Phish bounces back into the scene

March 5, 2009 6:34:51 PM PST
As if anyone really believed Phish was going out like that. It's been nearly five years since the Vermont-based jamband dug into its vast library of songs - "For the last time ... EVER!"

guitarist Trey Anastasio taunted then - at a weekend festival that was meant as a grand finale, but turned into a sloppy mess of raw nerves, mixed emotions and churned mud.

May they never say "EVER!" again.

The foursome kicks off its reunion Friday at the Hampton Coliseum, site of some of their most explosive performances. And as with the un-retirement of any great performer, questions burn: Will Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman still have the chops and cohesion to pull off their musical high-wire act? Will their obsessive-yet-finicky followers, now five years older, still possess the energy and devotion to sustain it?

And could the stale air of burnout - from the weariness that comes with 20 years on the road and mounting personal struggles that caused them to quit in the first place - have really cleared?

We're about to find out.

"Sometimes, no matter what the issue is, the only way to address it is time," said Peter Shapiro, executive producer of the improvisational Jammy Awards and former owner of the now-closed Wetlands, a jamband-friendly club in New York.

Reunion rumors started to fly around the time of last year's Jammys, which brought Phish back together publicly for the first time since 2004 - albeit for a lifetime achievement award, no performance.

"These guys took five years," said Shapiro. "I think it shows that they were serious about the issues that each wanted to address; and I think they're serious about coming back."

Not that they've ever taken what they do lightly. Phish formed 26 years ago at the University of Vermont, endlessly tinkering with their amorphous blend of rock, jazz, bluegrass and other styles that launched hundreds of songs and even more shows - no two of which are ever alike.

Though never a mainstream pop success, Phish churned out several diverse albums and, like the Grateful Dead, built a devoted fan base by tirelessly touring and allowing fans to tape and trade their live performances.

Though historically friendly to the ragtag enterprises that follow, this time Phish sought to clamp down on the flow of bootleg merchandise, successfully lobbying a federal judge for an injunction barring the sale of unlicensed T-shirts and trinkets at the venue. (On the other hand, the band also plans to allow fans who couldn't score a ticket to download each of the reunion shows the following day on livephish.com.)

Not that any of this should do anything to temper the rabid throng - and if the sold-out summer tour is any indication, a few mortgages, spouses and offspring picked up along the way haven't slowed down fans' drop-whatever-you're-doing modus operandi, either.

"The fan base has aged," Shapiro said. "A lot of the people who did this in their 20s are now in their 30s. It'll be a little different crowd, but ... for them, this was always more than just a show. It's a part of their life."

Whether Phish retains that level of influence will in part depend on the quality of the music, including a batch of new songs that the group is planning for an upcoming album. While Phish conjured moments of magic in every set, the consistently taut, nimble playing demanded by their challenging songbook began to slowly erode following a universally acknowledged peak performance on New Year's Eve 1999.

And nowhere was that more apparent than their "farewell" performance, a two-day affair at Newport State Airport in Coventry, Vt., in August 2004. Tears flowed onstage, lyrics were forgotten or abandoned and much of the jamming was downright sloppy, rudderless and droning.

Adding to the ecstacy/misery dynamic were the frayed nerves of thousands of fans who, just days after a week of freakish downpours in the area, had to abandon their cars on the highway when the washed-out parking areas closed, hike in with what little camping gear they could carry and survive 48 hours in a knee-buckling mud bog that soiled everything in sight.

Despite that kind of devotion, as grand encores go, it was a weird one.

When the curtain comes back up on Friday, all will likely be forgotten.

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