VPR Header
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why do people like Phish? A guide for the uninitiated

A band performs in a wood-paneled room.
Billy Glassner
/
Courtesy
Phish members Trey Anastasio, left, Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman perform in Vermont in the late 1980s. In its 100th episode, Brave Little State explores the band's culture of fandom and its early roots in Vermont.

Brave Little State journeys into the weird world of Vermont's favorite jam band to explore the culture of "phandom” and Phish’s early roots here.

Our people-powered show answers questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by our audience, because we think our journalism is better when you're a part of it. And this happens to be our 100th episode!

Brave Little State is made for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio above if you're able; we also provide a written version below.

Subscribe to Brave Little State for free, so you never miss an episode:

Loading...

You may have heard of a band called Phish.

Perhaps you or your friends went to the infamous Phish festival in the Northeast Kingdom town of Coventry back in 2004. At the very least, you’ve probably tasted their namesake ice cream flavor, Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food.

The band has deep Vermont roots. They formed in the early-to-mid-‘80s, when they were college students at the University of Vermont and Goddard. There was keyboardist Page McConnell, drummer Jon Fishman, bassist Mike Gordon, and guitarist Trey Anastasio.

Four decades — and a few hiatuses — later, Phish is still touring. And in spite of never having a chart-topping song or getting heavy radio play, they are one of the most successful bands of all-time.

That’s due, in part, to their improvisational jams and their rock-and-roll-meets-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mashup of musical genres.

It’s also due to the fact that they have one of the largest and most passionate fan-bases in the world.

“Some people ask like, ‘What religion are you?’ And I kind of jokingly say, ‘Phish is my religion,’” says one Phish fan — or “phan,” Chryss Allaback. “But, you know ... is that really a joke?

You may have a stereotypical image in your mind of such phans, also known as Phishheads.

“It's the hemp necklace, the hacky-sack playing, [the] corduroy pants,” muses Emmet Moseley, who does not identify as a phan. “You know, like, patchouli smelling, like headshop-visiting…”

Even if you’re a total Phish newcomer, there’s also a good chance you’ve caught wind of some of the, shall we say, discourse surrounding the band.

There are the lovers (“I like to take LSD about six times a year and go see Phish and that's my church”), and the haters (“I would say from a purely musical perspective, there's nothing but hate there"). And there’s little room for people in the middle.

But those people in the middle do exist. I met one of them — Ethan Weinstein. And he happens to be today’s question-asker.

“I submitted a question to Brave Little State, which I am a fan of, an avid listener, which was, I'm slightly embarrassed to say: ‘Why do people like Phish? And how did they become such a big part of Vermont music culture?’”

A man smiles for the camera as the Vermont landscape unfurls behind him.
Josh Crane/VPR
/
VPR
Winning question-asker Ethan Weinstein of South Woodstock originally asked his question anonymously, "so as not to incur the wrath of Phish fans." But he's genuinely curious about how he can find his way into the music.

Ethan says he’s slightly embarrassed because his questions are completely genuine — he knows of the band Phish, he just really does not understand why people like them. He feels left out.

“If I could learn a little bit more about the band, then I might find that entry point into it,” he says. “Because it is so pervasive in Vermont, and I've met so many people who have either gone and enjoyed many Phish shows or been dragged to Phish shows by loved ones who love Phish. And so I thought this was an opportunity to get my education.”

Ethan, I am here to report that the mainstream discourse about Phish fandom — about how you love ‘em or you hate ‘em — it’s just not true.

There are tons of people out there who are just like you: stuck in the middle. I’m one of them, too. I’m not a Phish hater. I’m not a Phish lover. I’m a Phish… eh?

But it is precisely because the polarization between Phish lovers and Phish haters dominates the conversation that so many of us in the middle never actually make a serious effort to give Phish a chance.

Now, if you are a Phish Head or a Phish hater … welcome! I hope you stick around. But this particular piece is one for everyone who’s kind of on the fence about Phish. Maybe you’re ambivalent, or maybe you’re just intimidated by the whole scene. Whatever reason finds you in this uncomfortable middle space, I see you. I hear you. I am you.

And I am here to help you understand what Phish is all about. For instance, why are some people … like this?

Josh Crane: What's your guess for how many shows you've been to?

Stacey Steinmetz: Oh my God, hundreds. I have a huge bag of ticket stubs.

A spread of dozens of ticket stubs and lanyards from Phish shows.
Courtesy Stacey Steinmetz
/
Thirty-plus years of Phish ticket stubs from Stacey Steinmetz, who has been a Phishhead since attending UVM in the late 1980s.

‘Where do I start?’

I met question-asker and fellow Phish middle person Ethan Weinstein outside his home in South Woodstock.

Ethan is the first to admit he has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to Phish. You know, considering his first exposure to the band was through chocolate ice cream and gooey marshmallow swirls.

“I think I first became conscious of Phish through Phish Food … which is to this day, my favorite Ben and Jerry's flavor,” he says. “I don't know if that makes me a poser, because I haven't come to appreciate the band.”

Ethan has actually made an effort to crack the code of Phish fandom in the past. But he didn’t find very much useful information.

“If you ask a person, ‘Where do I start?’ You know, one person is like, ‘1989.’ And the other person is like, ‘1997.’ Someone else is 2013. And you're like, what other band is there where I have to span 30 years to find the meat on the bone?”

