Phish: 1

In Pittsburgh, Vermont on June 19, 2009 at 9:17 pm

 Phish Show 013

Never bring me to a concert. Not rock, not jazz. No concertos or symphonies. Hiphop will never work out. No Linkin Park or GWAR or Rossini. My brain is poorly wired to watch people play instruments. In crowded rooms, I just want to sit down. In music halls, I slump in my seat. I keep glancing at the time, wondering how long this will last. I keep interrupting the middle of a song to ask a friend how his girlfriend is. I’m the only sane, social, 29-year-old American male who doesn’t understand the point of seeing live music.

I also grew up in Vermont, and I’ve never seen Phish. People have been hanged for lesser crimes. I’ve been a traitor to my people. Until today.


My Mom once flew her Cessna over Coventry, Vermont. It was a grisly day, barely flyable, but something caught my Mom’s eye: A few thousand feet below her fuselage, the highway was packed with cars. The horde of minibuses and vans stretched for miles and miles, an endless gypsy caravan snaking toward the horizon. When she landed, Mom called me and asked about it.

“Do you know anything about a band called Phish?” she asked.

“A… band… called… Phish,” I said slowly. “Are you serious?”

“Why would I joke about that?”

My parents have particular musical tastes, even for Baby Boomers: They prefer upbeat folk music, such as Celtic reels and Klezmer, and their collection of Broadway and opera records is extensive, both on CD and vinyl. They enjoy jazz, but only in its most innocent form, and they love Gospel and Swing. My parents have both sung for well-traveled a cappella groups, and my Mom’s all-women barbershop choir, Maiden Vermont, has earned some significant local ink. So I’m not surprised that my parents couldn’t name a mainstream pop-music band after 1965.

Except that Phish is an institution — half of Vermont’s people live there because of Phish and the lifestyle that this freewheelin’ hippie jam-band represents. Phish carries a torch first lit by the Grateful Dead (who are also veritably unknown to my parents). After three decades of living in Vermont, taking pride in their Vermont adulthoods, Vermont culture, Vermont freedoms and civic duties, how had my Mom missed the state’s most successful export? (Except ice-cream, and IBM microchips). And compared to my Dad, who proudly describes himself as an “old fogey,” my Mom is a boundless vault of pop-culture knowledge. If Mom didn’t know Phish, my Dad almost assuredly didn’t.

But fair’s fair: I’ve spent years avoiding Phish. The music has never interested me, nor has the legion of fans. I know only unavoidable snippets, the stuff everybody knows: Trey Anastasio is the immortal lead, and he’s enjoyed a tidy solo career. Fishman likes to get naked onstage. There are two other guys in the band, but I have no idea what their names are. They play a song called “Bouncing Around the Room,” a song that I can almost hum. But having spent a two-week road-trip with two friends who played nothing but Phish and Grateful Dead recordings, being able to hum part of one song is a pretty weak skill.

Two months ago, my friends John and Lindy proposed going to Pittsburgh’s singular Phish concert. “Free tickets,” John said. “All we want is a case of beer. And we don’t want to drive.”

And after all these years of willful ignorance, I surrendered. I’ll do anything if it’s free.


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