After a 2020 summer with no Phish, this impending 2021 summer tour is poised to mark yet another joyous return for the Vermont four. Things were once even darker than 2020, however, as the band was once said to be gone for good. Seventeen years ago today, on May 25th, 2004, Trey Anastasio issued a statement that flattened fans everywhere:
AN ANNOUNCEMENT FROM TREY (5/25/04)
Last Friday night, I got together with Mike, Page and Fish to talk openly about the strong feelings I’ve been having that Phish has run its course and that we should end it now while it’s still on a high note. Once we started talking, it quickly became apparent that the other guys’ feelings, while not all the same as mine, were similar in many ways — most importantly, that we all love and respect Phish and the Phish audience far too much to stand by and allow it to drag on beyond the point of vibrancy and health. We don’t want to become caricatures of ourselves, or worse yet, a nostalgia act. By the end of the meeting, we realized that after almost twenty-one years together we were faced with the opportunity to graciously step away in unison, as a group, united in our friendship and our feelings of gratitude.
So Coventry will be the final Phish show. We are proud and thrilled that it will be in our home state of Vermont. We’re also excited for the June and August shows, our last tour together. For the sake of clarity, I should say that this is not like the hiatus, which was our last attempt to revitalize ourselves. We’re done. It’s been an amazing and incredible journey. We thank you all for the love and support that you’ve shown us.
— Trey Anastasio
The short, bleak announcement from Anastasio was followed a few days later (on May 28th, 2004) with a more reflective and outwardly thankful letter by keyboardist Page McConnell:
A LETTER FROM PAGE
As we wind down the Phish career, it is done with both great joy and great sadness. The joy comes from remembering the incredibly good times we’ve experienced, the successes we’ve enjoyed, and knowing that even in our closing we are honoring the band. The sadness is obviously driven by the fact that something I love will not be a part of my life anymore. To me, we have been the greatest band in the world and have had the greatest fans ever.
I still love the music we make but the situation feels different to me now. I guess in my heart I’ve known for a while that something had to change, but it wasn’t until this last weekend that my feelings really began to coalesce. I’m old enough now that I am able to look to the future without feeling that I need to balance it with my past. I find it ironic that half of my life has to go by before I am able to focus solely on the future. As a member of a successful rock band, it seems that every aspect of my profession encourages me to extend my youth as long as possible. Don’t get me wrong, I like feeling young, but more importantly I need to be honest with myself.
The pressures and schedule of this work can take its toll personally as well as creatively. As someone who has recently been through a divorce, I know how traumatic change can be. But, I also know that if you are able to let go of things and embrace change there is the potential for incredible personal (and creative) growth.
If I sound unusually candid in this statement, I am able to do so because in my mind I’ve already moved on to the next phase of my life. This is a feeling I believe I share with Trey. I have a four-year-old daughter and there is nothing more important to me than being with her. Come August, I’m not going to have to tell her how many days ’til daddy comes back from tour. Combine that with my perception that the band’s vitality is not what it once was, and it’s easy to see how my mind quickly begins to move in one direction instead of a hundred directions all at the same time.
I will miss it incredibly, but I have no regrets. The pride that I feel for the band, our fans, the organization, and all of our collective accomplishments is overwhelming. I love you all and know that we wouldn’t be here without you.
While the breakup may have felt abrupt, it was not all that surprising for those familiar with the band. The Phish “machine” had grown too big and too hectic to remain manageable, drug dependency had become a debilitating issue for Trey, and as the subsequent mental and physical fatigue set in, the band’s playing began to decline. In a 2012 Rolling Stone interview with David Fricke, Anastasio looked back on the mounting issues within the band at that time, explaining “Page pulled me aside and said, ‘For 20 years, I’ve had 100 percent faith that you would lead us onstage, and it’s always made me feel good. For the first time, I’m not sure I feel that anymore.’”
As drummer Jon Fishman stated in the same retrospective Rolling Stone piece, “Trey came to the band, in ‘04, totally out of his mind, saying, ‘The only way I can describe this is, if I don’t get out of Phish now, I’ll die.’ When your good friend says this to you, you go, ‘It should have never come to this. Absolutely, go home. Nobody should die over this.’”
True to Trey’s words, the band approached Coventry, their August ’04 Vermont festival, with a feeling of finality. Echoing the devastated feelings of all the fans in attendance, the entire event was cast in a depressing shadow. Unrelenting rain decimated the concert fields and access roads, turning the entire grounds into a mud bath. Traffic backed up for miles leading in, prompting Mike Gordon to get on the radio and tell incoming fans to turn around and go home. Many left their cars and hiked in so as not to miss the last Phish shows ever, but what they got was a shell of the band’s former self.
The band’s Coventry version of “Glide“, most notably, saw Trey unable to keep his composure musically. The emotional weight of “Wading in the Velvet Sea” proved to be too much for Page, as he broke into tears, unable to finish the song’s refrain and instead turning his mic out to the audience to sing it for him. Just like that, the festival was done—Phish was done—and they had departed with a whimper rather than a roar, leaving fans feeling empty and unfinished.
However, five years later, on October 1st, 2008—after sufficient time had passed for everyone to get healthy and mend fences—the band once again shocked their fan base with a short but oh-so-sweet announcement: Phish returns to the stage for three concerts at the Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia on March 6, 7 and 8, 2009.
On March 6th, Trey, Mike, Fish, and Page hit the stage at Hampton Coliseum, and over the deafening roars of excitement and gratitude, the opening notes to “Fluffhead” rang out through the Virginia arena. The 3.0 era had officially begun. Phish was back from the dead.
Today, Phish is alive and thriving. Twenty-seventeen was a landmark year for the band, as they orchestrated their historic 13-night Baker’s Dozen residency and, on the final day—officially proclaimed “Phish Day” by the Mayor of New York—smiled and embraced as a Phish banner was raised to the rafters of Madison Square Garden, immortalized. In 2018, despite the unfortunate cancellation of their Curveball festival, Phish pulled the ultimate prank on Halloween, as they delivered their ultra-obscure Scandanavian prog-rock hidden gem, í Rokk by Kasvot Växt. Even though there was no 2020 summer tour, after just one (comparably short) Phish-free period, another triumphant return to the stage is already on the books. There are a lot of things wrong with the world today. But Phish is healthy, happy, and will be back to doing what they do best before you know it, years past when they were “supposed” to be gone—and that’s at least one thing we can all be thankful for.
Phish – “Fluffhead” – Hampton, VA – 3/6/09
[Originally published 5/25/19]