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Phishing for Relevance 

The world's biggest jam band fights for its legacy

Phish's detractors point to Jerry Garcia's death in 1995 as the day the group claimed the jam-band throne from the Grateful Dead.

But try telling that to the gaggle of Phish fans who gathered 51 days earlier at Blossom for a triumphant date on their summer tour. And just try convincing the guy who made it to the middle of Blossom's rooftop to dance to a cover of "Highway to Hell" that his favorite band wasn't already the king of the jam-band scene. Phish phans will tell you that the Dead had lost it right around the time of their only Top 10 album, 1987's In the Dark, and were largely irrelevant from the early 1990s on. Their band inherited the sacred crown sometime around September 1990, when Phish's watershed Lawn Boy album was released.

Some may even point to Phish's major-label record deal two years later, an event preceded by Garcia's unveiling of a line of (gasp!) ties just a few months earlier. Or maybe to the fact that Garcia's lackadaisical live playing, which started a year before his death, signaled the end of that long-running band.

At the same moment Garcia mentally checked out, Trey Anastasio began his reign as a neo-hippie guitar god. They took over the crown at a time when tired hippie culture seemed like a sad excuse for amateur Dionysus disciples to party. The scene needed a breath of fresh air, and Phish, at least at the time, had the freshest breath around.

Anyone with some level of jam band awareness will tell you that Phish are one of those "love them/hate them" bands, which means they must matter on some level, be it historical, musical, or whatever. But it's not hard to see the other side of things — the side that hates Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Jon Fishman, and Page McConnell to their very core. It's easy to hear why. To untrained ears, Phish are exasperating.

As primordial jammers, the Dead used wild launching points to meander between songs. Phish jams literally are the songs, sometimes even wholly improvised, but with awareness and untamed movements guiding them. Noodling chord structures and time signatures abound, decorated with trippingly nonsensical stream-of-consciousness and pacifist narratives ("You Enjoy Myself," "Gotta Jibboo," etc.). There's an unquestionably self-indulgent band-practice vibe going on.

The quartet may tweak song arrangements from night to night. Or play chess with fans onstage, literally and figuratively. Or even unveil full-album "musical costumes" for legendary Halloween shows. And no two Phish shows are ever alike, which is great for the collective consciousness of peace-loving Phishheads, but irksome for anyone in an unaltered state or simply out of the know. Add an amiable slacker spirit to this mix and you've got a total snoozefest for music fans who prefer traditional melodic journeys that travel from Point A to Point B.

But if you can get past the crush of huddled, sweaty, sour-smelling masses who flock to their shows, Phish can be a hell of a lot of fun ... if you're in the right mood. At the very least, their concerts provide terrific people-watching that puts the downtown Greyhound and Amtrak stations and (pre-TSA) Hopkins Airport to shame.

With zero radio attention, that 1995 Blossom show was a surprisingly great time, filled with two sets of grand crescendos, trampoline jumping, a vacuum-cleaner solo, and a head-on charge of favorites ranging from "Llama," "Bathtub Gin," and "Split Open and Melt," to "Chalk Dust Torture," "Prince Caspian," and the "Slave to the Traffic Light" encore.

Rolling Stone once called Phish the most important band of the '90s. After 25 years and two hiatuses, that's debatable. Since that decade, Phish have done little to cement that legacy. But as a subculture signpost, they still matter. Sort of. And in a music climate where rock & roll could stand to be a little more fun, Phish, at the very least, deliver that in spades.

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