Saturday Bluegrass: Phish
Words By Andy Zimmer
To attend a Phish show is to witness a four-headed musical chameleon of genre-bending audio assault. The guys from Vermont have drawn from an incredibly broad spectrum of the musical palate over the course of their career. Perhaps the only thing more eclectic than the influences that Phish draw from is how they package those influences in their music in a live setting. It’s not unusual to hear Phish seamlessly transition from calypso, to funk, to reggae, to psychedelic freak-out all within the same song. To try and pigeonhole Phish within one vein along the continuum of music is laughable... these guys have defined themselves by being indefinable.
Phish truly uses their live show as a platform to explore all of what moves them in the world of music. After one show, it would be evident to anyone in the audience that the band has a great love for bluegrass. While the bulk of the “Phish sound” is far removed from the world of banjos and flat-picking, Phish has put their own spin on bluegrass and showcase a Phishgrass number or two at every show. Whether they come in the form of a traditional bluegrass number or a quirky Phishgrass original, Phish routinely embraces the influences of old time music.
Bassist Mike Gordon may be the prime driving force behind Phish’s bluegrass adventures. Gordon has been a banjo player for nearly two decades and adds the lead vocals to a number of the bluegrass tunes in Phish’s repertoire. In fact, in 1992 Gordon began taking banjo lessons from fellow musician and Vermont resident Gordon Stone. Since then, Stone has made numerous on-stage appearances with the band, and has contributed to several albums. As a band, Phish went a step further in honing their bluegrass chops. In the middle of their fall 1994 tour, the band flew Jeff Mosier (an accomplished musician of Blueground Undergrass fame) out to jump on tour with the band and help teach them the finer points of bluegrass. Mosier had sat-in on banjo with the band as early as 1990 (during his days playing with the Aquarium Rescue Unit). During his time on tour, Mosier definitely aided the band in upping their bluegrass competency, and sat-in at each show.
Over the years, Phish has continued to incorporate elements of bluegrass into their shows and has welcomed numerous guests from the bluegrass-world to join them on stage. The band has been fortunate enough to share the spotlight with such talented artists as Bela Fleck, Del McCoury, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Tim O’Brien. Hopefully the band continues to embrace the high and lonesome sound well into the future, because there are few things that are quite as enjoyable as a bluegrass breakdown in the middle of a Phish show.