Phish is bigger than a band. Phish is an escape. Phish is goofy. Phish is fun. Phish is the unexpected. Phish is old friends. Phish is new friends. Phish is a summer evening at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Above all, Phish is a community. Perhaps that’s why journalist Nathan Rabin, on a mission to understand the band, first fell in love with its followers: the Phans.
“The music was the last thing to go,” says Rabin, who immersed himself in the subcultures surrounding the enduring jam band and the Insane Clown Posse for his new book, “You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.”
“It’s something you have to connect with on a primal, emotional level,” the former A.V. Club writer says. “When it did happen, it was a very, very powerful thing. An unthinking, unconscious thing.”
That’s the power of Phish: Spend enough time watching guitarist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman jam (and jam and jam) among a crowd of super-stoked fans and your worries wash away. The music seeps into your soul, man.
“It’s very easy to get cynical about rock ’n’ roll because so much of it is posturing and pretension,” Rabin says. “Great things can happen when you abandon that cynicism, when you abandon that irony.”
To experience Phish is to seek musical transcendence — aided by the complex mythology and chilled-out community that has built up over 30 years. That’s what inspires the geeky dedication of hard-core Phans, who follow the Vermont band around the country and track set-list statistics. It’s what still nets the newbies. At any show, Phish might do something it’s never done before. Any night — maybe Saturday’s or Sunday’s concert at Merriweather — could be the Best Show Ever.
A guide to Phish-related terms you might hear in the wild.
Gamehendge is the mythical land where Anastasio’s “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday” takes place, and is a crucial part of the Phish mythology. Though Phish rarely plays the full rock opera, many of its songs are standard set-list fare.
The Lot is the Phish community gathering place. The parking lot is where everyone hangs out before the show, usually in a section full of people peddling grilled cheese sandwiches, vegan treats, Phish-related wares and certain … substances.
A Miracle, as in, “I need a miracle.” Phish and Grateful Dead fanspeak for “I need a ticket to the show, who will give me one for free?” (Important info: Even if a Phish show is sold out, there are always tickets available in The Lot.)
Musical costumes During most Phish Halloween shows, the band will cover an entire album by another band. Most recently, in 2011, the musical costume was Little Feat’s “Waiting for Columbus.” In the ’90s, Phish covered Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light” and “Quadrophenia” by The Who.
Type 1 jamming is, essentially, the most basic improvisation, involving variations on a song’s notes and tempo, but remaining fixed on the song’s chord progression.
Type 2 jamming changes a song’s structure, keys, progressions and rhythm. Phish jams can utilize both types of improv.
Wooks are unkempt Phish fans who resemble, for lack of a better comparison, Chewbacca from “Star Wars.”
— Phish appears in cartoon form in the 2002 “The Simpsons” episode “Weekend at Burnsie’s,” in which Homer is (of course) prescribed medical marijuana.
— Belieb it or not, Justin Bieber’s guitarist and musical director Dan Kanter is a big Phish fan, and has subtly teased Anastasio’s guitar licks during Bieber shows. Bieber’s even been to a Phish show.
— When Phish played Brooklyn in 2004, Jay-Z emerged for explosive covers of “99 Problems” and “Big Pimpin’.”
— Trey Anastasio worked with Amanda Green on music for the Broadway musical “Hands on a Hardbody,” which opened, then promptly closed, this year.
— On the comedy podcast “Analyze Phish,” “Parks and Recreation” writer (and mega-Phan) Harris Wittels tries to persuade friend and “Comedy Bang! Bang!” host Scott Aukerman to like Phish. His efforts have proven fruitless.
Liking Phish comes with a learning curve. So, we’ve compiled a list of some of the band’s most accessible work, which draws from rock, jazz, reggae, funk, folk, classical and pretty much any other genre you can think of.
‘Farmhouse’ Easily Phish’s most accessible song, “Farmhouse,” from the album of the same name, borrows a chord progression from Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” as well as that song’s feel-good message that “things will be all right.”
‘Down With Disease’ This was Phish’s attempt at a pop hit, and the only song the band ever made a video for. On the album “Hoist,” it’s a four-minute poppy rocker. Live, it can stretch out for half an hour.
‘Bouncing Around the Room’ Many Phish fans hate this song, but it’s easy on the ears for the not-yet-converted. Influenced by a West African singing style, the vocals bounce happily around this Afro-poppish song.
‘Waste’ Phish will never be revered for its ballads, but this tender track from “Billy Breathes” (polished by U2 producer Steve Lillywhite) beats the odds.
‘The Divided Sky’ Yes, it’s 12 minutes long. No, there aren’t many words. But there are few better examples of Phish’s compositional prowess than this multi-section epic, which occasionally sounds like background music you might hear on the Weather Channel.
By the Numbers
9 — Number of times the band has played Columbia, Md.’s Merriweather Post Pavilion (MPP).
4 — The number of times Phish has played “Harry Hood” at MPP, its most-played song there. The band has played 118 different songs at the venue.
1 — Number of Phish songs that reference MPP: “Walfredo,” with the line, “We were eating crab at Merriweather Post.”Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, Md.; Sat., 5:30 p.m., sold out; Sun., 5:30 p.m., $45; 410-715-5550.