.
The search that included that somewhat clumsy method paid off in 1997, when Phish hit its stride with a new, more groove-oriented sound that borrowed a lot from electronic music. Unfortunately, I had graduated from college and no longer had the ability to go see them play, so I missed out on much of that groundbreaking year.
That sound has pretty much reigned until this point, up through their hiatus beginning in 2000 and since they've come back.
The problem for me is that their setlists have become clogged with songs I just don't like, including: Waste, Limb by Limb, Wading in the Velvet Sea, Meatstick ... that's all I can recall off the top of my head.
Meanwhile, some of their best songs have gone downhill, seemingly having run their course, including: Possum, Down with Disease, You Enjoy Myself and Harry Hood.
There are the rare crowd pleasers that have gotten better with age, such as 2001 and Bathtub Gin.
Trey's solo on You Enjoy Myself used to be one of the peak experiences you could expect from any Phish show (Eleven days ago was the 10-year anniversary of one of the great Phish shows of all time, 6/11/94 at Red Rocks, which included a legendary You Enjoy Myself). But I haven't heard him solo on that song since 1999, when the solo was dropped from the jam section of the song, which began to sound like too many of their jams, a slow-moving, amorphous funk that generally went on too long.
I tend to agree with Trey that Phish's music has gotten a little stale. While they've added some great new songs and covers to their repertoire, and the setlists have improved since the dog days of 1996 and 1998, Phish has struggled under the burden of finding ways to breathe new life into songs that they have played backwards and forwards, inside and out, and stretched to the breaking point.
Personally, I've enjoyed Trey's solo shows a bit more than the Phish shows I've seen recently, because the music is so much fresher.
Phish will still kick your ass on any given night, and their cover of "Jungle Boogie" from the New Year's Run last year, which they probably learned how to play five minutes before going on stage, demonstrated their awesome capability for invention, but on the whole I can understand why Trey in particular felt that this particular vehicle for musical expression had run its course.
For those who might be tempted to playa hate on Phish, by the way, take a look at these photos of rapper Jay-Z performing with the band the other night at Keyspan Park in Brooklyn and remember that Kid Rock, a friend of Trey's, has also bestowed his unique credentials upon this socalled hippie jam band.