The sun sets as Phish perform at Bader Field in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on June 15th, 2012.
To their fans, Phish are not just a band, they're a way of life. Although the group's studio albums sell well enough, Phish are primarily a live phenomenon: the living, breathing, noodling embodiment of the term "jam band." Like Deadheads before them, Phish fans have followed the group city to city, traded bootleg tapes with the band's blessings, and feverishly debate the merits of past gigs (Phish never plays the same set twice). By nurturing this grass-roots following, Phish bypassed commercial radio and evolved over the course of a decade into one of—if not the— hottest live attractions in America.
The band first came together in drummer John Fishman's dorm room at the University of Vermont. Fellow students Trey Anastasio and Jeff Holdsworth brought their guitars by to jam, and they were later joined by bassist Mike Gordon, who answered a bulletin-board ad posted by Anastasio. Fan Page McConnell, a student at Goddard College, joined as a keyboardist in 1985, and Holdsworth left the following year. Early performances around this time also featured percussionist Marc Daubert, as well as occasional appearances by the enigmatic singer Dude of Life (with whom the band would later record the album Crimes of the Mind.).In 1988 Phish recorded its first album, Junta, which was sold as a cassette at gigs. By the time the band released its second album, Lawn Boy (1990), on the independent label Absolute A-Go-Go, Phish's growing fan base had begun to establish a presence on the fledgling Internet at Phish.Net. Elektra signed the group a year later and released A Picture of Nectar in 1992, followed by reissues of Lawn Boy and Junta.
Beginning with 1993's Rift (Number 51), the band's popularity began to translate into chart success. The following year's Hoist, which spawned Phish's only video (for "Down With Disease"), went to Number 34, followed by 1995's double disc A Live One (Number 18), Billy Breathes (Number Seven, 1996), the live Slip, Stitch, & Pass (Number 17, 1997), The Story of the Ghost (Number Eight, 1998), the sprawling, six-disc Hampton Comes Alive (Number 120, 1999), and Farmhouse (Number 12, 2000). However the band's live performances, not its recorded output, defined it throughout the decade.
In addition to the band's trademark marathon improvisational jams (drawing equally from jazz, rock, and country), fans could count on such weird variables as Fishman's vacuum-cleaner solos and the band's penchant for oddball covers; in 1994 Phish began a semiannual tradition of performing an entire classic album live on Halloween as a "musical costume" (ranging from the Beatles' White Album to the Who's Quadrophenia and Talking Heads' Remain in Light). In 1997 the band's weekend festival, the Great Went, held in Limestone, Maine, drew an audience of 62,000. The following year's Lemonwheel Festival, also in Limestone, drew a comparable crowd. Phish ended the Nineties playing for 75,000 fans at a two-night millennial concert at Florida's Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation.
After touring in support of 2000's Farmhouse, Phish announced a hiatus. Fans were left with Elektra's official release of The Siket Disc, a collection of studio outtakes, and the feature-length documentary Bittersweet Motel. The group periodically updated its Web site about such band member side projects as Gordon's experimental film Outside Out and Trampled by Lambs & Pecked by Doves, an album by Anastasio and Phish lyricist Tom Marshall. The band also began releasing versions of shows dating back as far as 1989 as part of the Live Phish series. Upon their return in 2002, Phish made shows available for instant download on the Live Phish Web site.
In 2004, shortly before the release of Undermind (Number 13), Phish announced that they were breaking up after their summer tour, culminating in one last festival on a farm in their native Vermont. The festival took on an air of Woodstock as flooding and heavy traffic prevented several fans from reaching the farm before they abandoned their cars and trekked to the venue on foot.
Over the next four years, Anastasio embarked on a moderately successful solo career first with a group informally known as Trey Anastasio Band, which took on many incarnations over the years, and later as a member of the supergroup Oysterhead, which also featured Primus' Les Claypool and the Police's Stewart Copeland. Anastasio and Gordon toured together briefly in 2006. In 2007, Anastasio faced felony drug possession charges and spent the next year in a court-ordered drug program to avoid jail time.
After months of rumors, Phish confirmed in 2008 that they would reunite in 2009. The band played three shows in March of that year before embarking on a summer tour. They released their fourteenth studio album, Joy (Number 13) in September. From October 30 through November 1, Phish took on one of their most ambitious projects to date, Festival 8, which found the band playing eight sets over three nights. Phish finished the year by playing a four-night New Year's celebration in Miami.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Joel Hoard contributed to this story.