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The Time-Altering Joy of Phish in Quarantine

Somehow, the band known for crafting a signature live experience has found a way to remotely create a recurring, unifying experience for its phans

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When my birthday rolled around late last week, I realized that I’d been misremembering my own age. My grasp of time has atrophied over the past few months of quarantine, along with my social skills, my muscle tone, and my patience. Days and nights are now measured not in minutes or hours, but in the length of the shadows cast by the toddler laundry heap on the kitchen table. I’ve boiled water for ravioli at quarter to four in the morning as the sky turned navy; I’ve swigged from random abandoned mugs of coffee at 7 p.m.

“Just a sec,” I’ve said over and over to my kids, for whom every passing moment represents a tiny eternity. “I’ll get to it tomorrow,” I’ve told my husband again and again, as the weeks fall to the ground like leaves. It’s no wonder I fully believed I was a year older than I am! My birthday came and went, one more phantom nonevent in a year full of them, and I turned the age I thought I already was.

It’s all good, though, because I had already been satisfied enough this spring by a different special occasion, one that was as meaningful and festive as any normal-times birthday could have been. It celebrated life, connected me with far-flung friends, commemorated the passage of time, and, crucially, surprised me with a well-crafted, lasting gift. I’m talking, of course, about the night back in early April when the jam band Phish hosted an online livestream to debut their new studio album, Sigma Oasis. I remember it like it was yesterday, because it’s one of the few things from 2020 that I don’t wish to forget.

Since the late ’80s, the Vermont-based foursome Phish has been inspiring its followers to noodle dance their hearts out and/or banter about advanced musical theory, sometimes at the same time. Theirs has always been, first and foremost, a “ya had to be there” kind of act, a band best served live, a group whose most memorable elements—interplay and playfulness; improvisation and progression; inside jokes and out-of-the-box pranks; inflatable beach balls and primo light shows—haven’t historically thrived quite the same way in the confines of a studio.

Ask a fan—a “phan”—to recommend a few starter songs to the uninitiated, and they’ll likely pinch the bridge of their nose, mumble something about Type II jams, and then follow up via email with a ranked list of several annotated links to different live performances of “Tweezer.” (This was essentially the concept of the late, great Harris Wittels’s podcast, Analyze Phish.) They love fully, they mostly mean well, and when they’re not busy traveling between multiple Phish shows on tour, they’re busy researching all the logistics of doing so in the future.

Of course, a global pandemic does not lend itself well to riding the rail at Dick’s, or to passing a joint at the Gorge, or to yelling “run like an antelope out of control!” directly into the face of your new best donut-muumuu-wearing friend in Asbury Park. I can’t imagine too many bands are stoked about the indefinite postponement of concert and festival and tour life amid ongoing social-distancing measures, but for a band like Phish that has built its reputation and its obsessive following on a solid foundation of grassy fields and seaside stages (and Madison Square Garden) more so than charts or airwaves, the locked-down state of affairs seems as though it would be especially bleak.

But that hasn’t been their reality. Phish followers are a loyal, dogged bunch; many of them have already persevered through the band’s hiatus from 2000-02 and its subsequent for-realsies breakup until their ecstatic return to the stage in 2009. And so the band has sought to reward them the best that it can during this time, leveraging its decades-long catalog of live shows to create meaningful experiences for its community, however dispersed it may be.

Phish was once one of the first bands to webcast their live shows to eager enthusiasts at home; I can only imagine how bad the buffering was on one early attempt in 1997. So it was fitting that during quarantine, they also led the way in firing up old, rad footage in a manner that could bring people a communal experience from afar. In late March, before anyone knew that a new album was imminent, Phish celebrated its past work and gave its fans something to enjoy by launching Dinner and a Movie, a weekly webcast pairing a complete past show from the archives with a suggested recipe that is meaningful to the band. (The instructions gently ask fans not to make too many risky trips to the supermarket to obtain ingredients.) In Phish communities around the web, users post photos of their home theater setups and their plates and chat about the setlist as if they’re hanging around the lot outside the venue after the show.

Phish frontman Trey Anastasio and some of his bandmates have also kept fans entertained with glimpses of new songs and little ditties and collaborations on Instagram and YouTube—all while maintaining their distance. (Bassist Mike Gordon performed with his daughter; Anastasio has played both for, and as, his cat.) Rolling Stone has run multiple interviews in which members of Phish positively crackle with creative energy in spite of the limitations of quarantine. This can be attributed, in large part, to their satisfaction in creating such a major highlight of the past few months: the band’s new album, which was itself deeply inspired by Phish’s history of rollicking live performances, and which has inspired me to get to a whole lot more of those shows one day.

When Phish announced a few weeks into quarantine that they’d be premiering something new the next day, it seemed like some sort of joke. The next day, after all, was April Fool’s. But it was far from a gag. The Sigma Oasis debut turned out to be genuine, earnest, even moving, as listeners from around the world gathered distantly and digitally to experience it together. I was one of them, standing in my kitchen in my apron, making soup in advance of a snowstorm, my laptop on top of a cutting board with a Slack room of giddy Phish fans scrolling past as Anastasio sang a trippy prog-rock song called “Mercury” featuring extremely relatable content:

The moments are mine, if I can just seize the day
But then I forget what it is that I meant to say.

“How did they know?!” I wondered. A few seconds later, when Anastasio followed up with the line “your day is longer than your year,” it was another lyrical punch that got me right in the gut.