Thirty years is actually an understatement. Phish’s first show was in 1983. (The venue, by the way, was none other than the UVM cafeteria.)

So, Ethan, there’s a bit more meat on the bone than you thought.

But I’ll be honest — when Ethan’s question won in Brave Little State’s public voting round, where we ask our audience to select which listener query we tackle next, I didn’t expect to hear from him at all. That’s because he originally submitted his question anonymously, which is usually short for: “I want to know the answer to this question, but I want nothing to do with finding it.”

_

Much to my surprise, Ethan ultimately decided to emerge from hiding. To face the music, so to speak. When I asked why he had initially wanted to remain anonymous, he summed it up like this: “So as not to incur the wrath of Phish fans.”

Ethan further explained: “I knew that Phish had and has a large and avid following. And that if I were to question the validity of that following, some people might come after me. You know, when you like something, you don't want people saying, ‘Why do you like it?’ Or, I would just fear that that question might come across as an inherent judgment that there was no reason to like the thing, which was not my intent. I think it could have been phrased more like, ‘How did this band inspire such a passionate following?’”

Hi, this is Nina replying to Josh Crane from Brave Little State regarding why I love Phish… 

Hi, my name is Christina Allaback and I live in Roseburg, Oregon… 

Hi, my name is Jim, I’m from Natick, Massachusetts… 

Hey, this is Ron Kammen. I grew up in Vergennes…

Hey there, this is Rob Fedou calling from Nashville, Tennessee…

We put Ethan’s question to all of you. The italicized quotes throughout this piece are from people who left messages on the Brave Little State hotline.

Hi my name is Chris, I’m from Sharon, Vermont… 

Hi, my name is Christina Allaback and I live in Roseburg, Oregon… 

Hey there, this is Rob Fedou calling from Nashville, Tennessee… 

My name is Stephanie Martin. I’m in Lantana, Florida… 

Hi, my name is Jim, I’m from Natick, Massachusetts… 

Hello there, my name is Molly Michi-Lepp and I’m actually calling from Portland, Oregon...

While reporting this story, I temporarily re-branded our hotline as a Phish Phone, a.k.a. a safe space for people to speak their true feelings about Phish.

My name is Antonia Kontos and I live in Morrisville, Vermont… 

My name is Stephanie Martin. I’m in Lantana, Florida… 

Hey, this is Andy calling from Hinesburg…

I’ll be sampling from our trove of Phish-related voicemails, mostly positive, throughout this piece. And the many callers really do help answer Ethan’s question. Like Andy from Hinesburg, who helped me understand what it’s like to be a Phishhead:

Andy: Honestly, amongst my friends, we follow the band in the same way that other groups of people would follow a sports team — where, when they go out on tour, we keep up with the setlist and we talk about them and we'll stream that shows live together much the way someone watching a sports game together, and compare, you know, the health of the band and what they're doing compared to a year ago, etc. So it's kind of a gamified fandom, it's really fun.

And then there was Philip Ortego, who called in about the smaller, personal moments of fandom.

Philip Ortego: I was listening to Phish tonight in the living room during dinner, and listened to the song called “Halley's Comet.” And one of the lyrics in the song is, ‘I love meatballs, so you better get ready,’ which is a really silly lyric that doesn't really mean anything. But I've been listening to it since I was 14. And I just thought it was really just goofy, how much that lyric in the build up to that part of the song just had me feeling on top of the world, feeling awesome. I feel super lucky that I like this band, and that this band is doing what they're doing, because of … silly little moments like that. That's my story. Thanks so much for this hotline.

A secret society

OK. So far I’ve learned that part of why people like Phish are these goofy lyrics that spread joy. Also the idea of a “gamified fandom.” The sports team stuff. But then we got a call that started to shed light on something much more akin to “professional fandom.”

Hi, my name is Christina Allaback and I live in Roseburg, Oregon where I'm a theater professor. I'm calling because I love fish so much I wrote my dissertation about the Phish scene. And in 2019, a group of us Phish studies scholars put together the first ever Phish Studies conference at Oregon State University.

A Phish Studies academic conference? I had to know more.

phish-conference-brave-little-state-vpr-courtesy-12032021.jpg
Ryan Kerrigan
/
Courtesy Stephanie Jenkins
The first ever Phish Studies Conference was held at Oregon State University in May of 2019.

“Well, if there's two things I love talking about it's scholarship and Phish,” Christina told me in a follow-up interview.

And Christina, or Chryss, has the credentials to back it up. The title of her Master’s thesis was “Surrender to the Flow: Identity Performance of Phish Fans.” Now she has a Ph.D., and in 2019 she joined a group of other Phish scholars putting on the first ever Phish conference at Oregon State University.

“It was a dream come true,” Chryss recalls. “Like, you spend so much time on a scholarly project. And lots of people are like, ‘Huh, that's weird.’ And then suddenly, you're in a group where it's like, alright, this isn't weird anymore. Right? Like, this can be a legitimate thing to study.”

Two photographs, side by side, of the same woman. On the left is a professional head shot. On the right is a photo of the woman wearing day-glow googles at a music concert.
Courtesy Chryss Allaback
/
Chryss Allaback. By day, a professor of theater at Oregon State University. By night, a phan. Chryss brought her two worlds together when she helped organize the first-ever Phish studies conference.

