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What Bob Weir’s Sit-In Meant In The Worlds Of Phish And The Grateful Dead

By now, most everyone knows what happened last night. Not only did Phish perform with Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, but they owned it. I mean, Weir and Phish took “Twist” deep. Trey and Bobby sang each other’s songs. They even joined forces for perhaps the one song that has appeared with some regularity in both the Phish and Dead catalogs – “Quinn The Eskimo” – penned by the newest Nobel Prize winner, Bob Dylan. While previous congregations with Dead members have felt like “passing of the torch” to Phish, last night was more along the lines of two creative entities, celebrating both the distinct and shared elements of their musical legacies in real time.

Really though, this story goes back to August 9th, 1995. Tragedy befell the “scene,” as it were, when the jam savior himself, Jerry Garcia, met his maker. Garcia’s health had waned throughout the 90’s, leaving few surprised by this horrible news, but that didn’t make the news any less horrible. Jerry was gone, leaving this unconquerable void that the true Grateful Dead once filled.

It seems that, at that point in history, the Dead’s legion of loyal followers set upon two paths. One path remained unflinchingly proud of their favorite band, refusing to accept any followers as legitimate. The other forced themselves to carry onward with the journey of exploratory music, wherein the band Phish saw their stock rise with new listeners.

Grieving is an interesting psychological process. You may look back at this and find those on the first path to be “jaded,” but, considering the near-messianic status that Jerry held over his followers, it’s certainly understandable.

I vividly recall a walk towards Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in the Dead’s mecca, San Francisco, on my way to catch a Phish show back in 2012. I was by myself, minding my own business, when two tie-dye clad fans started heckling me for my choice in music. They called Phish imposters. I told them it was just music, and they should let it go. It’s not as if I don’t appreciate the Grateful Dead; I just like Phish, too. They just moved on to the next fan. I can’t blame them, but I just moved on too.

At this vital turning point in 1995, Phish – either consciously or subconsciously – made an executive decision to be themselves. The band had started out covering Grateful Dead music in the 1980’s, but put an end to that habit by the 1990’s. Once the Grateful Dead’s touring days were over, Phish could have tried to fill that gap by playing the band’s music, but they instead cemented themselves as themselves. They dove deeper into their eclectic blend of jazz influences and trademarked lyrical weirdness.

The sole exception to this narrative is, of course, August 9th, 1998, when Phish honored the third anniversary of Garcia’s death with an encore rendition of the song “Terrapin Station.” The only other time that Phish would play a song by the Grateful Dead was on October 6th, 2000; the first time that Bob Weir sat in with the band. With Weir, however, a Dead song or two was to be expected. For that “Terrapin”, however, it was something that was hoped for, but by no means were there any expectations. Phish showed fans a rare glimpse into their improvisational roots, tie dyed and all.

Though there were other moments of cross-collaboration – the infamous April 1999 Phil Lesh & Friends run, Lesh’s sit-in with Phish later that year, and the GRAB tour with Phil & Friends in 2006 – the Grateful Dead and Phish worlds would remain largely distinct for decades. Grateful Dead members reunited in various permutations throughout those years. Phish toured heavily, took five years off, then started touring not-as-heavily upon their return to form. We all know the story.

It’s one thing to sit-in with a band, but it’s another to honor their 50th anniversary. That’s really where this new chapter in jam history begins, Fare Thee Well. In the beginning of 2015, the surviving members of the Grateful Dead announced a series of performances in honor of their 50th anniversary. Trey Anastasio was chosen by those who choose, presumably Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart, to play the lead guitar role over the five night stretch.

“I think, really, he’s the guy… Trey does the whole thing, and he also gets what we’re up to. He was profoundly influenced by us early on, and he knows what we’re drawing from. He’s the right guy.” – Bob Weir, May 2015.

Why exactly was he right for the job? For one thing, Trey Anastasio has been gushing over his first-ever Grateful Dead show for years. The fact that Phish opted to distinguish themselves only makes them more credible in the eyes of the Grateful Dead, the band that distinguished themselves against a sea of like-minded classic rockers with a totally unique approach to the music business. And musically speaking, when it comes to “jams,” few are as musically adept as Trey.

