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    Thank You, Phish

    Phish’s reuniting for a mini-tour during Mar. 6, 7 and 8 at Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, Va., was an ecstatic success. The band sounded better than ever to this listener, and I have been an avid fan for over 10 years, and have been to over 30 shows. I am not the most hardcore fan – far from it. Some Phish heads have spent entire seasons on tour with the band, selling grilled cheeses and t-shirts for food money, and have over 100 shows under their belt. But I believe myself to be as close an analyzer of Phish’s work as almost any fan, so I feel comfortable holding forth on the momentous event of Phish’s coming back to play after five long years.

    Phish toured from the late ’80s all the way up to 2004. Starting from a college band at the University of Vermont, they never become a top charted band or sold millions of studio albums, but instead built their fame from a rabid group of fans that followed them everywhere.

    The heart of the band is guitarist Trey Anastasio, who has written most of the band’s music. His song writing and guitar playing are virtuoso. I have played guitar for over 15 years, and when I listen to Trey I can only feel awe. As a whole, Phish’s musical catalogue is diverse, innovative, complex, and at times genius and full of joy. Some songs have only been played live, which adds to their rarity and the excitement fans feel when they get played.

    As a fan, I have to say that the last several years of Phish’s live playing before their “breakup” in 2004 were not as great as I wished. Going to a Phish concert is like entering a circus, but for me the music was always the most important part. At the end, though, I often felt lost during jams at shows. I constantly wondered, why did Phish let their live playing wander so far from the powerful centers of their songs?

    When I heard the band was calling it quits, I went to one last show in Brooklyn, but my heart was not in it. I knew the band needed a break, and I was getting too old for that scene. It was sad, like a bad relationship you still did not want to end. At least we had the countless live shows circulating (with the band’s consent, as long as they were distributed free) along with the band’s number of studio albums.

    With these last three shows at Hampton, however, Phish has returned far stronger than they ever were before. The band mixed the shows overnight in mobile mini-studios and then released them the next day for free downloading at their website, livephish.com. Yes, that’s right. Free. I still can hardly believe it.

    To sum up the experience of listening to these shows the next day for free, I can only say that it was wonderful, like Christmas in July. I had the luck of being at the “Hampton Comes Alive” shows in 1998, which were later released on CD by the band, where I saw the guy next to me throw the glowstick that Trey caught during the middle of the pause in “Divided Sky.” But it would have been impossible for me to attend these new shows. Not only am I entrenched in my academic life here, but tickets were going for about $1,000 secondhand.

    They opened the first night with “Fluffhead,” one of their greatest songs, and they played straight through into the complex second part, “Fluff’s Travels.” This showed that Phish was back and meant business. Their playing over the three nights was solid, focused, and just pure vintage Phish, but better. Every jam was on point, and their set list design was pretty much flawless. Each Phish head has their own tastes, but to my mind, the first night was the best show I have ever heard.

    Altogether, I am glad Phish is back, and I applaud them for their exemplary playing at Hampton, Va. Trey has been through a lot of changes over the years, but he has come out of the fire a stronger performer than he was before, and as the band leader he has led them all into a new and better age of Phish.

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