by: Kevin Hogan
“They are probably the greatest band in American history. Just about. In terms of American bands to me.” - Trey Anastasio on The Grateful Dead - 05/26/04 The Charlie Rose Show
Jerry Garcia’s untimely passing in the late summer of 1995 left a large musical void in the Jamband scene and bands like Widespread Panic, Leftover Salmon, The Black Crowes and Rusted Root, that had been growing in the Grateful Dead’s shadow for the previous 10 years, tried to fill the gap. They emulated the Dead’s psychedelic groove and Deadheads embraced it. Then there was Phish, who had been doing their best to distance themselves from The Dead, that ultimately became the band The Grateful Dead passed the torch too.
In 1985, not long before Page McConnell joined Phish, they debuted McGrupp, taking them to a magical musical world far removed from the Dead. A few days later they played the last known versions of Scarlet Begonias and Eyes Of The World. Ever the contrarians, they had decided to forge their own path. They moved away from Dead covers and headed toward Gamehenge.
Jon Fishman recounted when playing Dead tunes was no longer viable:
“We were playing at a venue in Burlington sometime between ‘86 and ‘88; there were probably five people in the room. And there’s this guy. He’s fucking huge, like this bear of a man. The stage was about a foot high and incredibly small. That whole set, regardless of what we were playing, that guy was standing right in front of Trey just screaming, ‘Jerry! Jerry!’ The guy was high and screaming Jerry Garcia’s name in Trey’s face. Trey was so fucking mad. So we get off the stage, and Trey is fuming. He goes ‘That’s it! We are never playing another Grateful Dead song as long as we live. Never.’"
Trey was a fan of the Dead. He had publicly talked on The Charlie Rose Show about seeing them 10 times or more. It’s just that he, along with the band, had chosen to explore a different pallet of influences beyond the folk/blues/groove the Dead and most of their contemporaries played. He recounted to the Dead’s Bob Weir a story about the first time he saw the Dead in 1983 at "The Power of Music" Forum in Hartford, CT on November 29, 2001:
Trey: “I saw the Dead at the Hartford Civic Center for the first time ever in 1983, and it had an enormous (effect on me), it was like getting hit in the head with a baseball bat’ Bob Weir: “Pleasures mine” Trey: “It was the first time I had seen in a rock and roll setting music as a community builder, where the band members were all listening to each other and improvising. The audience was an active participant in the musical event. It totally changed my concept (of what a rock and roll concert could be.)”
Mike Gordon is also a huge fan of the Dead and saw them more then any of the other band members. He was asked about a year after Garcia’s passing ‘Was there a part of you that was a little bit excited when Jerry Garcia died?’ Mike said no, recounting the media attention after Garcia's death:
“Not at all. In fact, when all the different publications called to interview us, I put together a press release with what I had to say about it, and the last sentence was, “Every speck of me wishes he was still alive.” I just was really into the Dead. The other band members pretty much weren’t, except for years ago. But I still was, and I was flying off to Dead shows maybe once in the middle of each of our tours. For me, Jerry had all these values that I could really relate with. You know, mixing all the traditional Americana stuff with wild, loose, free experimentation and jamming. That mixture really appeals to me. And it’s not often found, especially in the rock and roll setting. So for me, I wasn’t relieved at all when Jerry died. I was saddened. And in terms of our career—and in terms of interview questions—it just made it worse, just because all of a sudden people thought all the Deadheads were going to come and see Phish now. Which isn’t exactly true: There’s definitely some crossover—we both appeal to somewhat of a hippie-ish audience, and we both jam a lot, and this and that—but the people who really like the Dead probably don’t like us. Because the music is different enough, and the rhythms are different, and the attitude and even the sense of humor is way different. So the real Deadheads—there’s nothing that’s going to replace the Dead for them. And for the people who really like us aren’t necessarily the biggest Deadheads.”
Page and Jon Fishman have been quiet about the Dead, but the whole band did go to the Shoreline Amphitheater together in August 1993 on their day off between Portland and Berkley. It was a learning experience for a band that was on the verge of permanently making the jump from theaters to the hockey arena / summer shed circuit.
Fast forward 2 years. The band had made the jump and did it on their own with a massive summer tour that included their first appearances at Deer Creek and Lakewood Amphitheater in addition to all the big venues on the East Coast. They were on their way and then, in August, the death of Jerry Garcia caused a seismic shift in the band's future. Hit hard by the news Trey said Garcia was
"A very gentle and unassuming man who brought so much joy and love into people's lives through music. I can't think of a more profound and beautiful accomplishment at the end of a lifetime."
