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Phish: Farmhouse, Junta, Billy Breathes

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In a week where we’re low on new releases, we thought we’d review some old albums from a band you’ve possibly never heard of — American jam-band Phish.

Anyone who follows US culture will have come across Phish, who are loved in the States but largely unknown over here. We asked A&A Music, and its computerised records over two decades or so show sales of zero.

According to Wikipedia, Phish are famed for musical improvisation, extended jams, the blending of genres and a dedicated fan base. The core of their attraction seems to be their live shows — the band can change the entire set between gigs, and with fans flocking to venues hours before they open. The concert includes a temporary community in the auditorium car park, complete with “Shakedown Street”, which can be a garment district, art district, food court or pharmacy.

Wikipedia reports sales of eight million albums and DVDs over their career: the same as Howard Jones, whose latest tour we plug this week, but 10 times less than Green Day, whose tour we also plug.

On Wikipedia’s list of best-selling bands, there’s not even a category as low as 8m. (Elvis and The Beatles head it, 600m sales). Adele’s 25 has sold more than eight million copies in the US.

Official soundboard recordings of all gigs can be purchased through the Live Phish website, but the band encourages taping, with boom microphones allowed into shows. Videos are allowed, as long as they are not-for-profit.

The band started at university in 1983, the current line-up solidifying in 1985: Trey Anastasio (guitars, lead vocals), Mike Gordon (bass, vocals), Jon Fishman (drums, percussion, vacuum, vocals), and Page McConnell (keyboards, vocals). They performed for 20 years before splitting up for the first time.

A recent Rolling Stone profile seems to say that they toured hard, which took its toll on band harmony. Now they play no more than 50 gigs a year, don’t allow hangers-on backstage, don’t hit the bar after the gig (their travelling bar was known as the Betty Ford Clinic) and — rule number one — don’t comment on each other’s playing at all. For a band whose live show changes all the time and features lengthy improvisation, mistakes must be inevitable.

We Googled their best albums and bought the three best (second hand): Billy Breathes, Junta and Farmhouse.

Junta is the most improvised album and it’s great, a loose feel and based on jamming and having fun. The most typical song is David Bowie, a tight funky/Latin groove (you can imagine the Eagles trying to be this cool), with only four words as lyrics, “David Bowie” in the first half of the song, “UB40” in the second. Four songs are over nine minutes long: Esther, David Bowie, You Enjoy Myself and The Divided Sky. Anyone who likes chilled jazzy, psychedelic funk rock should try this album.

Phish are often compared to the Grateful Dead (and Anastasio has played with the Dead) and Farmhouse is the most Dead-like of the three.

Opener Farmhouse has something of No Woman No Cry about it, with added (excellent) guitar solos.

Elsewhere, Bug has some fine piano playing, while the band’s ever-present humour surfaces on The Inlaw Josie Wales. Standout is maybe Dirt, a heartfelt song that shows that whistling in the rock context can be cool.

Finally, Billy Breathes, an album they apparently released to get more mainstream success.

Opener Free is the most immediately appealing track from the three CDs, with Anastasio showing what a good singer he is, and playing some tasty licks.

Track two Character Zero is excellent, starting off acoustically but soon turning into an appealing melodic rock tune with a touch of the southern boogie about it.

You could classify Billy Breathes as the most rocky of the three, but given Phish’s embracing of different genres, that would be a rough approximation.

Lyrically, you get the impression that most lyrics are either an afterthought or written while stoned.

All in all: we’re pleased we made the effort with Phish. They’re an excellent band, always playing to a high quality and effortlessly ranging across styles. They are a long way from the bland, corporate rock band we imagined them to be. Well worth investigating.


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