I have 27 GB of Phish music, all legal, that would take 10 straight days to play through. This is moderate, as Phish collections go. They’re by far my favorite and most-listened-to band, and I’m not the only one: they’ve had a massive and devoted fanbase for most of my lifetime.
But Phish is surprisingly inaccessible to casual music listeners, so a lot of people who would otherwise like Phish either have never heard their music or have an inaccurate preconceived judgment about it.
I can’t blame them. Most people reading this, upon hearing about a band that sounds interesting, would go to iTunes and preview some of the band’s top singles or albums, maybe buying a few if they sound good. But this doesn’t work well for this band, or any band like it.
Phish is a jam band, and jam bands excel at live shows. Much of a jam band’s appeal is the improvisational, extended jams in and around their songs that often vary significantly between performances. But the studio albums only contain a single, well-polished, usually shortened version of each song that loses the variety, the energy, and much of the personality of the live performances.
And jam-band songs evolve over time. Usually, the studio-album version of a song (if it exists) is an early version, before a lot of its live performances. 1994’s studio version of “Down With Disease”, for example, is much shorter, slower, and more bland than the modern version.
If you’ve only ever heard a jam band’s studio albums, you’re missing out on the majority of their music, talent, and appeal.
So play this video (switch it to 720p for better sound quality), turn up the volume, and read on to see if this might be for you.
Why you might like Phish
If many of these are true, there’s a good chance you’ll like Phish:
- You love music, you listen to a lot of music, and you feel noticeably happy and energized whenever you get into a new album or band.
- You love musical complexity, and you’re not crazy about the lack of it in today’s pop music.
- You consider most modern pop music “overproduced”.
- You don’t easily tire of the songs you love and hear often.
- You’re a sucker for a good electric-guitar solo. Your favorite part of one of your favorite rock songs is the quick little guitar riff toward the end, and you wish it was longer.
- You prefer to buy and listen to full albums rather than singles. (Bonus points if you rarely use shuffle, preferring to listen to songs in album order.)
- You need a lot of music to fill long periods, such as listening in headphones while working at a computer all day.
Why you might not like Phish
It’s not for everyone. You probably won’t like Phish if any of these are true:
- You don’t like long songs, or songs with repetitive elements that build up over a long time. The well-known songs are often at least 8 minutes, and a typical show is nearly 3 hours.
- You won’t tolerate flaws such as misplayed notes or missed lyrics. These are live, improvisational recordings where the fans expect a lot of variety, so mistakes are inevitable, and you’ll hear them in every show.
- You care a lot about meaningful lyrics. If most Phish lyrics are meaningful, the meaning is way over my head.
- You want your music to help you feel angry or angsty. Sorry, you won’t find anybody raging against the machine or mourning a failed relationship around here. Phish usually makes people feel energized and happy (which is why so many college kids smoke pot at the concerts). And the band shows none of the rockstar “screw you” ego: they get on stage, share the spotlight among the four members, play like crazy, have a lot of fun, and humbly thank the fans for our support.
- You want your music to be available in the iTunes Store, possibly because you’re heavily invested in the Ping social network (someone must be, right?). While some live Phish is available in the iTunes Store, most of the shows aren’t, and they’re always cheaper and available sooner on LivePhish.
If these don’t concern you, you’re lucky, because being a Phish fan is pretty great.
Why it’s awesome to be a Phish fan
If this music resonates with you in the right way, you’re likely to get really into it, and all other music will seem simplistic and shallow for a long time. It’s like discovering great black coffee or a fine wine for the first time, after only ever having mass-produced mediocrity: whoah, there’s a lot going on there.
And if you end up loving it, you’re really in luck.
There’s a huge library of live show recordings, and most of them are sufficiently distinctive that there’s value in listening to a lot of them. This applies to individual songs, too: every time the band plays one of your favorites, it’s likely to be different enough from the others that you’ll enjoy it and appreciate the differences. (Once you’re a true geek, you’ll even rank your preferred performances of your favorite songs.)
You can download official, high-quality, legal, DRM-free MP3 recordings of every concert within hours after it ends from LivePhish.
You can play an “album” (a show) and not need to touch your music for hours. No skipping around, no strange back-to-back songs from shuffle. This is why I listen while I’m working: I can play hours of music I know I’ll like without getting distracted by bad track selections every three minutes.
Being a Phish fan is nothing like being a fan of traditional rock bands. I love the Foo Fighters, but in the last five years, they’ve only released two albums, with a combined length of less than two hours. I don’t think there’s much reason to see them in concert more than once (although this live play-through of their new album is great for the impressive display of stamina), and their studio albums really are the best representation of their music. I can be an active Foo Fighters fan for about one week per year, because there’s just not enough new stuff to keep me engaged more often, but Phish is cranking out many hours of new material every few months.
How to be a Phish fan
Telling a potential fan to skip the studio albums and listen to a band’s live shows isn’t very helpful. It’s easy to follow up on a recommendation for a traditional band’s newest album, but a touring jam band can produce many live shows each year, and they all look very similar.
Every fan will have a different idea of which one you should listen to first. My pick is December 30, 2010 at Madison Square Garden: it’s a great show that I think gives a representative overview of Phish’s style.1
So if you think you might like Phish, give it a try. Buy the entire show in MP3 format. It’s not a big risk at $9.95.
Then put on headphones, turn the volume up to at least medium, and listen all the way through while you’re doing whatever you usually do when listening to music. Then, ideally, play it again.
Even if you passed my guidelines above, you still might not like it. That’s fine. At least you tried, and now you can accurately say that you don’t like Phish when people like me try to tell you how great it is.
But you might like it.
And you might really like it.
In which case, you might have a hard time listening to anything else for a while.
Phish’s 33-show summer tour starts tomorrow night and runs through Labor Day weekend. I’ve preordered the entire thing.
Generally, I like the newest shows best. Many Phish purists will tell you that their performances from the ’90s are the best, but they’ve really come a long way since then, in my opinion for the better, and they’re almost a different band today. The sound quality is also much better for recent shows, especially starting with 2010’s.
If you’re looking to get more shows, my favorites tend to be toward the end of tours, since they make fewer mistakes and tend to really rock out in the jams.
Generally, two-day shows have more energy — they pull out some obscure songs in the three-day shows that are sometimes great but often dull. But I imagine every Phish fan, including future-you, will have a different opinion on this.