The Phish Index: How we’ll know when the pandemic has passed

Dear Willow:

There’s a lot of different things we may look at when we consider our collective return to “normal” or our arrival at our “new normal.” There’s economic indicators, there’s public opinion surveys, there’s data like Open Table’s database of reservation bookings, which as of June 1 shows states like mine (South Carolina) down 50-60% year-to-year, while Illinois is well over 90% lower.

One indicator we may keep our eye on is whether or not Phish is touring.

This came to mind because I’ve been listening to a lot of Phish lately.

I have been a moderate fan of the band since my friend Steve turned me on to them our sophomore year of college (1989), but I have only seen them live three times, the last time in 1994 at the UIC Pavilion, a show which is tied for third in the all-time top-rated show ratings at Phish.net.

Not to be one of those people, but I was listening to their music long before they were filling stadiums, though once Phish started filling stadiums, I became less interested in their music. There is something about intense fan culture that I find exhausting, and I’ve never been a fan of crowds, so I’ve been content to occasionally dip in and out of their music like I do a lot of bands.

Also, Phil Collins. Sometimes I still listen to Phil Collins. Don’t hate.

Do you guys even know Phish? Their fan base tends to skew male / Gen X. (I am the only Willow member who fits that demographic). There is an entire phenomenon of “Phish wives” where husbands use vacation time and discretionary income to follow the band, much to their spouses’ chagrin. It’s not clear to me how the phenomenon is “Phish wives,” rather than “Phish ex-wives.”

I didn’t fully appreciate how potent the Phish brand had become until they came to Charleston for a three-day engagement in December of last year and I had half a thought of attending a show for nostalgia’s sake. I figured I could wait until the last minute and snap up leftovers at under market price on StubHub.

When I checked out of curiosity on the Thursday before the weekend slate of shows, the cheapest ticket was over $400.

I paid less than that for Hamilton on Broadway.

(Yes, I just shoehorned in a way to tell everyone that I saw Hamilton on Broadway, though well after Lin-Manuel Miranda had left the cast.)

You would think that Phish would be decimated by the cessation of live events, but their audience will no doubt be waiting for them on the other side. They already disbanded for four years (2004-2008) and came back stronger.

Phish’s core business is obviously touring, but they’re also diversified. I have been listening via a free trial of the LivePhish app, which is $99.99 a year for the standard membership and $199.99 a year for the “lossless” digital versions. That sucker is quite possibly bringing in millions of dollars of revenue all by itself.

There is more live Phish music on the app than one could listen to in a lifetime. There are a couple of hundred versions of “Tweezer” (one of their favorite extended jam songs) all by itself. The song frequently runs past 20 minutes; you could listen to different versions of that single song for maybe 90 hours without repeating.

Anyway, why am I enjoying listening to Phish so much after many years of only occasionally listening to them?

I think there’s something about all these live performances that satisfies something I’m craving, a reminder of the power of communal experience. While it is impossible to not think of COVID when viewing footage of the major big-city demonstrations over the last week, the power of the collective coming together strikes me as worth the risk. Seeing aerial still photos of the protests stirs the spirit towards hope.

Live music is not worth the risk, which is why I wonder how long it will be before we’re experiencing it again, even outside.

One specific thing I very much appreciate about the live Phish recordings is how many times guitarist / singer Trey Anastasio screws something up.

Anastasio is an amazing guitar player, but he hits many bad notes in the course of a single show, wrong key, fumbled fingering, you name it, you can hear it. He’s also good for screwing up the lyrics at some point. At the same time, there’s a lack of self-consciousness with the screw-ups that is very winning and instructive on a larger scale. When Anastasio muffs a lyric, you can hear him laughing into the mic afterwards.

For me, it’s a reminder of risk v. reward. When you’re going to play so many notes, many of them as part of improvised jams, you’re going to hit some clams here and there. And you know what? No one cares.

I could not internalize this attitude myself when performing music. You guys are probably not familiar with late 90s-era Chicago-area indie rockers Quiet Kid, for whom I played drums. Our career highlight was opening for the opening act for the opener for the headliner on a Wednesday at Metro. When we played live, I would sometimes get so tense with worry over screwing up a beat that I would approach a state of rictus.

Needless to say, this is not conducive to great performance. Writing is nice because there is no pressure to perform live, thank goodness, because the actual doing of writing is incredibly boring to watch, as Monty Python demonstrated in their album sketch about Thomas Hardy writing The Return of the Native as though it’s a sporting match.

It’s tough to concentrate on some days with everything going on, so the other thing I’ve been appreciating about Phish’s music is the rambling nature of some of the extended jams and how I’m able to get absorbed into a task with them playing in the background. There’s a common pattern of breakdown and resolution in the jams that often culminate in a very satisfying crescendo which seems to subconsciously lift my mood. It’s a few moments of escape into something like normalcy.

You never know where you might find comfort these days.

 

John

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