The conference sessions had titles like “Philosophical Approaches to Phish,” “Community, Identity, and Utopia,” and “The Health Risks and Benefits of Phish.” Chryss says one of the best parts of the event was who actually showed up to these talks.

“It wasn't just scholars that were there, like, Phish fans came,” she says. “And people were really interested and people wanted to talk.”

To be clear: There were Phish fans who were scholars there, like Chryss. And also Phish fans who were not scholars. And also scholars who were very much not Phish fans, such as Marta Kunecka, who introduced Chryss’s session, called “Phish Fan Community and Culture.” 

“I know absolutely nothing about Phish,” she confessed. “I am just now finding out some things, so Phish is still a very mysterious phenomenon for me. And you are almost like a secret society to me,” she told the crowd to laughter.

A secret society. She says it as a joke, but that exclusionary feeling is what a lot of people dislike about Phish. Our question-asker Ethan, for example, has tried listening to Phish’s music.

“I haven't found an easy entry point. Some of it is difficult listening,” Ethan says. “It's a consciously self-referential and I think insider culture. Which, as an outsider, makes it an intimidating thing to try to, you know, burrow your way into.”

Some people on the outside of Phish fandom talk about how intimidating and insider-y Phish fans can be, in addition to their music. And there is definitely a subset of Phishheads who act as obnoxious gatekeepers, judging anyone for not knowing Phish trivia like the full setlist from Phish’s show at the Palace Theater in 1993.

There’ve also been more serious instances of Phish fans ganging up on anyone who deigns to write anything negative about Phish and their fans. I was in touch with one such journalist while I was reporting this story and, understandably, they did not want to go on the record.

But it is possible to develop an affinity for Phish in spite of the gatekeepers. That being said, Phish’s music is insider-y and self-referential — on purpose. And it’s harder to have an appreciation for the band without understanding at least some of those references.

For instance, back in the ‘90s, Phish developed a “secret language” of musical signals that they used to communicate with fans during live shows. Naturally, it was meticulously catalogued by Phishheads. One breakdown can be found on Phish.net, a sort of fan-generated Phish encyclopedia. Here are some examples:

All Fall Down: After a sequence of four descending notes, everyone falls (or at least crouches) to the floor as the music collapses in a downward spiral, until the drummer Jon Fishman’s high-hat resumes the song.
Simpsons: When a 10-note sequence from the opening of the Simpsons theme song is played, scream “D’oh!” like Homer.
Turn, Turn, Turn: After "to everything, turn turn turn" from the Byrds’ classic is played softly, everyone turns to face the rear of the venue and cheers as if that’s where the band was.

Phish has phased this out in recent years, but longtime Phishheads still like to reminisce about these musical Easter eggs.

I asked Chryss Allaback about the band’s insidery-ness. And, given her scholarship and her background in theater, maybe it isn’t surprising that this is one of the qualities she loves about Phish.

“The whole Phish thing has a throughline, like a play,” she says. “They reference things that have happened in the past, they give you clues as to what's happening in the future.”

So Phish music and the Phish scene aren’t just self-referential and cryptic for the sake of it. These ideas were integral to the very formation of the band.

Double-entendres into triple-entendres

“Their origins in Vermont are about pushing the envelope about being music nerds,” says Leslie Mac, a digital strategist, community organizer, and co-host of Blackberry Jams, a podcast presented by none other than Ben and Jerry’s — about how jam band culture and Black liberation work intersect. (VPR also has support from Ben and Jerry’s, as well as the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation.) Leslie’s co-host is Lenny Duncan, an author and ordained minister.

“Sometimes people accuse me of being a theologian, but I'm not that white,” Lenny jokes. “And I am the co-host, co-creator, and weird f***ingcan writer guy on BlackBerry jams.”

Lenny and Leslie live in Portland, Oregon, and Charlotte, North Carolina, respectively, so we powered up our Zoom machines and chatted for a while from our respective boxes. (Lenny was smoking a joint, and the whole vibe was very relaxed.) They’re both longtime Phishheads and friends, and listening to Blackberry Jams was instrumental in my own Phish education.

A woman stands on a tropical beach, smiling, wearing yellow skirt and orange sunglasses.
Courtesy Romel James
/
Phish shows are "a place to kind of live out the dream of what community can be, even though it's an extremely white space," says Leslie Mac, a digital strategist and community organizer and the co-host of Blackberry Jams, a podcast about the intersection of jam band culture and Black liberation.

“I think the story of our podcast is that we're two people who are talking about white supremacy in the Republic, and where we go for healing is this really white space, and talking about why that is strange,” Lenny says.

Lenny and Leslie compare attending Phish shows with “purchasing white privilege for a few hours.”

“As a Black woman, and especially as a Black woman organizer, when we attempt to hold those same types of spaces in Black community, we’re met with violence, we’re met with shutting it down, often with — most likely with — police involvement,” Leslie says. “And so, for me, it's a place to kind of live out the dream of what community can be, even though it's an extremely white space.”

“I really dig the fact that Phish is one of the few places that, like, weirdos can go be weird. And there's few places in America that Black folks can be weird,” Lenny adds.

A man wearing blue sunglasses, standing in front of a wall of street art, smiles for a portrait.
Courtesy Ankosfilm
/
"I really dig the fact that Phish is one of the few places that weirdos can go be weird," says Blackberry Jams co-host Lenny Duncan, an author and ordained minister.