Sigma Oasis is not subtle, and not particularly cool. It has extreme dad-rock overtones, which is a big part of why I love it, and it features lyrics that are on the nose in more ways than one. The title track’s chorus is, and I quote: “So take off, take off, take off your mask / The fear’s an illusion, so don’t even ask.” (These lyrics were, eerily, written pre-COVID-19; when it comes to matters of public health, Anastasio is all-mask, all the time.) Another song reminds the listener, soothingly and repeatedly: “Everything’s right, so just hold tight.” Even the more urgent lyrics, like the ones in “Leaves,” lay things on pretty thick:

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

And yet it all works, because of the way the album’s production seeks to mimic Phish’s buoyant live show spirit. In a Pitchfork review of Sigma Oasis, writer Sam Sodomsky sounded as if he were more surprised than anyone to have really enjoyed the listen, noting that “for longer than most groups have been around, the accepted wisdom was that Phish were unable to capture their spontaneous energy off the stage.” He called the band’s past studio discography “secondary to their actual legacy,” then went on to describe how Sigma Oasis was different.

In a departure from past studio sessions, the band worked with producer Vance Powell, laying down tracks almost on a lark after originally intending to just tool around and rehearse a bit for an upcoming tour. They did all this in the familiar environs of Anastasio’s Vermont barn—a.k.a. the titular “Farmhouse” of pop-Phish infamy—in a setup that mimicked a live performance, with none of the partitions and silos and overproduction of typical studio work. Instead, wrote Sodomsky, “Suddenly, Phish is jamming, and you’re right there with them.” Six of nine songs on Sigma Oasis run longer than six minutes, and you can hear the guys making eye contact with one another, and maybe even winking, as they play.

Most of the songs on the album are ones that Phish had tinkered with repeatedly in concert before; those Mercury lyrics may have felt ultra-current to me, but the band first debuted that song live in 2015. When Phish recorded Sigma Oasis last November, the plan wasn’t to debut it on April Fool’s. But as the realities of the global pandemic came into clearer focus, so did the band’s vision. Rather than sit on what they had, or spend the next months holed up and second-guessing and rerecording every last note, Phish let it all fly, and the result soared. By showcasing their past work, and by trusting what works, Phish produced a studio album that felt like a festival, and not a moment too soon.

I had to laugh when I read an interview with Ezra Koenig in The New York Times in which the Vampire Weekend frontman began talking about the influences of jam bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead on his most recent album and then sounded immediately insecure about his words. “I’m hesitant to talk too much about it, “ Koenig said, “because I get concerned about stolen jam valor. If you go deep into the world of the Grateful Dead and you know too much about it, the idea of ever being like ‘I was influenced by this band’ almost becomes embarrassing, because you’re referencing, what—this incredibly unique world that a talented group of people built over decades?”

I’m no professional musician, but I understood just what he meant. I tend to feel the same way when someone asks if I’m a phan as I do when someone asks if I’m a golfer. Like: I have played golf, yes! And yet for whatever reason, to describe myself with the noun instead of the verb suggests a level of competence and consistency that I really can’t back up on command. So it goes with Phish, too.

On the one hand, my first exposure to the band was waaaay back when, a night that remains cherished and crystal clear to this day. I was still in elementary school when I went to my friend Megan’s house for a sleepover and was introduced by her older brother Brian—a high-school, entry-level hippie with an obligatory collection of hemp accessories and tie-dyed shirts—to the 1990 album Lawn Boy by an ascendent jam band he was into. From the first track’s gleeful “Little Jimmy’s off to camp!” and twinkling piano to the way “Bathtub Gin” made me envision a smiling, drunk Jack Nicholson, I had never heard music quite like it before. It wasn’t long before I acquired the CD from BMG Music Club without asking my parents. When I went to my first concert with my “boyfriend” from summer camp a few years later, his mom dropped us off and picked us up.

Still, despite this early shred of credibility (jam valor?), my subsequent relationship to Phish in the years since has been extremely inconsistent, with other claims on my time—work, sports, weddings, so many weddings—winning out. (Even in the ’90s, I’m neither ashamed nor proud to admit, I spent more hours seeking out Dave Matthews Band bootlegs on Usenet than I did accumulating live tapes of Phish.) I loved every concert I went to, but they were always last-minute plans as opposed to pilgrimages. With each passing year I felt less fluent and more out of touch with the scene.

And then I logged on to some minor album release livestream during a global pandemic and felt all those old feelings of discovery and wonder, of the time being just right, flooding back. I haven’t missed a Dinner and a Movie showing ever since. (The 1995 Deer Creek show provided some amazing contemporary crowd-peeping; all hail the guy in the T-shirt with “Phish” written in the Snapple font!) I routinely revisit Anastasio’s homemade videos, playing this intriguingly shaggy riff on repeat, or getting just a leeeetle freaked out as he sings a song called “Timeless” that his writing partner Tom Marshall said was written last fall but that I could swear Anastasio wrote specifically about, or at the very least for, me during quarantine:

Born without a sense of time,
I have no way to know.
If it was merely several weeks,
or 40 years ago.
Sometimes I think it’s morning
as the night begins to fall.
Sometimes I think I’m late for work,
then no one’s there at all.

I find myself idly Googling venues and campgrounds, letting myself contemplate what it might feel like to one day groove (safely!) en masse to classics like “Tweezer” or “You Enjoy Myself” or “Split Open and Melt,” or to newer lyrics like the one about taking, taking, taking off our masks. I put on Sigma Oasis for the umpteenth time, listening to Anastasio sing that “the long night’s over and the sun’s coming up now,” and in my imagination I am surrounded by phans who are singing it too, unashamed and unafraid, noodle dancing again at long last.