Every jam band aficionado has a Phish story. Mine began at summer camp with the first thing my cabin counselor said to me: "Have you heard of the band Phish?" By the week's end, the whole cabin was ecstatically dropping to the ground and shaking á la Animal House's basement party when the "laugh and laughing fall apart" refrain of Phish's "Sparkle" came on.
Thus began a long obsession. Taking full advantage of the BMG music club's 12-for-one deal, I was soon meticulously analyzing every note, fascinated by the diversity of musical styles one band could incorporate into an album or even a single song.
In Atlanta, the summer of 1998 was my first chance to see Phish live. A friend's dad offered to lend us his car for the five-hour drive. But the day before the show, the dad went online (dial-up, AOL) and discovered the band's following's reputation for marijuana and psychedelics. Two heartbroken teenagers were told that the highlight of their summer plans was canceled. We didn't back down. So he drove us and waited in the parking lot, while, of course, we got our minds blown and accepted a few hits from the veterans dancing next to us.
Thirty shows later, after traveling across the country to catch concerts, I have never slept in my own bed after seeing Phish.
When the rumors of a Charleston Phish show began to circulate in late July, it seemed too surreal to take seriously. They haven't played here since 1996 or in South Carolina for that matter since 1998. The band returned to touring in 2009 after breaking up for five years and has kept almost exclusively to venues they'd played historic shows in prior to their dissolution — Madison Square Garden, Red Rocks, the Gorge, and so forth. After attending their "final" show in 2004, at the Coventry Festival in Vermont, Phish's music rarely played on my stereo. I had at least a biannual reoccurring dream about seeing them live, but I'd moved past them on my playlists.
Until that glorious return at Virginia's Hampton Coliseum in March 2009. As Phish fans will do, a buddy "miracled" me tickets to all three shows. Back amidst the engulfing lights, the collage of sound, and the mass dance party, I felt like a 14-year-old at summer camp. No other band offers the full experience Phish does, from the camaraderie and mutual anticipation in the parking lot to the improvisational grooves that collectively peak into nothing short of sonic orgasms.
I was back, and I caught 10 shows since the return, including flying out to Colorado this August to catch their first Telluride shows since the 1980s (it's the place they played their first shows outside of New England). Phish opened with "Down with Disease," and when they sang, "Waiting for the time that I can finally say/That this has all been wonderful/But now I'm on my way," I felt complete. I'd seen the band play everything I could want to hear, in some of the most legendary venues and breathtaking natural settings in the country. I was done.
Two weeks later, Charleston's two-night stand was made official. It's an incredibly random and out-of-the-way stop on their 15-show tour, falling between a 6,500 seat venue in Denver and the equally cozy civic center in Augusta, Maine. Furthermore, rumors abounded for years that after the fans' parking lot celebrations in 1996, Phish had been banned from Charleston altogether.
North Charleston Coliseum Marketing Manager Alan Coker says the band was never barred from the venue and that he's excited they're returning and hopes they'll come back again. The Coliseum clearly welcomed Phish with open arms, even requiring the S.C. Stingrays to reschedule their opening weekend of home games to make room for the shows.
Phish may have arguably treated the Southeast to its best shows of the summer this year, including playing songs missing from their repertoire for two decades in Charlotte and covering Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" on July 4 in Atlanta, a moment many fans have described among the most visceral group energy experiences in the band's history.
After faltering in the early 2000s, including a two-year-long hiatus in 2000-2002 and a subsequently lackluster two years of touring to follow, the band is indeed back. Guitarist Trey Anastasio made headlines when he sought treatment for his narcotic usage during the breakup, an experience that's clearly led to a full turnaround and re-polishing of his most complex musical opuses. Phish is a band that could never replace a member. Bassist Mike Gordon, drummer John Fishman, and keyboardist Page McConnell all play so integrally into the band's sound and song development that without the full quartet, there'd be no band.
In the last year, they've focused on song structure more than improvisation, silencing the critics who called out every minor flub by Anastasio during song segments as if he'd personally stepped on their toes. But amazingly, the band's execution has been almost beyond reproach. They're at the top of their game. For fans, it's a dream come true.
I might even take my teenage brother — tune him into this world. And don't worry, Mom. We'll leave the mind-blowing to the music. With Phish, it's really all you need.