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Where do Phish newbies jump in?

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Where do Phish newbies jump in? (edge photo by Mike Dow)

Anticipation is building for Phish’s 2019 summer tour, scheduled to include twin shows at Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor on June 25 and June 26, and Fenway Park in Boston on July 5 and July 6. As longtime fans secure tickets and arrange travel plans, let’s ask a question on behalf of the newcomers: What is the logical entry point for the Phish tenderfoot trying to crack the code to nearly 36 years of music?

Whether through the news, the radio, online streaming, or Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food, the average music listener has certainly heard of Phish, even if they can’t actually name one of the band’s songs.

What is it about this crazy rock and roll jam band and its massive legion of followers?

How is it that in this age - when many top touring acts routinely deliver the same batch of tunes – in the same order – with the same between song patter and lighting cues in every town – that this renegade band of merry pranksters, each possessing otherworldly improvisational chops and a love of absurd humor, can routinely sell out 20,000 seat arenas by creating arrangements on the fly and never playing the same set of songs twice?

There are several answers that could apply but the best place to start is with the songs themselves.

Phish’s catalog of studio albums and live shows is vast, sprawling and probably more than a little overwhelming for fledgling listeners who want to dip their feet in the water.

Ask 10 Phish fans where to begin and you’re likely to receive as many different responses. I recommend launching your Phish journey with a studio album.

That suggestion probably raises some eyebrows among some Phish veterans that insist on a solid live show for a newbie’s initiation. I get that – and I don’t wholly disagree – but I feel that new fans should first become familiar with the band’s songs in their purest state. The best way to do that is through the official studio releases. And for those who want a taste of the live experience, I’ll recommend a good starter show that does the job well.

Since forming at the University of Vermont in 1983, Phish has released 17 studio albums (11 for Elektra Records and six for their own JEMP label, including 2009’s bonus album “Party Time” and “The White Tape,” – a collection of mid-80s recordings).

Phish’s studio material tends to offer a more refined listening experience compared to the band’s “anything goes” approach to live performance. Each album contains songs written and arranged to be delivered either as recorded – or – depending on the song – the studio version acts as a blueprint for wild exploration in a live setting.

Yes, Phish is called a “jam band” for a reason. Using jamming skills they’ve honed for decades, along with shared telepathy developed through decades of playing together, the band thrives on breaking musical ground by taking even their most-played songs in previously uncharted directions. February’s stunning run of shows in Riviera Maya, Mexico offers further evidence.

But a word about the songs themselves – there really should be more credit given to them. Collectively and individually, Phish has created a catalog of work that is busting with an outrageously diverse array of material.

The overall Phish experience encompasses pop, rock, jazz, funk, reggae, bluegrass, classical, country, folk, dance, techno, acoustic and ambient music – all created with a remarkable dedication to songcraft.

It isn’t merely quantity or diversity that makes Phish great – it’s the quality of the songs. Without them, there would be no need for a story about band newbies.

There has never been a better time to become a fan of Phish. The band is in the midst of a creative new golden age of their existence with limitless possibilities for the future. Phish embraces each concert as an opportunity to find something new together after nearly four decades of performance. Rock bands aren’t designed to function this way.

Since reforming after a five-year break in 2009 as the clean and lean Phish we know today, they have truly become masters of their domain; fully in control of every aspect of their existence. They have achieved a kind of balance that somehow eluded them before. Their families join them on the road and share in the nightly joy at each show.

Phish legal counsel and band archivist Kevin Shapiro said it best in his introduction to the third edition of “The Phish Companion: A Guide to the Band & Their Music,” published in 2016: “Phish is a band made up of four talented individuals who have achieved a musical universe in which they can create their art as they wish, when they wish, and how they wish.”

Nearly every concert the band has performed – more than 1,800 to date – is a click away online. You’ll find a mix of officially released, professionally recorded shows at www.LivePhish.com and audience recordings on a variety of sites, including www.Phish.in.

Every Phish album has a lot to offer but my entry-level recommendation for a Phish studio record is 1992’s “A Picture of Nectar.” Probably the band’s most varied collection, it offers a bit of everything that makes Phish great. “Llama” rages while ‘Poor Heart’ will make you laugh and dance. The ever-evolving jam-vehicle “Tweezer” stuns while the quirky and catchy ‘The Mango Song” soothes. “Cavern” rocks while the jazzy “Magilla” rolls.

Every Phish concert performed since December 31, 2002, is available for immediate download moments after the band leaves the stage. Phish essentially delivers a double live album – much of it improvised and never to be repeated – every night while on tour.

When Phish steps onto the stage, fans around the world monitor related websites and social media pages for word on what song the band is playing in the moment. Phish fans monitor a developing set-list much like a stockbroker stares at the ticker in the final moments of trading.

A wealth of archival shows has also been released, with some dating all the way back to the 1980s. My recommendation for an entry level live show is “Phish: Live at Madison Square Garden – New Year’s Eve 1995.” Released in 2005, it is one of the most highly-rated shows in Phish history for a reason, with three complete sets and more than 3.5 hours of excellence.

I’ll see you out there this summer. In the meantime, listen to www.JEMPRadio.com streaming Phish and related bands live 24/7 in excellent sound quality. You’ll find me there each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on “The Other Mike’s Corner.”

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