Like the Grateful Dead before them, Phish have established an impressive reputation of tireless touring, dazzling improvisation and innovative rock ‘n’ roll.
Assembled at the University of Vermont by guitarists Trey Anastasio III and Jeff Holdsworth in 1983, Phish had ambitious musical intentions from the start. Intent on pursuing a complicated, improvisatory musical style, Holdsworth and Anastasio recruited dextrous freshman drummer Jon Fishman and formally trained bass player Mike Gordon. The band’s first gig took place at an ROTC dance in 1983, though their errant set list and bad wardrobe were quickly replaced by a radio. In 1985, Fishman and Anastasio left UVM for the liberal Goddard College, where they continued their studies and refined their ambitious sound. They continued as a five-piece (with keyboardist Page McConnell) until Holdsworth decided to leave in 1986, leaving a hole that forced the band to search for an alternative sound and vision.
In 1988, Phish released Junta on their own to sell at shows. The next year, they wrote and recorded Lawn Boy for Rough Trade affiliate Absolute A Go Go Records, but Rough Trade went bankrupt and the band couldn’t afford to assume distribution, despite the fact that they were fast gaining a devoted following. In 1991, Phish became the first band without a recording contract ever to sell out two consecutive nights at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. In light of that achievement, Elektra signed the outfit, released their third album, A Picture Of Nectar and reissued their first two. It didn’t take long for the band to develop a reputation similar to the Grateful Dead’s: as a terrific live act, and a mediocre recording band. Appropriately, in 1995, after a few dismal-selling albums, the band came out with A Live One, with songs drawn from the band’s recent tour. During the subsequent tour, the band grossed over $27 million. One date on that tour–Halloween, no less–featured the band playing the entirety of Quadrophenia. (The White Album and Talking Heads’ Remain In Light have also gotten the full Phish treatment at Halloween shows.) Also in 1995, Anastasio released Surrender To The Air, an entirely improvised performance featuring members of Sun Ra’s band and New York guitarist Marc Ribot.
In 1996, Phish finally released a worthwhile album. By all critical counts, Billy Breathes is Phish’s most creatively successful, merging the band’s eclectic influences with accessible pop smarts. The upward trend continued with 1998’s The Story of the Ghost, a fine album consisting largely of songs pieced together from spontaneous studio jams.