Twice before, Phish fans have had legitimate reason to wonder if they had witnessed the end of their beloved band. In 2000, Phish went on an open-ended hiatus, making no promises about when or if the group would resume. The band resurfaced for a 2002 New Year's Eve concert, went on to release two albums Round Room (2003) and Undermind (spring 2004), only to announce the group was breaking up at the end of its summer 2004 tour.
This time, it looked like fans might have seen the last of Phish. The breakup lasted five years before the four musicians—singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell, and drummer Jon Fishman—played three songs together at the September 2008 wedding of the band's former road manager.
That led to three reunion shows in March 2009 in Hampton, Virginia, followed by a short summer tour.
So far, it looks like the third time around is the charm for the hugely popular band, as the group members have managed something they were unable to do after first two breakups. They seem to have found a way to make Phish work alongside their various solo and outside projects.
Gordon said six years into the latest phase of Phish, things are working "pretty great," as the four musicians continue to balance touring and recording with Phish and their own projects. He has a simple explanation for why the various musical endeavors are co-existing peacefully now.
"I just don't think we were old enough [before]," Gordon said in a recent phone interview. "We hadn't had enough experiences and maturity to know. It takes a long time to know what works."
Not only are the band members finding time for separate projects, Gordon (who has released four solo studio albums, the latest of which is 2014's Overstep, as well as two albums with Leo Kottke) feels everyone is benefiting creatively from the arrangement.
"These things feed each other for each of the band members," he said, "For me personally, it goes in both directions. I come back to Phish with more confidence, having to had to make a million decisions, write songs, and be a band leader...I'm bringing a little more to the [Phish] table in terms of some talents, experiences, and confidences. Then from Phish, I'm taking some musical inspiration that comes from years and years of chemistry and some experiences that I could only have in that situation and some money and some notoriety to pay for my other artistic ventures and get them out the door."
What's even more encouraging is that Gordon feels Phish is still growing musically.
"Even after 32 years, you keep discovering things about what makes music work, because we're all just students," he said.
The eagerness to experiment, evolve, and grow musically has been a hallmark of Phish ever since the band formed in 1983 in Vermont.
From the start, the group was known for its eclectic, free-wheeling songs that drew on progressive rock, jazz, psychedelic rock, funk, folk, and blues. And its skill at improvising on stage earned the band comparisons to the Grateful Dead and predictions that Phish would pick up the torch as rock's foremost jam band.
That's essentially what has happened, as Phish by the mid-1990s had grown into a top touring attraction, and has maintained that popularity despite the two times the band separated.
Phish has released two studio albums since the 2009 reunion, Joy in fall 2009 and Fuego (the band's 15th studio release) in 2014.
Fuego is one of Phish's stronger albums. The music ranges from the tuneful gentle rock of "Winterqueen," to the rambling country-tinged blues-rock of "Devotion To A Dream" (this is one of a few Fuego songs that have a Grateful Dead feel to them) to the fluid and melodic mid-tempo song "Halfway To The Moon" to the fairly brisk "Sing Monica."
What's striking in the big picture is how much more streamlined and accessible the songs on Fuego feel compared to the music on the group's first several albums. Phish's trademarks of sophisticated playing, creative tempos, and quirky twists in arrangements are still present (just note "Wombat" and the title song). But compared to Phish's early albums, the songs feel more focused, tight, and impactful.
Gordon recognizes that evolution and feels it's a function of musical experience and improving at getting to the heart of a song.
"I think when you're younger and so excited to try everything, sometimes we do that at the expense of seeing where the real essence [of the song] is," Gordon said. "I think for artists, it doesn't always work out like that, but if they keep working at it, then they learn to strip it down to the essence and not throw [in] everything—and also make it more unique at the same time, more accessible and more unique at the same time. I think we keep striving for all of that as we get older."
6 pm, Tuesday, July 21 & Wednesday July 22
Les Schwab Amphitheater
$65 (sold out)