By MIKE PRINCE
For 21st Century Media
It has been more than 30 years since the band Phish took the stage for the very first time. Back then, it was in a small cafeteria in Burlington, Vt. Eventually, the band started playing sold-out shows around the country, as well as festivals in front of as many as 85,000 people. And during the second week of July, the four veteran musicians will perform two shows at a venue they haven’t played in 19 years.
Despite the four members of Phish having several ties to Philadelphia, the Vermont-based jam band have not played in the city in nearly five years, and haven’t even been across the river in Camden — a regular stop for several years — since the summer of 2011.
Phish, who consists of Trey Anastasio (guitar, lead vocals), Mike Gordon (bass, vocals), Page McConnell (keys, vocals) and Jon Fishman (drums, vocals), will take the stage on July 8 and 9 at the Mann Music Center by Fairmount Park, performing a pair of mid-week shows for sold-out crowds.
Needless to say, Phish fans — or ‘Phish heads’ — are anxiously excited to see their favorite band at a venue many thought would never be played again, especially considering the band was still officially broken up not that long ago. And local fans are ecstatic to be able to see the band without traveling very far.
“I’m definitely very excited. While they’ve played the area lately having them in Philly proper is always a treat, especially knowing that Trey (Anastasio) has a connection to the city,” said Philadelphia resident Alan Heath, who recently attended his 100th Phish show. “I can’t say I ever thought they would play the Mann again. Even when the rumors were swirling around, I didn’t think it would happen. It’s my favorite band and one of my favorite venues, so combining those two is going to make for a great couple of nights.”
For many people, attending 100 shows for one single band doesn’t only sound a bit excessive, but downright ludicrous. For anyone familiar with the band’s history, their catalog and their loyal following, they realize that 100 shows is more of actually the norm — or not even that big of a number — for those who have been following the band since well before Phish’s initial hiatus.
(In fact, this specific writer will be attending his 100th Phish show just a couple short weeks after the Mann concerts).
Phish formed in Vermont in 1983, playing their first show on Dec. 3 with Jeff Holdsworth on guitar at the time. In 1984, McConnell replaced Holdsworth, and the current lineup was born. The band played two- and three-set shows until the fall of 2000, when they eventually went on a hiatus which lasted until New Year’s Eve of 2002. In August of 2004 Phish broke up — something that fans know was for the best.
Nearly five years later, in March of 2009, Phish returned for three sold-out shows at the Hampton Coliseum in Virginia, otherwise known as “The Mothership.” Now, more than five years since the return, the band is playing at a level many believe is as high as it has been in more than a decade.
“The day I heard they were breaking up was absolutely devastating,” said John Gebert, of Conshohocken, a Phish fan who has been seeing the band since 1997. “I’ve been a fan for over 20 years and finding that out was almost as bad as the day I found out that Jerry (Garcia) died, but it really was the right move. A lot of fans were lost, but when I heard they were reuniting, I couldn’t have been happier, but I never could have imagined that they would be playing so well right now. Us fans have a new thing to grasp onto and it has never felt better. I can’t wait to see what they do this year.”
With a mixture of complex compositions, musical improvisation, silly lyrics, extended jams, varied musical genres and a completely different set list each and every night, Phish is a live act like no other. While their fan base may not be anywhere near as large as many popular touring acts, it certainly is the most loyal, with old and new droves of fans traveling across the country to see Phish perform.
What Phish gives their fans is not only a different set list each night, but a completely different show. With Chris Kuroda — known as “CK5” to fans — putting on a visually-stunning light show every night, and with the band changing things up, no two shows are ever exactly the same.
Using different styles of jamming, from awe-inspiring melodic themes to exploratory band cohesion to often goofy playing (occasionally featuring Fishman on a vacuum) to ‘cow funk’ to straight rock and roll, Phish knows how to make each show, each set and each song unique.
This current tour, which commences on July 1 in Mansfield, Mass., and features 25 dates, will feature the band performing tracks from “Fuego,” Phish’s first studio album in five years, as well as their 12th overall. Produced by Bob Ezrin, a rock legend who has worked with Pink Floyd and Lou Reed, among others, “Fuego” features 10 new tracks which debuted back on Halloween of 2013 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.
Phish will play four shows, including three in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. before coming to the Mann. The album, which leads off with the nine-plus minute title track, dropped in stores on June 24.
Phish will play two separate two-set shows on July 8 and 9 at the Mann Music Center.
Doors: 6 p.m.
Showtime: 7:30 p.m.
Tickets for the performances are sold out according to manncenter.org.