Welcome to the first-ever installment of “Phishin’ With,” an interview series with artists in the live music scene who have been directly inspired by the band Phish. The Burlington, VT quartet has led a whole generation by example, bringing some of the best concert experiences, consistently, for over three decades. Our first interviewee is legendary pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph, who caught his first Phish show five years ago and hasn’t looked back since! The leader of The Family Band talks all things Phish in this exclusive interview…
L4LM: Robert Randolph, tell us about your first Phish concert experience.
Robert Randolph: Well, my first one was actually really great. It was a New Years show at Madison Square Garden in 2010. Everyone kept telling me about it for a while, so I finally got to see one. I don’t even go back that far! (laughs)
L4LM: And what a perfect time to be introduced. How did you first get into their music originally?
RR: The first person that actually told me about Phish was a girl named Rachel Seiden, who works for Relix Magazine. She told me about them years ago, back when [Robert Randolph And The Family Band] first started in 2001, and then our old guitar player, who actually plays in Lettuce, Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff… He used to make me listen to Phish tapes every day on the bus when he was on the road with us. Then slowly but surely, I just got really hooked on it, you know? It’s a really great thing.
L4LM: How would you describe the music of Phish?
RR: The first time I walked into a Phish show, I noticed that these guys, they know their songs, but they have this very tight way of improvising, but kind of letting it all go to this place. You never know where the song is going to end, or where the solo is going to go, but it just kind of builds and builds and builds each song; it’s just really great to see. When you see the original guys do it, then you start to understand who all the copycats are.
L4LM: It’s a complete experience that you don’t quite understand until you walk into your first Phish show.
RR: Yeah, you really have to go to one to understand. As much as Shmeeans had me listen to those records, you really don’t understand until you’re in there and you see all of the fans just on this wave. Everyone is on a surfboard and they’re all riding the same wave; it kind of just goes, goes, goes, you know?
L4LM: Totally. So how many Phish shows have you seen?
RR: I’ve seen about six or seven. It’s hard to go to them because I’m on the road, but I’ve seen about three of their New Years shows and have seen Phish at Dick’s twice, then I’ve seen two others just randomly on the road. If they’re in the same area or if I have a day off, then I’ll go. Once was in California and another time was outside of DC.
L4LM: Do you have a favorite show, or most memorable experience?
RR: Yeah, when I heard them play “Light” at Dick’s. That song just really got me caught up in the Phish moment (laughs). I mean… that was really one of the greatest live things I’ve ever seen or listened to. And most people that know me know that I’m kind of like, “oh this is okay, that’s cool”… but that, man, I really got caught up in that. “Light” is definitely one of my top three Phish songs, anyway.
L4LM: And what are your other two favorite Phish songs?
RR: “Runaway Jim” and “Bouncing Around The Room”. Actually, we [RRTFB] have rehearsed “Bouncing Around The Room” a couple of times, but are just waiting for the right time to bust it out.
L4LM: Wow, that’s going to be a real crowd-pleaser. Have you ever covered any other Phish songs?
RR: No, we don’t really cover any of them, but we have done teasers of “Wilson” and a few others. Like I said, we have rehearsed “Bouncing Around The Room”, but I’ll go back and look at it later and think, “Naw, it’s not right yet”, then we’ll go back and rehearse it again. Now we’re at a point where we can maybe do it soon.
L4LM: Would you say that Phish musically inspires your band in any particular way?
RR: They have a thing that is called “Constant Inspiration” because we all go and we write songs, and we’ll record, and we tour, playing those songs on the road, and then come back and go to these Phish shows and think, “Wow man, maybe we’re thinking about stuff too much, because these guys are just going with the flow…and it’s so correct!” That’s really the inspiring part of it all. You just see those guys, and it makes you really want to go back and really try and perfect the art of improvisation, and being creative, and really find all the different ways to keep creating and re-creating yourself—it’s such a cool thing.
L4LM: It takes a certain kind of understanding to let freedom rule you like that, which leads me to the phans. How would you describe the community of Phish? They’re certainly different from other fans, wouldn’t you say?
RR: Definitely. I think the community is different than a lot of the other communities. Most of the phish fans are like dentists and lawyers and stuff anyway (laughs). They’re all professionals from Wall Street, and it’s kind of really funny to think, “Hey man, what are you doing here?” And they’ll respond, “Aw man, you know, just hangin’ out!” I remember at the New York show, I saw a Congressman in the audience. I won’t say his name, but it was cool. You see that kind of stuff, you see police chiefs, and think, “Oh yeah, you get down too, huh?” That’s how it is, you’re there to enjoy yourself. If you need a good place to go and hide out, just go to a Phish show.
L4LM: Absolutely. What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever seen at a Phish show?
RR: Ehhhh, I can’t really answer that. I don’t know if I have any clean, wild stories.
L4LM: Moving on! In 2008, Trey sat in with the Family Band. What was that like?
RR: Yeah, it was pretty funny actually. He sat in with us while we were opening for Eric Clapton, and we didn’t even have that much time. I think our set was only 40 minutes or something, so we had to figure out whether we should play two songs or one long song. It was cool to get that call from Trey: “Hey man, let me come sit in with you tonight!” I was like, “What?!” He was in town and wanted to play with us, which was really cool.
L4LM: We need to hear that recording… What did you think about Trey playing with the Grateful Dead this summer?
RR: I thought it was awesome, like the best of both worlds with two icons coming together. It’s cool how he grew up playing all those songs, so he basically knows all of the songs and all the parts, and was a true Grateful Dead fan. So it was very exciting to see him step into that role. I went to the Friday night in Chicago, and it was nuts.
L4LM: What was your favorite part?
RR: The sound, it was unbelievable!
L4LM: It truly was a gift to be part of such an enormous experience. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us today.
RR: Thank you. Now I’m gonna go find us the soundboard from the show where Trey sat in! [We’ll be sure to share this once he sends it to us!]