I know we all can’t stand it when the lazy journalist writes about how the Phish is the modern day Grateful Dead and how Trey is Jerry and blah blah blah. Well, dear readers, I am about to go there too…but it’s not what you think. Instead of being lazy about it, I am actually going to offer evidence and well thought-out arguments why this era of Phish closely resembles that of the Dead from ’87-’89.
I, like lots of other Deadheads, mainly prefer the pre-’74 era plus ’77 and a few other random years. Please don’t bother me with mid-’80s Dead. Same goes for the last 4 years of the band’s career. If you thought Phish sucked at Coventry, listen to the last Grateful Dead show ever at Soldier Field. A 7 song first set which I don’t even think reaches 60 minutes and a second set where Jerry mumbles and fumbles his way though the last set the band would ever play. And Phil’s vocals on the Box of Rain encore are all too reminiscent of Trey’s butchered guitar work on Curtain With (although it should be noted that Phil just plain can’t sing whereas Trey was all f’ed up on god knows what at Coventry).
The other years that I occasionally get in the mood for are the early and late Brent years. Brent joined the band in 1979 and played with them until his untimely death in 1990. Even though he was the longest tenured keyboardist with the band (the only other rock and roll job with a higher mortality rate than keyboardist for the Grateful Dead is drummer for Spinal Tap), at the time of his passing he was still considered “the new guy”. I really dig what Brent brought to the band: his voice had the soul of Pigpen, his keys had more range than Kieth’s did and he and Jerry had great chemistry together. It’s too bad that such a large chunk of Brent’s work with the band is buried in the mid-’80s, an era that I do not believe represents the best of the band, which eventually culminated in Jerry falling into a diabetic coma in 1986.
With Jerry back in good health, the band hit the road again in 1987. Backed by the release of their hit single (!) “Touch of Grey”, the band came back with a vengeance. The ranks of the Deadheads swelled. The band was on MTV (necessary snarky comment: remember when MTV played music videos? Also, happy 30th birthday MTV). The band was clean (mostly, I assume). And the music came back.
This is where I would like to start (start!?!). There are lots of similarities between the recharged Grateful Dead and the recharged Phish of the 3.0 era (side note: since the Dead were a band of the analog era, what would you call the various periods of their career without using 1.0, 2.0, 3.o designations?). Lets start with the music. For both bands the years immediately preceding the years under discussion were full of sloppy, uninspired playing caused by internal strife and drugs. But once the members cleaned themselves up and the bonds between the band members were repaired, their music found its meaning and purpose again. If you listen to “Without a Net”, you can hear how on point the Dead were during this era. Songs like Birdsong that peaked in the ’70s were now back in full force. The same can be said for a Phish song like Stash. Sure, Birdsong never sounded like it did in 1972, just like Stash doesn’t sound like it did in ’94, but the feeling is back.
Lets look at anther show. If you would, please turn your attention to 7/2/88 at the Oxford Speedway in Oxford, ME (coincidentally this show is both at a racetrack and Little Feat opened for the Dead that day). Click on Crazy Fingers. Fast forward to the 7:00 mark. Close your eyes and tell me if that is Crazy Fingers or Limb by Limb. Go ahead. I’ll give you a minute. I should also point out how prominent Phil is in the mix of this particular show and how much I think Mike’s playing of late sounds a lot more like Phil than he used to.
Jams of this era also were somewhat truncated, like Phish jams have been known to do in the 3.0 era. The only song from this show over 10 minutes is Terrapin, a song that takes quite a long time to get going. I don’t have Dead stats at the ready like I do Phish stats, but I don’t think there were any 18+ minute Playin’ in the Bands from ’87-’89, just like there haven’t been any extended Bowies or Tweezers. And while this version of Playin’ in the Band doesn’t get ripcorded, there are other jams of this era where the band would prematurely switch gears and cut off a jam to go into another song.
Along with the shortening of jams, to me there is also a sense of lack of spontaneity in the two eras of the respective bands. To Phish’s credit they have brought back some of their quirky antics and funny games that they play with the crowd, but for the most part crazy segues (I’m looking at you DWD>Mikes from 7/22/97 and the second set from 4/29/71 starting with Alligator) are a thing of the past. I don’t think it’s that the bands have lost their ability to conjure up the magic, but rather that as a musical group they have different priorities and want to emphasize different aspects of their music. Along those lines, the music from the bands in the eras under discussion are more accessible to more casual fans than music from other eras. I think Phish 3.0 is the most accessible music the band has played for the reasons listed above. Same goes for the Dead. What do you think would attract a more casual listener: any Dead show from ’69 or a show from ’89 (again, think “Without a Net“, “Truckin’ Up to Buffalo“, or “Crimson White and Indigo“, and for Phish what would draw in the casual listener: a show from the depths of Fall ’94 or a middling, yet solid performance from 3.0?
What remains to be seen is where the future will take Phish, as their book has not been yet been written. We all know what happened with the Grateful Dead after Brent died. Aside from the energy Hornsby brought the band, the music steadily declined, Jerry’s health deteriorated, and the scene got totally out of control. I don’t think those things will happen with Phish. I think Trey will stay clean. The jams may or may not return, but I don’t think the quality of the music will deteriorate like the Dead’s music did. And I don’t think that the scene will get out of control to the level of what happened to the Dead at Deer Creek in ’95. Phish still has it in them to blaze their own path, and despite what lazy journalists might say, the Grateful Dead comparisons are still slightly off the mark. But for those of us in the know, there are aspects of the bands that we can compare and to me, Phish 3.0 has many similarities to the Grateful Dead from ’87-’89.