For Phish fans and Deadheads, the jam goes on as both bands mount COVID-era tours
We may never know if the chicken came before the egg, or if it happened the other way around.
But we do know that the Grateful Dead’s 1965 debut performance preceded Phish’s 1983 debut performance by 18 years.
There is also no doubt that the Dead created the jam-band template for Phish and for a host of other like-minded acts, including the Dave Matthews Band, Widespread Panic, The String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon, Disco Biscuits, Sound Tribe Sector 9, and a good number of others.
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Moreover, Phish’s debut performance 38 years ago featured two Dead classics — “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain” — along with a version of the Wilson Pickett gem “In the Midnight Hour,” a song the Dead first covered in 1966.
Now, in what may or may not be a cosmic convergence, the world’s two most popular jam bands are set to appear in San Diego just five days apart at the same venue.
North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre will host Phish on Saturday and Dead & Company — as the latest iteration of the Grateful Dead is known — on Wednesday.
In a quest for a double dose of potential aural nirvana, there are surely some fans who will attend both concerts. A sizable number more will opt for one or the other.
It’s not a total generational divide, since there are young Deadheads who were born after the band’s musical North Star, Jerry Garcia, died in 1995. And there are older Phishheads, who grew up on the Dead and later embraced Phish.
But like diametrically opposed Democrats and Republicans, some Deadheads and Phishheads have distinct, “either/or” preferences, with no middle ground. They are devoted to the band of their choice, while reacting to the other with a shrug of indifference or a contemptuous sneer.
The differences can also be aesthetic: Phishheads embrace the absurdism in such Phish songs as “NICU,” “Chalk Dust Torture” and “Meatstick” (sample lyric: “Whoa, shocks my brain! Whoa, shocks my brain!”).
While the Dead’s songs embrace many qualities, absurdism is, most decidedly, not one of them.
The Dead’s best lyrics — a good number written by Robert Hunter, who died in 2019 — stood up on their own as multilayered fables of a new world, the Old West, or some mystical sphere beyond. As the Hunter-penned lyrics to the Dead classic “Ripple” put it: “Let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men.”
Phish’s lyrics are often secondary to their instrumental virtuosity. The band’s intricate, at times proudly knotty music draws from some of the same sources as the Dead’s. But Phish also draws from prog-rock, fusion-jazz, funk and other styles that didn’t come into prominence until after the Dead’s rise.
The Dead’s music tends to be more mellow and earthy. The precision and sophistication with which Phish’s members perform their songs contrasts with the more stream-of-consciousness, hit-or-miss approach that has long been the Dead’s calling card.
Those differences led to a musical stand-off when Phish guitarist-singer Trey Anastasio filled in for the late Jerry Garcia in 2015 at the Dead’s five “Fare Thee Well” performances. Those concerts marked the Grateful Dead’s final shows under that name before morphing later that year into Dead & Company, with John Mayer assuming Garcia’s role and joining Dead co-founder Bob Kreutzmann and longtime alum Mickey Hart.
Apart from a few lulls, Mickey Hart has spent the better part of the past half century drumming in various permutations of the Grateful Dead, which — since 2015 — has been known as Dead & Company and performs Friday at Mattress Firm Amphitheatre.
Despite their varying approaches, what ties the Dead and Phish together is that both bands are at their best when they take off on improvisational flights at their marathon, jam-happy concerts. Both bands also largely eschew pre-planned set lists in favor of spur-of-the-moment musical selections (except, that is, when Phish has done live tributes saluting entire albums, including Little Feat’s “Waiting for Columbus” and The Beatles’ “The White Album”).
Deadheads and Phishheads share a desire for transcendence. As to which of these two band’s concerts you are more likely to leave with a contact high, well, some things are just too close to call.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre, 2050 Entertainment Circle, Chula Vista
Tickets: $45-$85, plus service fees
Dead & Company
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre
Tickets: $51.50-$156.50, plus service fees
Health protocols: Attendees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (and be 14 days past final vaccination shot) or have received a negative COVID-19 test within 72-hours of the event. Children under 12 must take a COVID-19 test within 72-hours prior to the event and provide proof of negative results before entering the venue.
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