Phish are really on a roll this summer.
In fact, the shows the Vermont-based jam band has performed so far represent the best of the now four-year reunion era, according to San Francisco-based journalist Dave Calarco.
“They came out this summer really with a purpose, it seems,” Calarco said from Phish’s recent tour stop in Carmel, Ind.
“The last time they played, which was the New Years’ run at MSG [Madison Square Garden in New York City], the shows seemed somewhat lackluster in comparison to what they were doing throughout 2011. Phish fans are hyper-critical to begin with, and when the shows at MSG didn’t hold up over December, some of the feedback and the grumblings must have got back to them, and they really went out swinging. It’s been remarkable this year.”
When: 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday
Where: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 108 Avenue of the Pines, Saratoga Springs
How Much: $55 for lawn tickets; amphitheater sold out
More Info: 587-3330, www.spac.org
If anyone can make this assessment, it’s Calarco. Since Phish began touring again in 2009, he has been at all but three shows, blogging reviews and photos of each one on Mr. Miner’s Phish Thoughts (phishthoughts.com).
Calarco first created the blog back when a Phish reunion was just a rumor in the summer of 2008, and over the past four years it has become an online gathering spot for Phish “phans” to discuss their favorite band. Earlier this year, Calarco compiled material from this blog with other historical essays on the band and over 250 photos into a 600-page fan anthology, also titled “Mr. Miner’s Phish Thoughts.”
The blog is still going strong, with Calarco continuing to review every show he attends. He’ll be there for Phish’s three-night stand at Saratoga Performing Arts Center Friday through Sunday.
After this year, however, the future of “Mr. Miner” may be in question.
“I’m definitely planning on seeing the rest of the shows this year, and continuing to review this transformative year that’s going on,” Calarco said. “But from here on out, I’m probably not doing full tours. I do have a wife and child, and they’ve been incredibly understand through all this.”
More modern sound
According to Calarco, this year the band has made strides to develop a more modern sound to “define this era” of the band’s history. Fans have pinpointed two new stylistic elements in the band’s live improvisations since the 2009 reunion — including “plinko playing,” which involves staccato rhythms and palm-muted guitar playing from Trey Anastasio; and “storage-shed” jams, which rely more on collaborative soundscapes created by all four members of the band, rather than deliberate solo sections.
“As the band has obviously been playing for so long, they’re able to take elements from their whole career,” Calarco said, “and now that they’ve added these new stylistic developments, they’re really beginning to break new ground again for the first time in this incarnation of the band.”
“I feel like in 2009, 2010, they were getting their street legs back, and last year they were moving forward, but not as consistently, and not with the power that we’re seeing now,” Calarco continued. “People are really realizing who the band is again. This type of consistency is what everybody always associated with Phish, and a lot of fans were wondering if they would ever again reach that in this new phase of their career. I think they answered that question this summer.”
Phish first formed at the University of Vermont in Burlington in 1983, with the long-standing lineup of Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, drummer Jon Fishman, and keyboardist Page McConnell solidifying in 1985. The jam band quickly developed a dedicated following equaling the rabid fan base of the Grateful Dead.
Calarco, originally from Connecticut, joined this fan base in 1995, drawn in by the unique live experience the band offered. He, like many fans, would follow the band around on its tours.
“You go to a [Phish] show and you have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen night to night,” Calarco said. “Once you become drawn into the path of not only a show but an entire tour, it becomes this sense of adventure with the musical mystery involved with the jams, the improvisations — you don’t know what type of music is going to be coming out.”
The band took a hiatus from 2000 to 2002, and finally split after the release of their 2004 album “Undermind,” playing a farewell show in Coventry, Vt. As fans know, the split didn’t last — after the band won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2008 Jammys and reunited that September to play at their former road manager’s wedding, three reunion shows were announced for March of 2009.
At the time, Calarco had just finished teaching high school U.S. history in San Francisco, and was beginning to pursue a journalistic career. Phish’s reunion prompted Calarco to combine his interests into Mr. Miner’s Phish Thoughts.
“I began to have, obviously, a lot of feelings and ideas about what [the reunion] meant in terms of my life, as so many other fans did,” Calarco said. “I started to write not just anticipatory things, but anecdotal things about the band, and as I got readership I began to write more historical pieces. It became not only a site people came to read about the band, but people on the Phish message board were coming and talking to each other. What really blew it up was when the band came back finally in 2009, in Hampton, Virginia — I reviewed the shows, and obviously so many people were wanting to know what was happening, so lots discovered my blog at that point.”
The idea for the book came soon after Calarco began documenting the reunion shows. Over the course of two-and-a-half years, Calarco worked with his editor, photographer and designer to create an anthology written from a fan’s perspective. The book is modeled after “choose-your-own-ending” style story books, in some ways, as it covers the band’s career in a “non-linear fashion.”
“It’s not only a book chronicling the comeback; it has articles about the band throughout their entire career,” Calarco said.
“Everyone who’s gotten the book, I’ve had great feedback from,” Calarco continued. “With such a passionate fan community out there, it’s surprising that no one’s written a piece of literature from the perspective of a fan. There’s a couple anecdotal tour experiences out there, and an official biography, but no one has looked at the phenomenon of the Phish tour fan community from a fan perspective.”