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Phish winds down their 2019 tour with three nights in Charleston

Phishtory in the Making

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It's been 10 years since Phish reunited, ending their second hiatus since forming in 1983. In their "3.0" phase, the iconic jam band visited Charleston twice for two-night runs in 2010 and 2016. But when they touch down at the North Charleston Coliseum this Friday, it'll mark their first three-night stand in the Lowcountry and a rare tour-ending performance in the South.

Phish no longer embarks on extended tours that attract caravans of traveling "phans" who form pop-up cities in parking lots. In 2019, they only scheduled 40 shows and three are this weekend. In anticipation, we caught up with a few Phish aficionados to discuss their phandom and the band's present tour.

"I can't even wrap my head around why they're doing this," admits Andy Greenberg, who moonlights from his West Ashley dentistry practice as the lead guitarist and singer in Runaway Gin, a Charleston-based Phish tribute. Greenberg fell for the band as a teenager growing up in Florence and saw his first show at the North Charleston Coliseum in 1995. He compares the room's vibe and sound to Virginia's Hampton Coliseum or a "baby Madison Square Garden."

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Phish's Big Cypress millennium concert, considered a high-water mark in their career. Many phans consider the '90s to be Phish's peak years, punctuated by intense musical builds led by guitarist Trey Anastasio. Although Phish still occasionally stretches an improvisational section beyond 20 minutes, today's band is more likely to find less guitar-driven pockets of space to explore.

"It's a totally different vibe than the late '90s," explains Greenberg, who strategically schedules his dental practice to fly off for Phish mini-tours. "They're as cohesive as I've ever heard them, in that uncanny mind-reading kind of jamming — it almost seems like they have a greater psychic connection than they've ever had in the past."

After re-forming in 2009, phans debated if and when the band would get back to the level of jamming they'd reached in the previous century. Greenberg believes it's all about perspective: "If Phish continued to write these monster compositions like they did in the '90s, we might have lost interest. Some songs become stagnant as jam vehicles because they've done them for so long. There are no big 'You Enjoy Myself' jams anymore, for example. That roller coaster is the same as it was in 2012, but there are new rides at the amusement park."

Greenberg cites newer songs like "Ruby Waves," "Light," and "Mercury" as the catalysts for today's most memorable improvisational sections. Creatively, he believes, they're at a new peak, evidenced by the Halloween 2018 release of new material as fake Scandinavian prog rockers Kasvot Växt.

Runaway Gin members Andy Greenberg (right) and Bobby Hogg (second from right) are happy with Phish’s move toward a more cohesive structure - STEVE LEMINTANI
  • Steve Lemintani
  • Runaway Gin members Andy Greenberg (right) and Bobby Hogg (second from right) are happy with Phish’s move toward a more cohesive structure

Runaway Gin bassist Bobby Hogg, who also plays with local Grateful Dead cover band Reckoning, discovered the band as a teenager from his sister's bootleg cassette tape of a 1992 show in Isla Vista, Calif.

"I didn't really get it, but I was trying to understand because she was three years older than me and she was cool," Hogg recalls. One song, "Lizards," spoke to him because of its calypso feel, setting a spark that eventually took him to over 70 Phish shows.

Today, he says "Lizards" is a favorite to perform with Runaway Gin. "The bass part is entirely composed," says Hogg, adding that Phish songs are generally far more difficult to learn than Dead tunes. "A lot of people think Phish is just a jam band, but they have these eight-minute songs that have no improvisation. That's not that common anymore, outside of jazz or classical music."

That's a characteristic of Phish's music that brought local guitarist Lee Barbour back to the band earlier this year.

"The combination of weirdness and humor and the complexity of the material — it just hit all the right places," says Barbour about finding the band in the mid-1990s. He auditioned for the jazz program at the College of Charleston with "You Enjoy Myself," but stopped listening to Phish when he dove deeply into jazz studies. That lasted until the national touring Phish tribute group, Jazz is Phish, reached out and asked him to join. He completed his second tour, a West Coast run, in November.

"Phish has so many dimensions; people could grow with the band in a way that you couldn't do with other bands in the '90s," says Barbour, adding that he thinks new listeners will still find Phish long after they've played their last show. "The music has been so well documented and the catalog is so vast. In the same way that other bands are shared and passed down, I think it'll have the same effect in 2050 that it did in the 1990s."

Hogg — who will travel to New York to see Phish on New Year's Eve after attending the Charleston shows — believes that 2010s and 2020s Phish will also stand the test of time. "There's less ego in the band now — they're all equal parts in creating this sound, as opposed to Trey ripping solos off of a rhythm section."

Hogg says he loved the '90s era of Anastasio shredding, but he appreciates the band growing as musicians. "You can't keep doing the same thing for 30 years," he says. "You've got to change as a performer to enjoy it, and hopefully if you enjoy it, everyone else will too."

By the numbers, that strategy is working. Each of Phish's three concerts this weekend sold out within minutes of going on sale. That's due to a combination of the tour-closing run attracting out-of-town phans and the continued growth of Phish's popularity with a new generation.

Greenberg expects special things to happen this weekend. "They have time to stretch out. A three-night run gives the band a chance to settle in and create a broader narrative."

Runaway Gin will play a Phish afterparty at the Pour House at 10 p.m. on Fri. Dec. 6. Tickets are $15/adv, $20/dos.

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