The weirdness that Phish shows make space for — and maybe even promote — gets back to the weirdness of the music itself. Lenny and Leslie schooled me on some pretty key Phishtory.

Lenny: Their first album was their dissertation, right?
Leslie: Yeah! Thinking about, what does this mean to apply a cerebral esoteric approach to music, and coming together in that.

We do not have time to explore exactly what a “cerebral esoteric approach to music” actually is. But suffice to say that Phish is one example of it. Trey Anastasio’s thesis at Goddard College became Phish’s first album: The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday.

And the album is definitely weird. It’s this epic tale that takes place in a made-up land called Gamehendge featuring made-up characters and sometimes made-up words. A few of the lyrics:

Oh out near Stonehenge, I lived alone
Oh out near Gamehendge, I chafed a bone
Wilson, King of Prussia, I lay this hate on you
Wilson, Duke of Lizards, I beg it all trune for you

Why does any of this matter, you ask? Honestly, I had no idea at first. But then I realized this wasn’t a one-off thing. Phish and their fans continued expanding the world of Gamehendge in the decades since the original album first came out.

“These are guys who, you know, love entendres into double entendres into triple entendres,” Lenny says.

The band has released new songs deepening the Gamehendge mythology. But it also goes beyond the music. Phishheads refer to attending Phish shows as “traveling to Gamehendge.” There’s also The Mockingbird Foundation. It’s a non-profit focused on music education that was started by Phish fans in the ‘90s. And it’s named after a character from Gamehendge.

If you are a Phish middle person like I am and like question-asker Ethan is, your head is probably spinning right now. I don’t blame you. You might be wondering whether you need to pick up on all these types of references to be a Phish fan. Thankfully, you don’t. However, would knowing them enrich your experience as a Phish fan? I think it would.

And I fully acknowledge that it can be overwhelming to Google this kind of stuff. So let me give you at least a little head start and demystify three of the most common insider references from the land of Phish. Hold onto your hacky-sacks, here we go:

Number one: “Shakedown Street”

If you’re a fan of the Grateful Dead, you already know this one.

“Shakedown Street is the main thoroughfare traditionally at a Grateful Dead show,” Lenny explains. “And after the death of Jerry Garcia, many kids around that time, ‘95, ‘96, ‘97, start to call the main thoroughfare on Phish lot, Shakedown Street.”

So, basically, at Dead shows and now Phish shows, Shakedown Street is the area where concertgoers sell food, gear, drugs and all the rest. These are not officially licensed vendors. But they’re rarely policed and are afforded an almost special status. These fan-driven economies are a big part of what made Dead shows, and now Phish shows, unique.

Number two: Phish’s “Halloween costume” 

“So every year — this is an insider thing for Halloween — Phish wears a costume, right? And that costume is, they come as another band and play their album,” says Lenny. “They've done the Velvet Underground, they've done the Talking Heads in the past. They've done others.”

Some other Halloween costumes have included big names like The Beatles, The Who and The Rolling Stones, and more obscure ones like Little Feat and, the weirdest one, a Disney album of Halloween sound effects.

“...That classic Disney album we all heard while trick or treating,” Lenny says. “And they create an entire album out of it that ends up being like a big part of the repertoire. The songs are still played to this day, right? But they were just spoofing on sound effects on Halloween while dressed like zombies.”

Which brings us to number three: the different eras in the band's history.

The eras of Phish

“Phish is kind of divided into 1.0, 2.0, 3.0. And then there's like an argument whether or not we're in 4.0,” says Chryss Allaback.

Of course, die-hard fans debate the specifics, but the best I can tell is this: Phish 1.0 was by far the longest era, spanning from the band’s formation in the 1980s all the way through the summer of 2000.

Then they went on hiatus from fall 2000 until they came back at the very end of 2002. So Phish 2.0 lasted from the end of 2002 until the band broke up in 2004.

And I want to pause here, because the band’s break-up was a big deal. The four members, and frontman Trey Anastasio in particular, said there was too much pressure and they were burnt out from decades of touring. Trey later revealed that he also needed the time to get clean. So, Phish announced in May of 2004 that their 2-day festival in Coventry, Vermont that summer was going to be their last show ever.

“And it was literally, I mean, I'm not even kidding — like, it was about two or three weeks where every single day there was a picture of Phish and an article on the front page of the Burlington Free Press,” recalls non-fan Emmet Moseley, who grew up in Derby Center, right next to Coventry.

And for a town of a few hundred people people, a giant festival that was also billed as Phish’s last show ever was … kind of a big deal.

An aerial photo shows thousands of fans gathered at a music festival in the middle of a field in Vermont.
JON PIERRE LASSEIGNE/AP
/
AP
Phish fans converged in the Northeast Kingdom town of Coventry for what was billed as the band's final festival.

“You couldn't avoid that this was happening,” Emmet says. “And I could see ... not too far from my house, like, the field where they were setting this whole thing up.”

VPR made a documentary about the show in 2004. And the elements —torrential downpours, which led to gross, ankle-high mud — basically matched the vibe of the festival-goers. Including a woman named Jill, who was featured in the program:

"I felt like there was this undertone of melancholy – you can feel it everywhere you are here. It's different than how other festivals have gone,” she said. “I think it’s because people are really, really sad. I try not to think about it. I don’t know, I could cry thinking about it and I think a lot of people are going to be extremely emotional.”