Mike went even further musing
"Jerry was a traditionalist and a pioneer, embracing America's musical past while forging into the future. He understood how music can be a way to experience the unknown. This quest became a fountain of positive energy. How often does a lead guitarist play so selflessly with the idea of overshadowing the existence of ego?."
Garcia’s death did give Phish a boost with many of the venues on their Fall Tour 1995 selling out. They also began crafting what Tom Marshall has said was his favorite Phish album, Billy Breathes, and trying to add a more introspective side to their catalog. Then, in 1996, they changed the whole live music industry by getting 70,000 fans to head to a decommissioned Air Force base in New York for The Clifford Ball. That became the blueprint for Bonnaroo and most festivals that sprung up in its wake. It also put Phish on everyone’s radar and gave the band the confidence to reinvent themselves. 1997 saw the emergence of a new sound and a different jamming aesthetic for Phish. After returning from Europe they were a different band, looser, more patient, and funky. This new aesthetic was fully realized with the legendary Phish Destroys America Tour in November and December, but it was that summer at Darien Lake, on their way to The Great Went, where ghosts of The Dead began to appear.
Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters in their legendary tour bus, Furthur, stopped by Darien Lake Amphitheater on August 14th 1997 with a message which made Trey’s insistence to distance Phish from the Dead begin to crumble. Midway through the 2nd set, Hood took off into a jam that landed with the first notes of Col. Forbin. During the bridge to Mockingbird, when we are normally transported to Gamehendge, we were instead introduced to Ken “Uncle Sam Bozo Easy” Kesey Kesey recounted the long 2 years since Jerry died and the Pranksters search for the Bobos, telling the crowd “What we heard was that they were coming here for the Phish concert” which began a chant “We couldn’t find them at the Furthur Festival so we decided to come to the Phish Concert.” Several other Pranksters began to emerge for a Wizard Of Oz recounting of this journey with The Scarecrow, The Lion and Frankenstien, sitting in for The Tin Man, helping Kesey tell the story. The Pranksters had given Phish their blessing and Phish embraced it. By Summer 1998 Phish was firing on all cylinders and having fun. ‘The Summer Of Covers” found the band playing choice covers at most stops that tour, culminating at Virginia Beach on the 3rd anniversary of Garcia’s death with Phish deciding to lift their moratorium on playing Dead tunes and going for broke in true Bozo fashion, covering Terrapin Station for their encore.
In a June 2018 Under The Scales episode, Brad Sands recounted how he had mentioned to Trey it had been 3 years since Jerry passed. Trey decided it was time to do a Grateful Dead song and the band spent 3 hours learning the song that afternoon, using a 1977 performance by the Dead at the Cobo Arena (11/01/77) as their blueprint. So the dam had been broken and in less then a year Page and Trey were invited by Phil Lesh to perform with him after successfully recovering from a liver transplant. With a new lease on life Phil tapped the top improvisational musicians of the time including Steve Kimock and John Molo in addition to Trey and Page. The 3 shows at the Warfield, dubbed 'Phil and Phriends,' became the most talked about Dead related event in years.
The impact of playing with Lesh was palpable on Phish’s Summer tour in 1999. Having to give another guitarist space with Steve Kimock playing translated to Trey allowing others to take control of a jam, which going forward gave the rest of Phish more space. A new found energy could be sensed in the interplay between Page and Trey that pushed the band to many interesting places while improvising. Toward the end of the tour, at Shoreline, Phil’s home court, Lesh returned the favor for Phish, joining the band for You Enjoy Myself. In true Prankster fashion, Phil was given his own trampoline, and joined Mike for a bass duet instead of the traditional vocal jam. Wolfman’s Brother and Phish’s first cover of Cold Rain and Snow, one of Garcia’s favorite songs, closed the set. The psychedelic masterpiece Viola Lee Blues was tapped for their encore with Warren Haynes joining in the madness.
