It wasn't easy being Phish

Music: As the band remains on `hiatus,' its members remain close, although they've found other fish to fry.

November 15, 2001|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

The sun rose over the Everglades in brilliant pink and purple hues as thousands of bodies swayed near exhaustion to the trippy tunes of the world's biggest jam band.

Phish, the Vermont-grown quartet adored by transient followers while mostly ignored by the mainstream music machine, had pulled off an amazing feat, drawing nearly 80,000 fans from across the country to the quiet Big Cypress Seminole Reservation near Miami for New Year's Eve 1999.

That first painted Florida dawn of 2000 marked the end of a marathon set that had begun before midnight and gone nonstop for almost eight hours. But as fans returned to the tents, RVs and vans that had turned grazing land into a bustling, tie-dyed city, they were unaware that the dawn brought not only the end of the concert but also the beginning of the end of Phish.

As they left the stage, lead singer and guitarist Trey Anastasio says, he and drummer Jon Fishman turned to each other and said: "That was it."

The band announced a "hiatus" last year - shocking the music world just as it was beginning to acknowledge the Phish phenomenon - and played its final show in the San Francisco Bay area in October 2000. Though originally billed as a two-year break, Anastasio now says that the sabbatical has no definite end. Phish - the nation's premier jam-band and cult tour de force - may or may not play together again. They are leaving the possibilities open. And for Anastasio, that's all right.

"Everyone feels good about the fact that we had the sense to stop for however long we are going to stop before it overwhelmed us," he says. "Now everyone is in a really good place with Phish. It was the right thing to do - now, I know it was."

As "Phish-heads" hold out hope for the announcement of a Phish tour, many will flock to see Anastasio's newest endeavor, Oysterhead, a super-trio with bassist Les Claypool of Primus and drummer Stewart Copeland, formerly of the Police, at a sold-out show tomorrow at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington.

The band got its start last year when Claypool was asked to play the New Orleans Jazz Fest. He called up Anastasio, who suggested recruiting Copeland, his "boyhood drum hero."

Anastasio says that first show - though it sold out in less than 15 minutes and its bootlegged recordings were avidly traded among fans - didn't go that well. Still, the trio felt there was potential and set out to make the album.

Released last month, The Grand Pecking Order oozes with Claypool's eccentricities and Anastasio's psychedelic overtones in a subtle and eerie melange that blends away their different sounds.

Now, as Oysterhead tours the country playing shows sold out mostly to eager Phish Phans, Anastasio says he has "never been so excited" about a musical project. "There wasn't this feeling that we needed to prove anything - we were just doing it because we wanted to," he says. "Oysterhead will never take over our lives."

That was the problem Anastasio was having with Phish.

Over 17 years, Phish went from being what was basically a Grateful Dead cover band to having its own Ben-and-Jerry's ice cream flavor, Phish Food. Though its albums were seldom played on the radio and consistently spat on by critics who didn't get the wacky poetics, vacuum cleaner solos and spurts of barber shop quartet a capella, young listeners were drawn to the band's unique funk-rock. The passing of the Dead's Jerry Garcia in 1995 left a hole in the music scene that Phish quickly filled, becoming the touring band of choice among the neo-hippie concert crowd.

But maintaining the Phish intensity took its toll. Anastasio, now 37, says the band moved into an "uncomfortable situation" musically, though he maintains the band- mates had never gotten along better.

Phish "was just this ball of energy, beyond any individual talent," he says. "Nobody wanted to see a simmering ember of what Phish used to be."

So Phish called it quits at its peak to avoid the downturn and so that they could "remember that up to the last show it was an amazing ride the whole time." In the last months of its performances, band members celebrated and bonded.

"We just felt closer than ever," Anastasio says. "It was like the world was spinning around outside of us. The four of us would lock [ourselves] in rooms backstage and talk about how amazing it was and how lucky we were."

Then, they each embarked on the next band exercise: going out and having lives beyond Phish.

Anastasio released an album and toured with his solo band. He will release another album in the spring. Bassist Mike Gordon made a movie, pianist Page McConnell is recording a solo album and Jon Fishman has toured with the Jazz Mandolin Project and others. Phish released the first six in a series of live CDs over the last two months and will make an appearance on The Simpsons in the spring. The bandmates talk, Anastasio says, but not about a Phish tour.

"I do miss it," he says of Phish. "There are moments when I think I can't wait to have that feeling again - there is nothing like it. At the same time, I don't miss it to the point that I wish I was doing it right now."

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