Of course, that wasn’t the end of Phish. Trey got sober. And about four years later, in 2008, they broke the news. Much to the delight of Phishheads everywhere.

“I was on all the newsletters and everything. And I woke up one morning and had an email announcing that Phish was getting back together,” says Alex MacMillan, my one friend who is a Phishhead. (At least, openly.) He was in high school at the time.

“And my reaction was to sob. I just bawled my eyes out for about half an hour. And I was at a boarding school at the time — I was just running around the dorm crying. And people thought that, you know, my parents had died or you know, someone had been hurt or some horrible crisis had happened.”

Nothing to see here! Just Phish reuniting! Thus began the Phish 3.0 era, which lasted until the pandemic started in 2020.

Four men stand at a shared microphone stand, singing together.
Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP
/
Invision/AP
From left: Page McConnell, Jon Fishman, Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon perform during an exclusive concert for SiriusXM and Pandora listeners at The Met on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019, in Philadelphia.

And, finally, Phish 4.0 began with their first show post-COVID lockdown in 2021 and continues to this day.

Phish Heads label themselves as a “1.0er” “2.0er” etc depending on when they became a fan. Also, fans use the era markers to describe different points in Phish’s musical evolution as a band.

But perhaps the 4.0 era isn’t as much about the band evolving as it is about fans evolving. Phish is likely rich and famous enough for the pandemic to have had little bearing on their livelihoods. Phishheads, meanwhile, have been left to figure out what it means to be a fan in an era when it’s hard to do the very thing that made Phish fandom so special in the first place: gather together, in person, in large groups. To experience that live show magic.

Andy: That's how I first got into them. I spent years ridiculing them, and then finally got dragged to a concert by one of my best friends who's seen them, I don't know, 60 times or something. And immediately really appreciated their ability to play and improvise together, which is impressive. 

The improvisation is part of what sets Phish live shows apart. The combination of the band’s musical wizardry and on-stage chemistry manifests in the form of long, drawn out jams in the middle of concerts.

“It's about improvisation. It's about spontaneity.”

“I feel like there is this hope in this band working together to improvise,” says Chryss Allaback. “It's not like we sit in the audience and then we watch a show. There is an energy that we give to them. And there's an energy that they give to us. It's the only band I've gone to that I feel like they know me. That seems so kind of ridiculous now that I hear it coming out of my mouth."

“I spent a lot of money to go see the Red Hot Chili Peppers next year, and I'm going to have a great time. But I also know what that setlist is going to be,” says Leslie Mac, of Blackberry Jams. “And I know it's going to be exactly what the radio edit is. And I know that I'm going to be able to sing along to every ad lib because that's what they're going to play. And Phish is the antithesis of that. It's about improvisation. It's about spontaneity. It's about a shared experience that only happens in that moment at that time. And that's the beauty of the music itself.”

One of the notable things about Phish, though, is that their music isn’t always beautiful. Not in a subjective way. Like, they often mess up on stage.

Hey, this is Ron Kammen. I grew up in Vergennes. I’m calling about the upcoming Phish episode. I love Phish because you just never know what you're gonna get out of Phish show. They haven't repeated a setlist in almost 2,000 career shows. And even different versions of the same songs will be slightly different than the rest. Walking into the show you could be in for the best Phish show you've ever seen or not. And you never know until they start playing. 

_

“I love artists that take artistic risks because the payoff is so great,” says Chryss. “But there’s a chance you will massively fail. They [Phish] have failed!”

This idea of a band you paid money to go see failing and putting on a bad show. And having that be not just OK — but even welcomed? It’s kind of hard to wrap your brain around. But fans embrace it. It’s all about the energy. The rule-breaking. And the relationship between Phish and their live audiences.

“If the Grateful Dead are trying to take you on a long, strange trip, Phish is more like DMT. They're trying to shoot you out of a f***ing cannon,” says Blackberry Jams’ Lenny Duncan. “It's a constant Master's class in what you should and should not do with music and why none of that, none of those rules make any sense. And that's why I like Phish.”

And that seems like a great place to end our answer to the first part of Ethan Weinstein’s question, about why people like Phish. Moving on to the second part: “How did Phish become such a big part of Vermont music culture?”

The early Nectar’s days

The answer has a lot to do with one downtown Burlington bar: Nectar’s.

“At the beginning, I thought they would go somewhere, but not that big,” says founder Nectar Rorris.

Nectar is in his eighties now, and when I called to request an interview, he didn’t jump at the opportunity to reminisce. But I asked him to try. Because Nectar Rorris is a pretty big deal: Originally from Greece, he’s been a major part of the Burlington community since the ‘70s. The city even observes “Nectar Rorris Day” every September 14. And it is his namesake bar, Nectar’s, that has become perhaps the defining venue in Vermont’s music scene. Playing a major role in launching the careers of local artists, including Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and, yes, Phish.

Side-by-side photos of two vintage show posters. On the left, a poster for the "Johnny B. Fishman Jazz Ensemble" at Nectars. On the right, a poster for a "rain or shine" Phish show on 320 Spear Street.
Billy Glassner
/
Vintage posters from Phish's early days performing in Burlington. The band built community among its growing fan base, regularly performing free shows at the venue Nectar's.

“We had a phenomenal friendship with all of them,” Nectar says.

One reason Nectar’s had such an impact on Phish was that it was Nectar Rorris’s decision not to charge a cover for live music”

“Nectar’s was the place to be because of not having a cover charge,” he says. “And people will come in for that.”

