Last Night Phish Played Grateful Dead Songs For The First Time In 16 Years And The Heady Music World FREAKED OUT
As a rule of thumb, Phish doesn’t cover the Grateful Dead. The Talking Heads, yes. Velvet Underground, yes. The Rolling Stones, yes. Zeppelin, yes. The Who, yes. But not The Grateful Dead. Phish plays Phish, no matter where Phish is playing in the country and no matter how many bearded dudes are rocking celebratory Steal Your Face tie dyes in the parking lot. When you buy a ticket to see Phish, you *generally* know the musical formula for the product in its many variances: Maybe a “Disease,” maybe a “YEM,” Maybe a “Tweezer,” Maybe a “Mikes > Simple >Weakpaug” with a “Free” encore. Maybe a Fishman vacuum solo, maybe — if you’re lucky — a “Lizards”.
Despite loving The Grateful Dead themselves and having millions of live music-loving fans who also love the songbook, history, and cultural traditions of The Grateful Dead, Phish generally just wants to play Phish songs. They have 33 years worth of original repertoire to choose from, so it’s not that hard at this point.
That said, Trey Anastasio has gushed fondly over the years about his first Dead show at the Hartford Civic Center in ’83, as have Page, Mike, and Fish about their own experiences with The Dead. Phish’s very obvious influence from The Dead came full circle in 2015 when Trey shared the stage with Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann at the Dead 50 Fare Thee Well shows in Chicago and Santa Clara.
But, generally speaking, you should not buy a ticket to see Phish if you’re expecting a Grateful Dead cover band. There are exceptions (“Terrapin Station” on 8/9/1998 commemorating the three-year anniversary of Jerry’s death, “El Paso” and “West L.A. Fadeaway” with Bob Weir on 10/06/2000 at Shoreline). But those are the only two I can think of on the top of my head.
Get it? Phish isn’t the Grateful Dead and people in culture as a whole are dumb or straight naive for thinking that.
As a person, I have to imagine there’s good reason for this: It’s hard to carve your own artistic niche when you’re constantly compared to someone else as a point of cultural reference. Chance The Rapper isn’t the next Kanye West — He’s the first Chance The Rapper. Same with comparing Lebron to Michael Jordan. We consumers of culture do this to contextualize influence of great cultural moments even though they can hold their own in their weight class.
Back in the ’90s, Phish’s reputation snowballed as a grassroots heir apparent to the Grateful Dead’s live music throne in the wake of Jerry Garcia’s death. Phish became, obnoxiously enough, known as “the next Grateful Dead” despite being the first and only Phish. Back in 1996, with a touch of annoyance in his voice, Trey scoffed at the comparison between Phish and The Dead in Bittersweet Motel — “There are aspects of The Grateful Dead that I love…. There are aspects of *Boston* that I love.”
That was 20 years ago. Once-in-a-lifetime moments where music worlds meld are now not *that* uncommon. It’s great time to be alive.
But last night at the Ascend Amphitheater in Nashville, the jam band world’s orbit was tilted straight off it’s axis when founding Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist Bob Weir walked on the stage. In town for a solo show at the Ryman Auditorium tomorrow night, The Other One sat with Phish for six solid songs, including Bobby singing lead on a brand new Phish jam and three Dead covers.
The occasion marks the first time Phish has covered The Dead in 16 years, since Weir last stepped out at Shoreline in October 2000.
The setlist is what causes jam band nerds like myself to go into a full tizzy, with thousands like myself glued to Mixlr streams and Periscope. I FOMO’d hard, firing off text after text to friends and friends of friends that it was going down on a Tuesday night in Nashville while streaming through the tinny speakers on my laptop. The reaction was sheer glee and common “holy shit!!!!”
Veterans of 100s and 100s of shows will tell you that it doesn’t get any better than this:
Reactions on Twitter and from all across the heady music universe were rabid:
The people who were lucky enough to be there caught their unicorn white whale of a Phish show. I can’t imagine how it felt walking out of that set — hands numb from high fives, pure adrenaline and euphoria of “holy shit, that just happened!!!” pulsing through every vein in your body. Chase enough shows and you know how special that feeling of getting the one actually is.
We’re so lucky to live an era of live music where heavyweights are willing to come together in the spirit of a moment that can never be replicated. You buy the ticket, take the ride — that’s what makes this little scene so damn special.