Every jam band fan has undoubtedly entertained the comparison between Phish and the Grateful Dead. When you immerse yourself in the scene, the subject becomes impossible to avoid given both bands’ overwhelming success in the realm of improvisational rock music. Some fans are so devoted to one band that they look down upon the other, while others find a balance between the two. Others write the subject off entirely, claiming something as outlandish as “Phish is the modern-day Grateful Dead.”
So really then, what is the difference between these two incredible artists? We can point out the similarities quite readily. They both jam, they both emphasize their live performances, they both encourage a devoted fanbase of individuals seeking music that strays from the beaten path, and they both have a cover of “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” in their repertoire. That’s about it, as far as I can reckon.
Before I delve into my main argument, let me just say that I strongly dislike playing the “better than” game when it comes to music. Music is a subjective art form, and subjective experiences need not be ranked objectively. Having a favorite band doesn’t mean that band is better than any other, just that it is favorable to you.
So, here’s my observation between these two bands. They both certainly inspire an “inside” community, and I think it’s fair to metaphorically equate them to inside jokes. While the Grateful Dead wanted their fans to be in on the joke, Phish wants their fans to want to be in on the joke.
I’ll start with Phish, because there’s certainly a peculiar meta element to a sentence that includes the phrase “wants… to want.” Phish has always maintained an air of mystery about their proceedings. Everything is hush-hush until you’re in the moment and their plans are coming to fruition. The latest New Year’s gag is a great example. Only on the morning of did fans find out about the bracelets, and it turned out the newly introduced Phish ship wasn’t about to blast off at all, but instead float upon the waves of Madison Square Garden. This is a cornerstone of Phish: setting your expectations up for something and pulling a curveball at the last minute.
They want you to think you know best. Especially at this point, they’ve had thirty-plus years of songwriting and joke-telling to create a truly prolific body of work. The music should speak for itself, but it’s the subtleties that continue to call us back for more: the rarified “Harpua” storytelling or the earnest pleas to “read the fucking book” without ever fully telling us what that book really is. It’s this semi-specific nature that intrigues as much as it mystifies.
It’s also with this philosophy that Phish creates music. Their more intricate songs are rooted in the depths of jazz and other music-theory weirdness and riddled with non-sequiturs that only the thoroughly astute observer can hope to follow. This, too, inspires fans to invest in the band, to spend days and weeks listening to these compositions in hopes of understanding them. And just when you’ve figured out the ebbs and flows of a song, there’s a good chance you could go years without ever seeing it performed! Or maybe, just maybe, it’s still “Lawn Boy.”
Without fail, Phish will take your predictions and pull the rug right out from underneath you. If you think you know, then you don’t know. One of my very first articles for Live For Live Music was a list of ten albums Phish was likely to cover for Halloween 2013. Instead, the band covered their future selves, playing about a dozen brand-new songs to test them out ahead of recording an album. I learned my lesson: don’t bother trying to guess.
Phish wants you to want to be in on the joke. They want you to feel like you’re in on it. They want you comparing show counts and recalling favorite moments because it makes you feel like you know best. They want you going back to Trey’s Gamehendge demo because it makes you feel like you’re getting closer to the core of what Phish is all about. You’re getting in on it, right? Yeah, no.
The Grateful Dead, on the other hand of this two-handed jam-band comparison, didn’t put up those pretenses. They wanted you in on the joke with them, and they did everything they could to bring you along and keep you there. Perhaps the best example of this is the Dead’s compositions themselves. As Dead & Company bassist Oteil Burbridge once told me in an interview, “The vast majority of Grateful Dead songs have some little twist in there to catch you.”
The songs feel very straightforward and pastoral, but the more you get to know them, the more depth you find in them. These little twists only make you appreciate the songs more as you listen to them over and over again. They really do their best to keep you inspired, for as long as you’re willing to let that inspiration move you brightly.
Beyond the music, their devotion to their fans comes through in so many ways. Allowing fans to tape and distribute their music is the most obvious, but it was their nomadic lifestyle that really spoke to people in a new and exciting way. They were definitively different during a time that encouraged same-ness, and they wanted their fans to be different with them. Especially in their first ten or fifteen years, the Dead must have felt like a family of sorts. The newly released documentary, Long Strange Trip, does an incredible job highlighting just how well the crew members were treated. The band even footed the bill for their Europe ’72 tour!
My personal opinion is that a lot of this outlook stemmed from Jerry Garcia. He so strongly avoided the title of “leader” because he didn’t want the band and the catalog to be viewed as just his. The lack of ego is as admirable as it is naïve, because Garcia was ultimately deified to the point of his own demise. There are a lot of angles from which Jerry’s death can be examined, but there’s no denying that 30 years of near-constant touring took its toll, both physically and mentally. He literally gave it his all.
It’s that ethos of the Grateful Dead that keeps the music alive and well today. The Dead has been reborn to a new generation, as bands like Joe Russo’s Almost Dead continue to interpret the canon in new, innovative ways. Even a pop-music sensation like John Mayer can find his way into the community, laying down all pretenses and putting his all into the music like so many have done before him. He certainly is playing an important role in carrying on the community, and he does this so gratefully. He’s not only in on the joke, but, as his heartfelt Instagram posts often imply, he wants us to be in on it too.
In that same way, I think Phish is very much an entity that will not continue beyond its four members—there will be no Phish & Company. Certainly there are gifted musicians who could handle the catalog, but Phish is more than their music. They are creating the joke, and they want us to think we’re in on it too. If they stopped creating the joke, then where would that leave us? Phish shows are far too in-the-moment for there to ever be a suitable replacement. There’s a subconscious understanding of this truth in Phish fans, which only fuels our feverish desire to traverse the country in search of that high. But that’s all part of the band’s strange design.