Sure there were lots of names tossed in the hat, and all of them would have been acceptable. Warren Haynes, Steve Kimock, and Jimmy Herring were all viable options, each having played with members of the Grateful Dead in the last 20 years. Still, there was something about Trey Anastasio that sparked a new level of excitement. As if his years spent persistently avoiding the Grateful Dead’s music made him somehow more pure, especially when contrasted with a scene that has bent over backwards to honor the Dead’s music with countless cover renditions. Nothing against Grateful Dead covers or anything – my band plays our fair share – but it’s certainly been done before.

So what happened? Well, Trey rocked it, of course. He spent the entirety of 2015 practicing Dead song after Dead song, mastering Jerry’s licks and adding his own flare to the catalog. He sang “Bertha”, and the entirety of Phish’s fan base felt a surge of pride for this opportunity.

Some will look back and say that John Mayer has done an even-better job with Dead & Company. The difference, of course, is that Dead & Company has gone through two tours together – they’re a band. This was a project, trapped in a singular moment of time. They did their best, and what they offered was an indescribable energy that somehow captured the ambiance of a large-scale Grateful Dead show.

The funny thing is, after that was all said and done, Phish went back out on the road and just did Phish. They even played at Alpine Valley on the 20th anniversary of Jerry’s death, and they did Phish.

But those floodgates were opened, and they couldn’t be closed. Just a couple of months ago, we saw Page McConnell and Jon Fishman get their chance at the Grateful Dead’s legacy by playing in a Phil & Friends lineup at LOCKN’ Festival. We’ve seen Mike Gordon jam with Phil Lesh at Terrapin Crossroads on a handful of occasions. And that, of course, brings us to last night.

Bob Weir and Phish were both scheduled to perform in Nashville on the same night. Tonight, in fact. October 19th. With Phish starting their run last night, fans were hopeful that Weir would get into Nashville one night early for some cross collaboration. Then the Grateful Dead guitarist was spotted at soundcheck, jamming on “Walkin’ Blues.” Then, he stepped out on stage during a second set and led Phish in “Samson And Delilah.”

At this point, with my jaw on the floor, I brought my computer into the other room to show my fiancé just what was happening in this moment in time. Bob Weir. Phish. Samson And Delilah. There was a different energy this time, compared to the sit-in from 2000. Then, there was still a contingency who considered Phish to be followers. Now, both bands are uniquely established entities. Phish has been playing for 33 years. The Grateful Dead played for 30.

Nodding to that very same idea, the Weir’d Phish band opened up a jam on the Phish song “Twist.” In 2000, the group did play “Chalk Dust Torture,” but many fans note that Weir was more or less out of place for that rendition. Not so for “Twist,” as the band seemed to thrive on the additional rhythm guitar, delving into a unique major key jam that is atypical for the song.

The surprises kept coming, as Phish played the opening notes to another one of their songs: “Miss You.” Written earlier this year, the song is one of the calmer ballads on Phish’s new Big Boat album. In the biggest move to validate Phish’s existence in the eyes of the Grateful Dead universe imaginable, Bob Weir actually sang the song! Can you imagine that? In 2016, Trey Anastasio wrote a song, and a founding member of the Grateful Dead came out and sang it for him.

Phish would eventually return the favor, as Trey Anastasio took the lead on vocals for “Playin’ In The Band.” That, as well as their version of “West L.A. Fadeaway,” were two strong crowd-pleasing moments – not to mention the encore of “Quinn The Eskimo” with Mike Gordon getting a chance to sing lead. It’s not all about Trey and Bobby, ya know!

More than anything else in Phish’s career, the six songs they played with Bob Weir essentially validated them as a creative entity. It’s not that they needed the validation; surely Phish fans have known for a great long while that their favorite band is something special. Still, the shadow of being “Grateful Dead followers” has hung over them for many, many years, to the point where the band had to consciously avoid this comparison at all costs by emphatically creating and performing their own music. There certainly are similarities to be drawn, but anyone who has given both bands a fair listen knows that their music is not particularly alike.

But when Bob Weir, who was a founding member of the Grateful Dead at the age of 16, sings your song just a few days after his 69th birthday, you know you’re doing something right. And that was the beauty of last night’s performance.

And now, the dust has settled. Phish is getting back on that stage tonight, and they’ll probably play two sets of only original music. Bob Weir is taking the stage at the famous Ryman Auditorium tonight, and he’ll treat fans to music from the Grateful Dead catalog and his own new album, the cowboy themed Blue Mountain. But for that one moment last night, these two great musical legacies truly intertwined, and it was glorious.