This began a series of appearances by Phil and Mike that continued through the hiatus the band took in 2000. From a wild night that saw Phil playing guitar as Mike took over on bass at Phil’s 60th Birthday celebration in March 2000, through the numerous appearances Mike made with Phil’s band in 2006 on the Phil & Friends / GRAB Summer Tour. Phil and Mike had forged a musical friendship. Mike also joined the reformed Rhythm Devils for 16 dates. Performing with Mike, Mickey and Billy were Steve Kimock on guitar, percussionist Sikiru Adepoju and Jen Durkin on vocals. The Wedge and Twist made appearances, further blurring the lines between the Dead and Phish. Not to be outdone Trey did 2 shows billed as Phil and Trey at Vegoose in October 2006 with a supporting cast that included John Medeski on Keys, John Molo on drums, Larry Campbell on guitar and vocalist Christina Durfee.
In 2016 even Fishman got his chance to be a Friend and joined Page as part of Phil’s band for his Lockn’ set.
But it was the prior year that may have had the greatest influence on some of the directions Phish would explore. Just days after their 2014 NYE run in Miami, Trey received an email from Phil Lesh. It was an invitation to join the ‘Core Four’ along with Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti in a celebration of the Dead’s 50th anniversary. Some big shoes to fill for sure and ones that required what Trey refers to as ‘Dead Camp’, an intense few months of learning the Grateful Dead’s catalogue inside and out. He sat down with Rolling Stone at the time and talked about a list entitled “60 Songs It Would Be Sad Not to Hear One Last Time” he had drafted as songs he would like to play, simultaneously Bob Weir sent him an email that said “I’ll help ruin your vacation. You can learn these 60 songs.” Anastasio ended up learning over 80 songs from the combined lists. Trey, with these performances caused consternation among some Deadheads, but it was an inspired choice because of Trey’s decision long ago to distance himself and Phish from the Dead. For 5 months he spent his time exclusively studying the Dead, Garcia’s tone, phrasing and fretwork in preparation for these shows, fundamentally changing how Trey saw himself as a performer. He praised Garcia’s vocals, something which would inspire him to become a better vocalist.
Asked what he’ll bring back to Phish for their next tour Trey said:
“One is just guitar stuff. I’ve made a conscious effort to learn everything I could about Jerry’s incredible style. I’m playing in different positions on the neck. It’s opened up a whole world of people I’d never listened to before. I’m exploring this Fifties and early Sixties country stuff. The other thing has to do with songwriting. When you get inside of these songs, especially the Garcia-Hunter ones, they’re so vivid – the lyrics, the spacing, the intent. Can I give you a few, quick examples? I was listening to “Brown-Eyed Women,” which is Garcia-Hunter, and “Jack Straw,” which is Hunter and Weir. Both of those songs are character songs about people from the Depression. When you talk about the Bakersfield, California country sound, that’s where the Okies ended up. So those sounds and that lyric content are married.”
This deep dive into Garcia’s influences led to the beginning of one of Anastasio’s most prolific songwriting periods. One that found him as concerned with the lyric and how it was sung, as with the music. Phish debuted 7 new songs over the first 2 nights of Summer Tour 2015, including heavyweights Blaze on, No Man In No Mans Land and Mercury, but it was Shade that pointed most to Trey’s new awareness of vocal nuances, beautifully bringing to life one of Tom Marshall’s most affecting lyrics.
Phish had an impact on the Dead as well. Wolfman’s Brother became a staple of Phil setlists for many years, Mickey and Billy playing Wedge and Twist, and in 2016, on a October night in Nashville, when Bobby came out with the band. This was Bobby’s 2nd time performing with Phish. On another October night, 16 years before, he had joined the band for a 3 song encore, but this night things were different with Weir appearing halfway through the second set. After a few minutes of Bobby tuning up we were treated to a combination of both Phish and Dead tunes to close the set. Things had come full circle with Bobby giving Trey the lead vocal on Playing In The Band and taking the vocal for Miss You himself. It was a fitting tribute to the keeper of the flame, Bob Weir, and a passing of that torch.
The band that wanted to distance themselves from the Grateful Dead had become an important part of, and influence on, the Dead as musicians. As much as Trey, Page, Mike and Fish learned from The Grateful Dead, the members of the Dead had also learned from them and both camps are the better for it. Phish has changed over the years, from the Type 1 hopped up shows of early 1.0 - to the funk grooves born of their Story Of The Ghost LP - to the band that may have been a little lost in 2.0 - to the rejuvenated band that triumphantly returned at Hampton in 2009 - to the band that emerged after Trey went digging up the past and immersing himself in the Grateful Dead’s catalogue and finally - to the band of today that seems to have no ceiling. Through all these changes one thing has remained consistent, their belief in living in the moment that was passed down from the Grateful Dead.