If all you know about Phish is what you read in newspapers and magazines, odds are that you think this is the band that will become the next Grateful Dead.
According to the press, the signs are all there: The long, improvisation-heavy performances. The devoted, eager-to-travel fans. The scent of patchouli in the air. The guitar player with a beard. Put 'em all together, they spell G-R-A-T-E-F-U-L D-E-A-D.
That used to bother Trey Anastasio, the guitar player with the beard. "When we first came into the awareness of the media, it would always be [the Dead] or Zappa they'd compare us to," he says, over the phone from a tour stop in Orlando. "All of these bands I love, you know? But I got very sensitive about it."
Why? Because if you pay attention to the music, Phish doesn't sound or play like the Dead at all. Anastasio and his band mates, who perform at USAir Arena tonight, have a different sound, a different musical orientation, and a different way of playing together -- all of which seems obvious from where the band stands.
"With the crowd and everything, there are a lot of similarities," he allows. "I think that is a niche -- the whole going out on tour and having an adventure and all. There are a lot of kids that are on tour with us now."
Anastasio adds, by the way, that he hasn't seen any real evidence that older Deadheads are turning to Phish for their live music fix. "The numbers of people who see us have not changed dramatically," he says. "An old friend saw us when we did three nights at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta and said that she noticed an older element to the crowd. Her impression was that it had something to do with the whole Grateful Dead thing." But that's as close to concrete evidence as Anastasio has found.
Deadheads or not, he and his bandmates like the idea of having fans who follow Phish around.
"It keeps you on your toes," he says. "You've got to play different songs every night, and you know they're paying attention to every single little thing you do. You don't get lazy, then. You've got to keep moving."
Not that Phish is ever inclined to be lazy or stop moving. In fact, Phish may be the hardest-working band in rock and roll right now -- and that has nothing to do with the amount of touring they do, either.
Where Phish's work ethic is most obvious isn't onstage, but in what Anastasio describes as "many years of practicing and playing different kinds of music."
Why such an emphasis on woodshedding? Anastasio chalks it up to having had good teachers, guys like jazz guitarist Ted Dunbar.
"He talked so much about a simple concept, but one people kind of forget: If you really want to have a great time when you're onstage, you should be looking at practice time as something that's going to give you [that]," he says. "As opposed to practice time being, 'Oh, I'm going to practice this thing that's going to impress people.' "
As a result, the members of Phish devote their practice time to what Anastasio describes as "training ourselves to open up different avenues. So we do listening exercises and stuff. We also practice songs with structure. We used to do a lot of classical things -- atonal fugues and a lot of written-out music."
Considering that Phish concerts rarely include atonal fugues, you might wonder why they bother.
But for Phish, knowing how an atonal fugue should sound -- or how jazz improvisation works, or the intricacies of barbershop quartet harmony or what bluegrass bands in the '40s did differently from bands in the '50s -- makes it that much easier to get up onstage and improvise Phish music.
"You learn so much by doing that, that then you can free yourself to go where you want to go," Anastasio says. "The channels in your brain have been opened by playing through all the music that so many great people before you have written.
"I've been listening to a lot of Sun Ra," he says, referring to the late avant-garde big band leader. "We've got a couple of his movies. Have you ever seen 'A Joyful Noise'? It's an incredible video, and lot of it is interviews with him. One of the things he talks about is that children in this culture have been raised on the word 'freedom,' and freedom is an important concept.
"But he thinks that the word 'discipline' and the concept of discipline, in the end, create more freedom than the word 'freedom' does.
"I just did an album with Michael Ray and Marshall Allen, two guys who both played with Sun Ra, and they were telling me that Sun Ra would get the whole band together, and they would learn the entire Fletcher Henderson book -- everything, every tune -- and then never play it. They just learned it for the sake of learning it. So even in their free blowing, these are people who have a history behind them. It's different than kind of picking up a horn and squeaking away.
"Art lives within limitations," he says. "I have found, with our band, that discipline and practice time have led to a lot more freedom onstage, pure freedom. Whereas anarchy -- maybe that's sort of the hippie ideal, and maybe we don't really embrace that."
OK. So answer the question, then: Is Phish picking up where Jerry Garcia and the boys left off?
"It doesn't really matter," Anastasio says.
"In the context of the audience, the media can put on whatever labels they want. But once somebody comes in the room, they're either going to like it or they're not.
"So if you've never seen the band, and you're reading that 'new Grateful Dead' stuff, it doesn't really matter in my life. Because all that matters is my personal life with my family, and my musical life interacting with the people who actually do come."
Where: USAir Arena
Call: (410) 792-7490 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets
Sundial: To hear excerpts from Phish's new release, "A Live One," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6102. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.