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—Photo Credit: Pete Tschudy / Flickr

Mile High Music: An Ode To Phish

One of America’s most inventive (and divisive) bands will celebrate 30 years at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park during Labor Day weekend. 

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Phish was founded in 1983, and I was born a few years later. Growing up abroad as the child of two diplomats, most facets of contemporary pop culture came my way late. I had never heard of Phish when I moved to the U.S., never even tasted Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food. A few months into high school, however, I met a boy with a tie-dye Phish shirt. He asked me if I knew the band, and I said I didn’t. He was white, smart, from an upper-middle-class family, and was clearly not cool (by high school standards anyways)—telling characteristics of a Phish fan, I’d come to learn. That was 2004, the year Phish announced that it was breaking up.

After the announcement, the New York Times concluded, “Phish has nothing left to prove,” and it wasn’t the first time the newspaper didn’t get it quite right. The event doesn’t even register in my memory; I was still listening to the Beatles. I moved to New England to go to boarding school, and it was there that I first really heard Phish. The album was Farmhouse, and although I genuinely liked most of it, Phish initially appealed to me because the band symbolized a counterculture, yet had an incredible fanbase. Surely, if these four very average-looking Vermonters could convince 80,000 people to gather and pay for a gig—with little to no help from Rolling Stone, the radio, or MTV—they played good music.

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In college I listened to bluegrass, the Grateful Dead, and the String Cheese Incident, each with its own cult-like following similar to Phish. One night in 2008, a friend showed me Bittersweet Motel, a documentary made in the late ’90s chronicling the band and its fans. That movie was a game changer. I downloaded 18GB of soundboard Phish recordings off the same friend’s computer, and when the band announced its comeback in 2009, I didn’t hesitate to enter the lottery for tickets. I requested a ticket to each night of the group’s shows at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in Wisconsin, and it randomly ended up being one a dozen of my college friends, from Oregon, attended. When the band played the Gorge Amphitheater in George, Washington, that summer, we all went to that too.

Still, seeing Phish for the first time didn’t really have that big an effect. The crowd wasn’t that great; the events laid waste to the environment (between the gas, the nitrous balloons, and the glow sticks); half the time I had no idea what the band was singing; and older fans seemed to hate all the songs I loved, chief among them “Farmhouse.” There were moments where I found Anastasio godlike, or where lighting director Chris Karoda would steal the show, so I kept attending the three-hour plus concerts.

Come 2013, I founded myself living in New York and heading upstate to Saratoga Springs for the band’s three-night run. During those shows I was reunited with a childhood friend, who I’d first met in Pakistan. It felt cosmic. I hadn’t planned on going to any more Phish shows that summer, but after that weekend in New York, I followed my friend, her crew, and the band for a week more. I called in sick to work and fell hard for Phish. Suddenly, my companions were on par with the music, and it all clicked. When I spontaneously bought a ticket to the Gorge that summer, my Oregon friends noted a difference: before I seemed unenthusiastic, now I was savvy and genuine.


Dicks Sporting Goods Park after Phish’s 2013 run (Photo Credit: Shannon Tompkins / Flickr)

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It took me years to love Phish the way that the band deserves. When I read takedowns by writers of their first Phish shows, or when I can tell some of my friends are just there for the party scene, I think about how long it took for me to consider the band genius. Now I frequent Phish.net, the most thorough compilation of a band’s history, almost as often as I do Amazon. I use Twitter to follow @Phish_FTR, one of the band’s four official accounts. I use my credit card to almost exclusively buy Phish tickets and flights to see them. I silently judge musicians and not so silently judge my friends who claim not to like the band. I have unequivocally become a phan.

This weekend Phish will play its fifth consecutive three-night Labor Day run at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City. It’ll be my first time attending the Dick’s run, which is known as a place where the band really lets loose, performing some of its most inventive and fun shows. It’s in my backyard, but I’m choosing to camp, so I can take full advantage of the lot scene and observe all the folks that make a living off the band. During the run, 26,000 fans (plus thousands more who will pay $20 to live stream the show) will listen to a 30-year-old band that’s still making new music. Sure, I’m bummed to be missing Taylor Swift’s two-night run at the Pepsi Center, but only a little—and if I’m being completely honest, not at all.

Correction, Sept. 11, 2015: A previous version of this article stated that Phish was formed in 1985. The core of the group formed at the University of Vermont in 1983. The article has been updated to reflect this change.

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