Last night’s performance of The Line by Phish during The Late Show With David Letterman coincided with the release of their first studio album since 2009, although one may accurately guess that it was no coincidence at all. There is obviously a fair amount of love between Letterman and the Vermonter quartet. As hard as it is to believe, it has been almost a decade since the band has graced Letterman’s stage. Phish practically blew the place up with an additional seven-song set during the Live on Letterman webcast, which aired after Late Show. The performances constituted an album release party at the Ed Sullivan Theatre that 400 fans are sure to remember. Well, most of them, anyway. Fuego, which also happens to be the new album’s title track, is not only a melodic masterpiece that does not disappoint, but it reminds all the Phish fans out there that the outfit of McConnell, Fishman, Anastasio and Gordon is just as full of life as they were 30 years ago.
Phish has always served a core niche audience made up of fans who regale each other with stories regarding Anastasio’s college thesis, the back story of The Dude of Life, and countless other obscure Phish trivia nuggets. It is almost mind-blowing for many longstanding Phish fans to acknowledge just how much time has passed since the group broke out as the second most popular jam band in existence. Started in 1983 by four students at the University of Vermont, the band underwent a few lineup changes until 1985, when the troop was solidified as the collaboration of Trey Anastasio (guitar and vocals), Page McConnell (keyboard and vocals), Mike Gordon (bass and vocals), and Jon “Fish” Fishman (drums and vocals). During the very early years of Phish, there was certainly a comparison to be made between the band and their admitted idols, the Grateful Dead. The band performed a lot of Dead covers, before their fans ultimately dubbed them “Phish Heads,” which is meant to be an homage to “Dead Heads,” the name for fans of Grateful Dead. However, if one were to use that moniker while addressing a Phish enthusiast, it may not play well.
Upon the death of Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia in 1995 and the subsequent subsidence of Grateful Dead culture, Phish was there with open arms to take on the task of corralling all jam band lovers into one huge family of twirling, dancing hippies who craved the music and the scene that went along with it. Now, over three decades later, with 16 studio albums and a gazillion live performances under their belt, Phish is back with Fuego, a 10-song journey that hits notes of rock, jazz and even funk (check out Wombat). For their performance on The Late Show With David Letterman, Phish chose the soulful and slowly-crescendoing number, The Line. The song has gained some buzz in the media over its lyrics, which refer to basketball’s Darius Washington, Jr. and his infamous free throw misses. Apparently, this ode to Washington alludes to a notion to which Phish can certainly relate.
The June 24 performance on The Late Show With David Letterman and the post-performance proves that Phish is still very, very relevant. In 2004, Phish took a hiatus – at the time it was not known whether the group would ever reunite – only to come back stronger than ever in 2009 with the studio album Joy and sold-out concerts. Despite those who think Phish’s sound is not “poppy” enough or too long-winded to enjoy, they are clearly here to stay. They have picked up on something that music fans want, which is inexplicable melodic bliss that cannot always be summed up in a three minute pop song. Even Letterman himself seems to get it, joking, “As you know, I was a founding member of the band. It’s good to have them back.” Many would agree, Dave.
Opinion by Josh Taub