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Finished with Phish

Stewart Oksenhorn
** FILE ** Phish sings the national anthem before the start of the America East Men's Championship basketball game between the University of Maine and the University of Vermont in this March 13, 2004 file photo at the Patrick Gymnasium in Burlington Vt. From left are Paige McConnell; Jon Fishman; Mike Gordon; and Trey Anastasio. The enormously popular jam band that experimented with myriad musical genres and whose legions of dedicated fans made them a younger version of The Grateful Dead, announced Tuesday, May 25, 2004, that they are breaking up. They will still embark on a summer tour June 17 at Coney Island in New York. (AP Photo/The Burlington Free Press, Glenn Russell, File)
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Phish phans tuning in to the band’s Web site on Tuesday were in for an unexpected and literally rude awakening. At Phish.com, under the heading “An Announcement from Trey” – that’s Trey Anastasio, the quartet’s shaggy, red-headed lead singer, driving force and dazzling guitarist – came the word. Anastasio felt that Phish, after two decades of jamming, had run its course, and would hang it up for good after Coventry, the band’s two-day August festival in, appropriately, the band’s home state of Vermont. While Anastasio noted that his announcement came after a meeting with his bandmates – keyboardist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman – and that they all had feelings similar to his own, it was notable that, for a band that has always seemed an indivisible unit, the end of the long run was declared by a single member.

But maybe it wasn’t so unexpected that Anastasio would call the ultimate shot. In recent years, Anastasio has increasingly seemed to be standing out among the foursome of one-time Vermont college students. When the members of Phish began to embark on projects outside of the band, Anastasio stood hips and waist above the rest. His eponymous band released a debut album in 2001 that was at least the equal of any Phish CD. The band, featuring a horn section and arrangements that were even more complex than the often daring things Phish attempted, toured in and sold out many of the same venues, like Red Rocks, that Phish had played. Many fans found the Trey Band – led by a Trey who was, as Basalt Phish fan Bryan Welker noted, “jumping around like a schoolgirl” – a more satisfying alternative to Phish. In recent months, Anastasio has appeared on a VH-1 special documenting the trip he took with singer Dave Matthews to Senegal; released an all-instrumental album, “Seis de Mayo”; and released a concert CD, “Live at the Warfield,” featuring Carlos Santana.

Meanwhile, the rest of the members looked on from lower vantage points. Bassist Gordon collaborated with guitarist Leo Kottke on a fine but fairly low-profile album, “Clone,” and also directed “Rising Low,” a documentary centered around guitarist Warren Haynes. McConnell formed the jazz-jam band Vida Blue, which has played mostly larger clubs and released a pair of recordings. Fishman played in Jamie Masefield’s Jazz Mandolin Project and formed Pork Tornado, both relatively small-scale projects.

Phish has dabbled with disbandment before. The ever-touring band spent October of 2000 to New Year’s Eve 2002-03 on hiatus (a break, unlike the new one, which everyone expected would end). And since returning, Anastasio’s presence in the band, long the largest, has eclipsed the others’.

“I think after they came back, after the hiatus, I think Trey surpassed the rest of the band. They couldn’t keep up,” said Glenn Horn, a local planner, live music die-hard, and veteran of four Phish shows and two Trey Band performances. “The guy’s very creative and he had a lot of other things to do. Trey’s other band is just different. It was new and exciting. He’s just evolved into the next thing. And that’s good.”

To one local devoted Phish fan, Anastasio’s star has been on the rise since before the breakup. Aspenite Aron Ralston first saw Phish 10 years ago, at Red Rocks, and in the 82 shows he has seen since, he has witnessed Anastasio’s role and vision expand.

“Seven or eight years ago, they were making a transition away from having a group-think and more toward Trey’s creative expression,” said Ralston, who has followed Phish across the States, to Japan and Europe. “But he’s always been the driving creative force, in songwriting and direction. That definitely came out in their performances.”

If Anastasio’s stated reasons are to be believed – a determination not to be “a caricature of ourselves, or worse yet, a nostalgia act” – Ralston thinks those concerns are a long way off. Though the band’s first post-hiatus CD, “Round Room,” was a creative low point, their concerts have generally been considered on a par with the pre-hiatus gigs.

“I think it’s totally premature,” he said. “I think Trey is totally off-base that they have reached that point and that they won’t be riding high. I think they’ll be riding high 10 years from now.” In the band’s three shows in Las Vegas last month, Ralston says, “They weren’t falling apart on stage. They were still risking themselves and playing on the top of their game.”

Fans still have a summer of moderate touring, and, oddly, even a new album – “Undermind,” due out June 15 – to look forward to. And Phish’s Coventry performances on Aug. 14-15, the latest of their multi-day events to be held in a remote part of the country, is sure to draw a record crowd. Beyond that, there are Trey Band shows, and the prospects of whatever post-Phish projects the various members will partake of. But for many, the end of Phish, the biggest jam band of the jam-band era, marks the closing of a significant chapter. For the biggest fans like Ralston, it is an unhappy ending.

“The band and their music represents so many good times my friends and I have had,” he said. “I don’t know how many other experiences there are that would get me and 10 of my high school friends together for a rendezvous 15 years after we met. When a tour is announced, it’s basically an appointment for us to get together.”

Beyond the good times, Ralston even gives Phish some of the credit for saving his very life. When he was pinned by a boulder last spring in Utah’s Bluejohn Canyon, and eventually cut off his arm to escape, Ralston found inspiration by listening to Phish recordings and reflecting on his times with the band.

“When I was trapped, there was a series of things I though about – trips I had taken with my family, and concert experiences,” he said. “Like going to Japan with four of my friends and seeing Phish tour, and three times in Europe seeing Phish tour, and spending the millennium New Year’s in the middle of the Everglades seeing Phish. They were experiences that motivated me. When I was dying, there was something that inspired me to get out of that canyon and go see Phish tour.

“The breakup has robbed me of one of my passions.”

But Ralston is certainly not one to give up. “I can only hope they’re like Michael Jordan and come back for three more retirements,” he said.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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