People who worked at Nectar’s in the Phish days told me that Nectar Rorris’ approach to live music boiled down to this: “free and often.”

It was open seven days a week, and nearly every month, Nectar booked a little-known band called Phish to play three nights in a row for three to four sets per night. Here they are during one of those sets in 1988:

Phish at Nectar's, May 24 1988

These shows gave Phish a golden opportunity to form a real connection with people. And those people could always count on when the band would be playing.

“It was good for both of us — them and us,” Nectar recalls. “I think Phish’s home was Nectar’s. Whether they [made] a lot of money or not, they had fun. All the friends who come and see ‘em.”

Stacey Steinmetz, who started at UVM in 1988, recalls seeing her first Phish show at the bar.

“The very, very, very first weekend I was at UVM, we doubled down on bikes. And went to go see this band called Phish. And from the very beginning, it was like, ‘Oh my God, these guys are great!’

By that point, though, Phish was gaining a large enough following that they began to outgrow Nectar’s.

“They were kind of graduating out of Nectar’s and slowly started playing some other campuses at other colleges,” Stacey says, “which, we would go to all of them, it was so much fun.”

“When they [became] big I couldn't handle them,” Nectar Rorris says. “I mean, there was no way that the fire marshal would let me have them.”

But the legend of Nectar’s lives on in Phish lore. In 1992, the band released their third studio album, which they dedicated to none other than Nectar Rorris. It was called A Picture Of Nectar.

So, Nectar’s is one answer to how Phish became such a big part of Vermont music culture. Another might be their legendary recording studio, The Barn, which is located not too far from Burlington.

Stacey Steinmetz points to a different reason, though. She remembers there being something special about the way the band fit into the Burlington social scene in the ‘80s. Especially the drummer, Jon Fishman.

“I mean, Jon Fishman was everywhere, he was hanging out everywhere,” she says. “And he became friends with everybody. Everyone knew Jon.”

Everyone I spoke to who knew the members of Phish back in those days said the same thing: They were friends with each other before they were bandmates. And they were really down-to-earth.

Band members in between sets at an outdoor concert.
Barbara Weisinger/Courtesy Bill Glassner
/
Courtesy Billy Glassner
Phish frontman Trey Anastasio, center, and drummer Jon Fishman, rear right, in between sets at a pig roast near the Vermont border in Hebron, New York, in May of 1989.

Stacey has one memory that she says really encapsulates how Phish built such a loyal following:

“We went to some college, and we had traveled from UVM. And they weren't letting anyone … except their students go see the show. And Jon must have asked, ‘Well, can I have a guest list?’ And they're like, ‘Sure.’ And he said something like, ‘Do you care how many people I have on it?’ ‘No.’ So John went out and just was sitting there, anyone who went up to him, he put their name on a guest list. And when we one by one went up to the door, like, the people had sheets backwards and forwards and sideways, just filled with names.

“That was such the essence of this community, of this synergistic thing. It was an intentional building of a community.”

From Burlington to Big Cypress

I also think part of Phish’s standing in Vermont culture has to do with what happened once they outgrew the state — or, at least, the little bars in Burlington.

In the 1990s, Phish’s star was rising — quickly. But it wasn’t because they had a hit single or endless radio play. Instead, Phish took the same principles of grassroots community-building they had experimented with in Vermont, and applied it on a much larger scale.

Instead of three nights in a row at Nectar’s, they hosted multi-day Phish festivals, featuring multiple sets every day and night, and even included unplanned sets that delighted fans who happened to stumble upon them.

Phish festivals were regularly attended by as many as 80,000 people. And that 80,000 number is even more impressive when you consider where these festivals were held: Plattsburgh, New York. Limestone, Maine. People traveled far and wide to attend.

For those fans, it was worth the trip. Because Phish didn’t just build a stage and sell as many tickets as possible; they put real effort into making the festivals unique, standalone experiences.

“They had these huge festivals, and you walked in without knowing anything or what to expect,” says Stacey Steinmetz. “They were brilliant in just creating all these pieces that were light and fun and connected, and kept you wondering what's next.”

While planning Clifford Ball, the first of these festivals, Phish consulted an 1,100-page book about designing communities called A Pattern Language. The result? They built a whole temporary town, complete with a post office, art installations, carnival rides, movie screenings and secluded campsites. These types of things might sound familiar to music festival-goers these days, but these ideas came directly from Phish festivals in the ‘90s.

“They probably have a long list of sh** that they've been like, what if we did this? And what if we did that? It's really exciting for bands to do that,” says Leslie Mac. “think the music industry is so focused on a cookie cutter approach to making music, putting out music and interacting with fandom, and Phish has said throughout its entire history, f*** all of that. We're going to do something totally different.”

The most epic of all Phish festivals was Big Cypress, hosted on the Big Cypress Indian Reservation in Florida. It lasted from December 30, 1999 to January 1, 2000, and it was the largest gathering on planet Earth to ring in the new millennium. Not only that, but Phish played a seven-and-a-half hour set from midnight on New Year’s Eve to sunrise on New Year’s Day.

Leslie Mac, of Blackberry Jams, was there.

“Big Cypress was amazing. But one of the things about that is that that kernel of an idea had been, you know, festering in the group for decades prior to the millennium. And they had been doing these weird — during college — these 10-hour jam sessions just to see how long they could play. And so, Big Cypress, and in a way, when they did this midnight to sunrise set, was the fruition of a long conversation the band had been having amongst themselves.”

