In 2009’s “I Love You Man,” Paul Rudd and Jason Segel play two besties who bond over a shared obsession with the prog-rock band Rush. At a concert of their beloved “Holy Triumvirate,” the two men drop all regard for judgment, passionately belting lyrics and making ridiculous air guitar gestures, which a girlfriend calls “licking each other’s basses.” A Phish show is not much different. Dudes are really psyched. People are licking each other’s basses. This is partially why calling yourself a Phish fan feels like a confession of sorts, but guess what? While liking Phish is one of the least cool things about me, I’m fine with that.
Last Friday at the DCU Center in Worcester marked my 20th time seeing the Vermont-bred jam band. This, of course, pales in comparison to the show tallies of most of the group’s rabid fanbase but it’s enough to prove that I am indeed a fan. From the first time I saw the band embark on one of its signature lengthy jams, something clicked musically. I was hooked. Most folks don’t have this experience, though. To those outsiders, Phish fans remain a misunderstood clique of weirdos.
I’ve spent my professional life working closely with local musicians, writing about buzz bands from the unheard of to the mega-huge, and poring over groups that can make something magical out of just a few chords. All of which is very different than what Phish represents. All the while, there’s something quite fascinating about Phish: Unlike any other band, it seems to have the respect and attention of so many different audiences, while at the same time the rejection of such a large one.
And it’s tough to spot a super fan. Phish heads are like sex offenders (without the obvious creepiness): They’re everywhere, you just don’t necessarily know one when you see one. You think you can pick them out by their clothes, but sometimes you’re surprised when one breaks the stereotype. Fans of the band often get associated with drug culture, which is fair, because just like many other concerts, there are drugs there. But Phish fans seem to come in all different shapes, sizes, and mindsets. They all crave this one-of-a-kind live music experience, but for very different reasons. Here are two song examples from Friday’s show that illustrate starkly different sides of Phish fandom.
“Wilson” is a classic from the Vermont quartet’s catalog. While musically invigorating and containing some impressive guitar work by Trey Anastasio, it also happens to be one of the band’s nerdiest ditties. Its lyrics are based on the made up tale of the ruthless leader of a fabled land called Gamehenge. The tune begins with a spirited chant from the crowd and even features some weird mouth percussion from Anastasio. “Wilson” is the type of song that Phish faithful go gaga for, outsiders scoff at, and potential romantic partners would probably judge you for liking. It’s definitely a tune for the bass-lickers.
But with “Free,” the perspective changes. Off 1996’s “Billy Breathes,” the tune is one of Phish’s more palatable offerings. With a signature riff that carries the song, lyrics that show a bit more sophistication, and an ambience that opens up in the live setting, “Free” isn’t just for the dreadlocked kid in the crowd who took one too many bong hits. It’s for a greater audience. And chances are, if you play it for a non-Phish fan, that person might even admit to enjoying it.
Everyone from dads to punks to hipsters to hippies make up the Phish faithful and the space between “Wilson” and “Free.” While I’ve always been a sucker for Phish’s entire collection, my tastes lie more in the realm of the latter. But it doesn’t really matter — fans of this strange band will always be seen as the former. It’s OK. It only bothers me a little bit. Real fans know there’s something special about Phish. Every fan’s reason is different, but to me, the band’s dynamic is unbeatable and while there’s a “drink-the-koolaid” aspect to it, there is no other live act that can weave together so many different genres and moods in one show.
I may not go around licking basses, but telling you that I’m a Phish fan isn’t a confession at all. Even if you think it should be.
[Photo Credit: Dave Vann]