You may not get Phish. But that's because you've never been to a show. Phish isn't their hits (they've had one - 20 years ago). Phish isn't their albums (however some are pretty damn good). Phish isn't just the music (however they're all masters on their instruments).
Phish is about the connection. The community. The culture. The scene. The experience. Phish is about letting all your inhibitions go for a few hours. It's about connecting with 15,000 other souls and raising the collective consciousness. It's a spiritual experience.
All you had to do was be in the room this past Friday at The Forum to feel this joyful energy. Never mind the 10 minute mid-song pause where the band let the crowd roar. Deafeningly. You couldn't help but dive right into the love fest.
The server for our section (yes The Forum has servers!) gushed to our group how much fun she was having. She said the crowd that night was one of the most gracious, sweetest and best tipping crowds she's had. She got in on the beach ball action and high fived our entire row.
They played old favorites like Bouncing Around The Room, Bathtub Gin, Character Zero, Divided Sky, Down With Disease and (my personal favorite) Sample In A Jar. They ended their encore with their barbershop quartet "Grind."
The sound was impeccable. And, per usual, the light show was astounding. Chris Kuroda, Phish's brilliant lighting engineer, is considered one of the best in the business. Phish's light show is unparalleled. Kuroda flawlessly utilized the Forum's starlight ceiling lights mid-jam during the encore of Harry Hood. He shut off all stage lights and let the built in starlights work their magic. He took the energy Phish had created with the audience and elevated it to a new level. No Phish light show is preprogrammed. It would be impossible with as much spontaneity as a Phish concert entails.
As a musician, I respect the musicality of Phish. Trey Anastasio is one of the all time guitar greats. The four musicians are able to ebb and flow and literally evolve a song on the spot. This freedom and improvisation is what keeps their shows fresh. They never repeat a song two nights in a row (something impossible for any hit-driven act).
They built this movement from the ground up. They forged a path of their own - outside the mainstream music industry. While other bands play politics with festivals, Phish created their own. Tens of thousands (sometimes upwards of 100,000) descend on grounds setup solely for a weekend of Phish. No openers. No filler acts. No acts forced down the festival promoters throats by labels. Just set after set of Phish.
How many other bands have been selling out arenas for over two decades. And without multiple hit songs?
I keep hearing "it's all about the hit!" Phish have proven that it's not. It's all about the experience.
Fans of Phish continue to come back because it's their church. Their temple. It's a community of fellow music lovers who feel at home (and at peace) within this Phish bliss. Hoards of Phish heads follow the band around the country and make their livings selling grilled cheese sandwiches, water, original jewelry, clothing and anything else imaginable in the lot before the shows - an experience in it of itself.
Are you offering an enjoyable concert experience for your fans? It's your responsibility. You book your shows (or you make sure your agent is on the same page with you about this). You can create your vibe. Your atmosphere. You can create an unforgettable experience on top of the notes you play and sing.
Why should people come to your shows? Are you providing a community? An experience? With the majority of the clubs in this country run by sound engineers who've lost their hearing, you can bet that if you don't hire your own sound engineer, chances are your music is not going to be very enjoyable to listen to. Are you offering something special for the cover price other than "live music?" Because if not, then how do you expect to build a following of dedicated, loyal, hardcore fans.
What about your light show? Never too early to think about that. Kuroda was hired in 1989 by answering this ad:
"WANTED: Creative light person to run new light show for Phish on a salaried, permanent basis. This very valuable partner will travel with the band as a 5th member. We are looking for someone from the New England area -- no need to live in Burlington. Call (802) XXX-XXXX."
This was in 1989 - long before their arena tours began. It's never to early to think about the experience you want to provide for your audience.
Whether you like Phish's music or not doesn't matter. What they have built is undeniable and should be a teachable case study for every band in the world.
Photos are by D.J. Reiter and used with permission