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On The Road Again

Phish regroups and heads out for summer tour

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In their first 17 years of existence, Vermont-based quartet Phish steadily rose from a college bar band to become one of the top drawing acts in music history. Quite possibly one of the biggest bands (aside from repeated comparisons to the Grateful Dead) to ever exist outside of mainstream media, Phish is considered by some to be the reigning kings of the jam band world even after a recent two-year hiatus. Their model for success includes eight studio albums, a repertoire numbered in the hundreds and, most importantly, over 1000 live performances that have reached 44 states and 13 countries. The live shows are always different through ever-changing set lists and with the band's ability to turn nearly any song into a jam vehicle -- inspiring their ever-growing loyal following to live by the mantra, "the best show is the next show." At the band's encouragement, fans (aka "phans") freely trade self-recorded copies of shows. In fact, a recent Google search for live recordings from the band resulted in nearly 3,000 links.

As the year 2000 approached, Phish seemed primed to take on the new millennium and maybe even bubble up from under the surface of the underground. The band ushered in the new year with a three-day festival in Big Cypress, FL, that attracted 80,000 fans to the Everglades and culminated with a midnight to sunrise set on New Year's Eve.

The following year would bring the album Farmhouse and the documentary movie Bittersweet Motel. Arguably one of the group's more accessible albums, Farmhouse would give Phish its first Grammy nomination. (The song "First Tube" was nominated in the Rock & Roll Instrumental category but lost out to Metallica.)

On October 7, 2000, during the last show of their fall tour, however, Phish announced they would be taking a break. The seemingly "break through" year wouldn't last. And for the next two years, the only live Phish that could be heard, aside from their fans' own collections of shows, would be from the 20 Live Phish releases of complete shows the band put out, and from an animated reunion on The Simpsons.

Though the band did not perform together during the break, the music never stopped and instead gave each member of the quartet the opportunity to get immersed in side projects.

Guitarist Trey Anastasio fronted his own group that actually started in the late 1990s as a trio but would eventually turn into a ten-piece band. With the group, Anastasio introduced Phish fans to big-band style jams and new song structures through the release of a self-titled studio album and several tours that included a closing set at the first Bonnaroo Festival in 2001. The Trey Anastasio Band recently released a double-live album, Plasma.

The guitarist was also part of the power-trio Oysterhead. Anastasio's bandmates were bassist Les Claypool (Primus) and drummer Stewart Copeland (The Police). Oysterhead toured once in support of their studio release The Grand Pecking Order.

Phish drummer Jon Fishman toured with the Vermont-based trio the Jazz Mandolin Project and was seen performing with Col. Bruce Hampton and the Codetalkers as well as Project Object. Fishman also toured and released a studio album with the group Pork Tornado.

Bassist Mike Gordon's endeavors would venture into feature films as well as music. Gordon released his first feature film Outside Out as well as the documentary Rising Low. Rising Low covered the making of the star-studded Gov't Mule Deep End projects that were a tribute to the Mule's late bassist Allen Woody. Along with directing the film, Gordon also played bass on a track for the record.

In 2002, Gordon teamed up with folk guitar legend Leo Kottke. The pair released the quirky and compelling studio album Clone, and toured on a couple of occasions that included a closing set at the second Bonnaroo Festival this past June. Next month Gordon is set to release his solo studio debut Inside In that features guests Bela Fleck, Vassar Clements, Gordon Stone, Jon Fishman, Col. Bruce Hampton and several others.

Keyboardist Page McConnell would tickle the ivories in a few different settings during the band's hiatus. McConnell played on the debut album by comic rock duo Tenacious D and recorded the track "Same Price" (with Who bassist John Entwistle) for the Gov't Mule tribute records.

McConnell would also introduce a power trio of his own and delve into electronic music by fronting Vida Blue. Vida Blue featured bassist Oteil Burbridge (Allman Brothers Band) and drummer Russell Batiste (the Funky Meters) and would turn out a self-titled album.

Finally, around October 2002, Phish came back with the news their fans had been waiting for -- they'd be back. The final months of 2002 saw the release of a new Phish album, Round Room, as well as plans to tour.

Round Room was recorded in just four days and is arguably the band's rawest album to date. While a few tracks offer insight into new jams, the album carries more emphasis on lyrics. The band ushered in 2003 with a sold-out New Year's Eve performance at New York City's Madison Square Garden. Days before the show they appeared on Saturday Night Live with Al Gore as host. In the days that followed, the group would play a sold-out three-night run in Hampton, VA.

The first half of 2003 saw Phish grace the cover of Rolling Stone, play 12 sold-out winter dates across the nation, sing the national anthem during the NBA Finals, and announce plans for a summer tour. The 21-date summer tour kicked off earlier this month and will culminate with the two-night "It" Festival in Limestone, Maine.

It appears as if Phish has returned once again to the throne atop the burgeoning jam band movement without ever missing a beat. The quartet has recently allowed fans to download live shows from the current tour (for a nominal fee) within 48 hours of each show date to assure that the buzz (and music) will continue to spread. But perhaps a quote from one of the band's many unreleased songs, "Mist," sums up their return best: "Til I'm released, awaken beasts, I'm on the road again."

Phish's charitable organization, the Waterwheel Foundation, has selected the locally based Catawba Lands Conservancy (www.catawbalands.org) as its beneficiary for the Charlotte concert. Waterwheel representatives will set up information tables and will also sell hemp t-shirts and other eco-friendly materials along with raffle tickets for backstage passes to benefit Catawba Lands Conservancy.

Phish performs at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre on Friday, July 25. Tickets cost $42.50. Call the venue's hotline at 704-549-5555, for more info.

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