Phish have covered Prince many times during the past three decades, playing “1999” while ringing in that same year at Madison Square Garden, plus dozens of versions of “Purple Rain.” Discussing what Prince meant to him, frontman Trey Anastasio recalls the night of November 11th, 1996, when Prince invited the guitarist and the rest of the band to his Paisley Park complex for a party celebrating his album Emancipation. “It was just an unforgettable night,” says Anastasio.
In Minneapolis for an arena show, Phish headed to the party after the gig, joining a crowd of about 200, including Ziggy Marley and Boyz II Men. “We were kind of standing in the corner,” Anastasio says. “One thing I remember is he didn’t serve cocktails, so in lieu of cocktails he served little Captain Crunch cereal boxes. I thought that was the coolest thing.”
But the highlight for Anastasio was standing a few feet away from Prince in the studio as he plugged in with his band, who were all using see-through Plexiglass instruments and speakers. “It was really cool,” Anastasio says. “He was such a great guitar player, but people don’t point out he was a great rhythm guitar player. The band was playing this funky stuff. He had a woman singing with him, a kind of gospel singer, and she stepped out and started killing it. He stepped back, and I remember thinking that everybody tries to play like James Brown’s rhythm guitar player. Jammy guys do it a lot, and they all get it wrong, myself included. He was playing the most badass little rhythms with the drummer as soon as he got out of the spotlight. I was so fascinated by what he was playing. That’s when I noticed what a great guitar player he was.”
Prince mingled with the audience a bit, but Anastasio didn’t get to meet him. “I don’t think he would have known who I was, but it didn’t matter,” he says. Anastasio also noticed something else: “The guy had the best bands,” he continues. “They were unbelievable. And that’s a skill in itself. Zappa didn’t just stumble into having bands that good. Prince didn’t just stumble into having bands that good. Bandleading is an art form. I have a little bit of experience in this, and let me tell you, I always admire people who consistently have great bands. Prince had figured out a way to hire really unique, really talented, really tight bands. And it’s easy to get one. But try getting two or three. That’s different. It’s horrible that he’s gone. I was heartbroken. He was way, way too young.”