The success of Phish’s festivals throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s directly led to the mainstream American music festival industry boom soon thereafter. Bonnaroo, for instance? The founders literally consulted with Phish’s festival team.

But there was more to the rise of Phish than music festivals. Remember the impromptu guest list that Jon Fishman put together at a college show in Vermont? Well, Phish continued breaking the so-called rules of music fandom. They encouraged fans to record their live shows, at a time when most bands were discouraging their fans from doing the same thing. This led to a whole fan economy of swapping tapes, and later torrenting music files, to compare a version of a song played at this show to a version of a song played at that show. And so on.

A crowd of concert-goers at night. One holds up a sign that says, "Thank you."
Alison Redlich/AP
/
AP
An appreciative crowd cheers as Phish performs during a concert to benefit Vermonters affected by Tropical Storm Irene, at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction on Sept. 14, 2011.

This is why, even without the marketing muscle of a traditional record label, or tons of radio play, Phish’s popularity exploded anyways. It was all grassroots — the fans were the marketing team.

“Where they are now is where they always dreamed they would be,” Leslie Mac observes. “With a huge fan base that's very devoted to them, that's not dependent on radio singles, or album sales, or any of the things that the music industry says you're supposed to want or — in order to be a successful musician — be beholden to.”

These days, there’s an app that lets fans stream concerts from their couches — which is known as going on “couch tour” — and internet forums where fans catalogue set lists and debate Phish minutia. There are niche communities for Phishheads who like coffee, crafting, and scuba diving, to name a few. “Phish Chicks” is for women Phishheads and “Phish Hens” is for women Phishheads over 50. “Brian and Robert” is a group of queer Phish Fans. PHRE is “Phans for Racial Equity.” "The Phellowship" is a group for sober fans. And, yes, there’s a group where single Phish fans meet other single Phish fans.

So the technology has evolved, but the idea of a grassroots fandom has remained. For the diehards, Phish may be their favorite band, but it’s also their identity. Their lifestyle. And it’s a lifestyle that resonates with many of us here in Vermont.

Because, sure. Our brave little state birthed one of the most successful bands of all time. But more than that, that band rejected the corporate music industry to blaze their own trail with the support of their fan community. Is there anything more Vermont than that?

In fact, Phish has become so synonymous with our state that I spoke to one Vermonter who struggles with his identity because he is not a Phish fan.

“Yeah, I think it's because I — I still identify really strongly as a Vermonter,” says Emmet Moseley, the guy from Derby we met earlier. (Fun fact, he is the husband of a former BLS question-asker named Coco, who asked us about the pros and cons of heating with wood.)

“And I think realizing that after I left [the state], like that Phish was … connected so strongly to what people perceived Vermont to be like, that it kind of galled me … Well, that's not me," he says.

Emmet, we support you. You can definitely be a Vermonter without liking Phish. Just don’t expect Phish’s high standing in Vermont music culture to change anytime soon.

“I guess if Grace Potter's the queen, I would say that Phish are the classic court jesters,” Stacey Steinmetz muses.”

Freedom, hope and revolution

I’ve spoken to way more people about Phish in the last few months than I ever have, and probably ever will. But I have to say: While all I set out to do was answer Ethan’s question, I’ve definitely developed a real appreciation for what Phish provides for so many people.

Going into this, my best guess as to why people like Phish? The drugs. And, yeah, there are drugs. Bought, sold, gifted, used and abused at Phish shows. That may be why some people like Phish. But far from everyone.

Hi, my name is Jim, I'm from Natick, Massachusetts. I do wish more people understood what a force of beauty and good this band is because the public perception is so far off from reality. And there's this idea that Phish just gets up and plays noise for four hours and you have to be on acid or so stoned you can't tell how bad that music is. I've never been on acid or really much anything at a Phish show. And yet, I can't think of too many things that bring me more happiness. There is so much positivity about this band from the charity work they do to the amazing musicianship, the sheer silliness to the fan communities and the fact they are probably one of the least cynical, most joyful things in existence. 

So if people go to Phish shows and all they notice are the drugs, they’re missing the larger point: freedom.

Leslie Mac, of Blackberry Jams, says she wasn’t open about her Phish fandom until recently. She had her community organizing work on one side. And her Phish-headedness on the other. And never the twain did meet.

Until she started co-hosting the podcast Blackberry Jams, and for the first time openly shared her love for the band with her organizing colleagues. Then, something unexpected happened.

“And the response that I've received, especially from Black women organizers, and Black femme organizers, is ‘When are we going?’” Leslie says. “Because they've recognized, in me talking about my experiences, a lack of those kinds of spaces for themselves where they can just be.”

“It's one of those things that keeps me going when I'm down,” says Phish scholar Chryss Allaback. “Some people ask like, ‘What religion are you?’ And I kind of jokingly say, ‘Phish is my religion.’ But, you know, is that really a joke? People go to church on Sundays, and they're trying to find hope. They're trying to find something that's bigger than them. And for me, that's what a Phish show is.

For Chryss, Phish shows are a form of hope. For Lenny from Blackberry Jams, they’re a form of revolution.

