I’ll be the first to admit that the differences between Phish and The GD far outnumber the similarities between the two bands. And God forbid I sound like some douche-bag journalist for Esquire Magazine or something, who states that Phish inherited the jamband crown from the Dead, yadda yadda mubo jumbo tye-dye fuck-nuts. And also I of course realize that in the Deadhead community, there’s perhaps no greater polarizing topic than discussing one’s love for some prog-nerds from Vermont. But let’s get down to the brass tacks – in terms of improvisational live experiences that are centered on communal psychedelic expansion, there’s no other bands on the plate. If you want to mention any bands that involve hula-hoops, Southern rock, or shitty live techno, then you can probably stop reading this blog right now and call me a formulaic dick-wad in the comments section.
So let’s cut to 1995. At this point, 30 years into the Grateful Dead’s lifespan, the band had played over 2,300 shows and was established as the cultural reference point for any lingering emotions of the 60’s and hippie state-of-being. Unfortunately, the band was also a faint shadow of their former selves. Hard drugs had not only ravished Garcia, but had also taken a massive toll on a good portion of the crowd and the scene in general. What’s even scarier is that despite how dark the scene had become, it was the environment itself which was the biggest draw. To be a part of the collective had become more important than hearing quality music. And again, don’t get me wrong – there were still amazing moments. There were still times when Garcia could break through the heroin-fueled haze and grace his magic upon the crowd. But the thunderous attack and mind-melting jams that put the band in everyone’s hearts in the first place were no longer there. The greatest moments of the show were the slow Jerry ballads – the moments where his emotions were so palpable that your heart quivered. And then gates were crashed, and platforms fell, and the fat-man took his final bow.
Now cut to 2013. At this point, 30 years in Phish’s lifespan, the band has played 1,451 shows, which is nearly 40% less than the Dead had played at this point. This statistic could potentially be the most important factor for the current state of stability in the Phish world. Essentially, 2004 was to Phish what 1995 was to The Grateful Dead. And had a pharmaceutically ravished Trey Anastasio not decided to break up the band at that point, we would probably not currently be discussing a 30th anniversary for his band. Like the Dead’s final year, 2004 found the band at all-time lows. Sure there were still great moments, but the ugly and the mundane far outnumbered the face-melting moments. But let’s focus on now – 2013. From the majority of first-hand reports, Trey is maintaining his sobriety. The band is playing a higher percentage of routine performances than at other points of their career, but fortunately it never really “sucks.” While nothing in 2013 matches the magic of 1993-1997, there are still phenomenal moments from this band. And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. Yes the Tahoe “Tweezer” is incredible, and yes the San Francisco “Runaway Jim” is stupendous, but they are still but drops in the ocean of amazing music that was previously standard on a song-to-song and show-to-show basis from the band. But the thing is, Phish can still play any song from their catalog as tightly as they ever once did. The complexities of “Reba” and “YEM” are still nailed to a point that when compared to a 1995 “Slipknot,” the accuracies aren’t even in the same book, let alone on the same page. Now sure, when it comes to new emotional songs – a 2013 “Show of Life” has nothing against a 1995 “Days Between,” and in some ways those emotional daggers are the one thing that Phish is still lacking. On a good night you’ll still find me wiping a tear away during a “Bug” or “If I Could,” but in terms of new songs, I still think “Light” sounds like the soundtrack to a fat-camp infomercial. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the jam’s great, but still…
So musically, Phish is performing at a whole other level than The Dead were able to perform at in their 30th year. And in terms of the crowd, there’s no arguing that the Phish scene is a far warmer and more inviting place than GD lot was 18 years ago. There’s a level of maturity that’s present at Phish shows now that’s something to be quite proud of. Yes, seriously. Sure, Ketamine and Moon Rocks are far-too present, but overall people seem to be able to take care of themselves. Thus the conclusion of my ranty, pointless blog is that relatively speaking, Phish are fucking amazing right now. Non-relatively speaking is a whole other story, but either way the state of things is spectacular. And while I don’t want to spawn this rant over to the current state of the GD universe, I can’t help but comment on what’s happening there. While in San Francisco last week for Phish’s 3-night stand, I happened to check out Jerry Day. Stu Allen’s band played and sounded great, as did JGB, but it was the scene that shocked me the most. There’s still a solid mass of the love of the dead-head community, but there’s also this new wave of young kids who thing that the Grateful Dead is like the Mafia. I saw scores of folks wearing t-shirts and sweatshirts that said things like “Grateful Gangster” and “You don’t fuck with GDF.” They think that imposing fear and imposing a sense of exclusion is a key part of the scene. It’s sad, and it’s frightening. And I’m sorry, but I’m not gonna shrug off the fact that Bob Weir collapsed on stage a few months ago – no matter what the reasoning for it was. Phish has taken many cues from the Dead, but in terms of stability and relationship with the fans, it could be time that the remaining members of the Dead took some cues from Phish. Slow down. Be patient. Take it easy. Realize your roll in music and in the world.