A non-profit formed by fans of Phish recently released a new edition of a massive book that chronicles the band’s history and includes setlists and notes on almost every show the band’s ever played.
The Mockingbird Foundation, founded in 1996, works to provide music education to children in underserved areas and to document the history of Phish. They recently released the third edition of The Phish Companion: A Guide to the Band and Their Music, which was was written and edited on a volunteer basis by fans of the band.
VPR spoke with John Demeter, contributing editor to the new edition and member of the board of directors for the Mockingbird Foundation.
VPR: This book has a comprehensive list of every concert the band ever played, along with each song from those shows. How was this mammoth undertaking put together?
Demeter: “Going back to the late '80s and early '90s, there were grassroots efforts from fans to categorize and list all the songs. Those efforts evolved over time and were eventually put into a comprehensive database [that] to this day [is] continually being refined into something that we could use and add to as Phish continues to play new music and new shows.”
Why do Phish-heads, much like Deadheads before them, love to chronicle these various shows with such great detail?
“I think the nature of the music that the band plays is very analytical. There might be, for people who aren't fans, a perception [that the music's] kind of noodling on and on, but these guys are very polished, intelligent musicians with backgrounds in a lot of different styles. So you want to be into not just rock and roll, but [also] jazz and bluegrass [so you can] embrace these odd-sounding changes and progressions.
“The main thing is the improvisational nature of what the band does. The magic we're all looking for comes in the improvisational art where they're up there live without a net and [creating] something that you have never heard before, might never hear again and [can share] in the moment with the band and everyone around you. It's quite magical.”
This book doesn’t shy away from criticism. There is the chronicle of the band hitting kind of a low-point right around the time of the farewell concerts in Coventry, Vermont in 2004. It turned out not to be the band's final shows, as they did regroup and they're still playing now. What went wrong at Coventry, even though the book also notes there were some great moments there?
“At Coventry you had a couple challenges. One was we were just super-saturated with rain and that created tremendous logistical problems that traumatized fans. There were people parked on I-91 and carried their stuff 10 to 15 miles to get to [the] concert.
“Also part of went wrong [was that] this is what [Phish] [had been] doing their whole adult lives and it was coming to an end. So just the emotions of that had to be incredibly powerful [and] trying to perform on stage for 60,000 or 80,000 people couldn't have been easy.
"But despite that, it was a show of such highs and lows. There were certain songs that just literally weren't performed, the band broke down mid-song, [and] certain versions can be ranked among the best ever of what they've played.”
Another thing that's different about this new edition is that you have included some incredible photographs.
“We’re pretty confident this point that this is the best compendium of published photography about Phish. We are very thankful to the band and its organization for giving us rights to use these photographs and [thankful to] the photographers as well. When they heard that this was an all volunteer effort and that all proceeds are going to benefit music education for children, they were just thrilled to get onboard."
What do you think the ceiling is for Phish? Do you think they're going to be playing for years to come?
“I honestly do, because when they broke up they had personally and professionally hit low points or just burned out. When they came back in 2009, there was a conscious effort on their part to balance the efforts of Phish with their other interests in life. That’s sort of what they’ve said in interviews, '[We're] built to last this time, we're not going to burn ourselves out.'”
The Mockingbird Foundation and The Waterwheel Foundation will be hosting a celebration of Phish’s new album and the new edition of The Phish Companion: A Guide to the Band and Their Music at Nectar’s in Burlington on Oct. 15 at 2 p.m.