“And revolution takes more than legislation, it takes more than organizing, it takes more than just self care. It takes an artistic, theological or spiritual, and a quasi, almost ethical kind of thinking and society,” Lenny says. “And not to get too deep, but it's just based off of James Baldwin's premise of the struggle of the artist. And the struggle of the artist is the struggle of everyone. We get to be human sometimes. But to get there, it takes a lot, and it takes a lot of us working together. And so sometimes when I look at Phish lot or other of these kinds of gatherings, I think I see the ingredients for us to get together and get to experience what it means to be human. And that is revolution.”

At the end of our interview, I asked Lenny if there were any Phish songs that felt particularly meaningful to him. He cited a song Phish released in April of 2020, right in the middle of first wave of COVID. It’s called “Leaves.”

“And the lyrics go — and I sometimes I cry when I read them, so, sorry. It's just that after George Floyd and the year — the last almost two years we've had now, the song … Well, anyway, I'll just read the lyrics:

Someone's always telling me to breathe
The wind is always whispering through the leaves
It sings to the world
They cling to the world
I listen and believe

The music stops and echoes linger on
(The secret to the kingdom was conferred)
I'm waiting 'til you sing me one more song
(The messenger revealed the rulers)
You promised the moon
But I need a tune
For notes are rarely wrong

We built a kingdom out of lies
And then we blindly fanned the fire
We warmed our hands with glowing coals
But now they rain down from the skies
Rising volume, muffled moans
Thoughts conveyed in undertones
We built a kingdom out of lies

“And in that moment, April 1, 2020, there were no more prescient words for me. And then May 25, 2020 [the day George Floyd was murdered], it became sort of an anthem. This idea that there is another American story and it can only be told when we gather and listen to music, that'll never be defeated, and that’ll never die, that that's eternal. That's one of the things that truly is eternal.”

Hey, Ethan. And all you other middle people out there. I hope by now you have a better sense of why people like Phish, and the band’s connection to Vermont music culture. And for those of you who may want to take the next step into fandom … Well, go check out a live show.

Josh Crane: Is it possible to be a Phish fan without going to a live show?
Lenny Duncan: I don't know.
Leslie Mac: I don't think so. 
Lenny Duncan: I'm gonna go hard no. 
Leslie Mac: I'm gonna say hard no. Yeah, I don’t think so.
Lenny Duncan: Hard no.

But, also, hey, no pressure. Leslie Mac:

“I would just say to Ethan, you don't have to love Phish just because you're from Vermont. And being from Vermont, you're very well positioned to love this.”

To further your Phish education...

  • Blackberry Jams: A podcast about the intersection between jam band culture and Black liberation, from Ben & Jerry’s and PRX. Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
  • Phish Studies: A playlist of the presentations from the first-ever Phish academic conference.
  • Live Phish: A website and app that lets you access the Phish archives and livestream concerts. 
  • Long May They Run: A music documentary podcast about Phish history, from Cadence13.
  • Analyze Phish: A podcast where one Phishhead teaches his friend about the band,  from Earwolf. 
  • Undermine: A podcast about Phish from Osiris Media.
  • “Learning to love Phish:” An essay for Pitchfork.com.
  • Phish.net: A community forum and fan-driven encyclopedia of Phish history.

Subscribe to Brave Little State for free, so you never miss an episode:

Loading...

brave-little-state-vpr-shrewsbury.jpg

Credits

Thanks to Ethan Weinstein for the great question.

Josh Crane reported and produced this episode, with editing and digital production from Myra Flynn and Angela Evancie. Mix and sound design by Josh Crane. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions and, of course, Phish. Thanks to Phish Inc. for permission to use some of the band’s music.

Music featured in this episode, in order of appearance:

  • “Gotta Jibboo” by Phish
  • “Ghost” by Phish
  • “Hardboil” by Blue Dot Sessions
  • “Sargento” by Blue Dot Sessions
  • “Halley’s Comet” by Phish
  • “Trois Gnossiennes 3” by Blue Dot Sessions
  • “Wilson” by Phish
  • “The Queen of Cones” by Blue Dot Sessions
  • “Tyrano Theme” by Blue Dot Sessions
  • “The Curtain With” by Phish
  • “Maldoc” by Blue Dot Sessions
  • “Auld Lang Syne” covered by Phish
  • “Leaves” by Phish
  • “Cran Ras” by Blue Dot Sessions

Special thanks also to Jonathan Heller, Billy Glassner, Paul Brill, Stephanie Jenkins, Jay Curley, Anne Rothwell, Jenn Moore, Beth Montuori Rowles, Anna Van Dine, Mary Engisch, Peter Engisch, Laura Schoenfeld, Steve Zind, Patti Daniels, Chris Albertine, John Van Hoesen, Mitch Wertlieb, Alex Burns, and everyone who left a voicemail on our Phish hotline. That’s Chris, Chris, Christina, Jonathan, Jim, Antonia, Ron, Philip, Andy, Stephanie, Molly, Robb, Shannon, Bryant, and Nina.

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. As always, our journalism is better when you’re a part of it!

Stay Connected
Josh Crane joined VPR as an engagement producer in March 2021. Previously, he was a podcast producer at WBUR, an NPR member station in Boston, where he produced Endless Thread, a podcast exploring stories found on Reddit. Prior to WBUR, Josh produced LBJ’s War, a documentary podcast series and national broadcast hour about how the former president lost his way in Vietnam. He also has worked at PRX. His reporting and producing have won numerous awards, including a National Edward R. Murrow Award.