"Is Phish a great band?"
Here in Vermont, that's not a question as much as it is sacrilege. Phish fandom is practically a Green Mountain birthright, and woe to the unsuspecting noob who dares ask that question — or maybe more accurately, answer it, especially in the negative. But in the scrolls of rock history, there is a difference between being great, and being great. And with the 30th anniversary of Phish's first show coming up later this year, it is a natural time to ponder whether Phish belong, historically speaking, in the pantheon alongside the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin.
In a recent piece for the sports and culture website Grantland, veteran music journalist and critic Steven Hyden suggests there's a good chance they do — or at least they will one day. Despite his Pitchfork pedigree — Hyden is a longtime contributor to the online mecca of indie snark — his conclusion that Vermont's most famous musical export belongs in the conversation of all-time great rock bands isn't that surprising. Even haters have to admit Phish have earned a place in rock-and-roll lore and should be enshrined in Cleveland one day. What is interesting is how he arrives at his conclusion, raising a number of provocative, and perplexing, questions about the way we perceive rock greatness and how that might be changing amid a shifting paradigm.
Hyden's thesis is theoretical, and requires a bit of massaging to justify. Without giving too much away — you really should check out the full piece, if only for the gnarly dig on Rivers Cuomo … sigh — his basic argument is that as recorded music becomes increasingly devalued, to the point that one can rightly wonder how much longer artists will continue investing money and creative energy into making albums to sell, we could in the future increasingly prize live performance as a measure of a band's greatness over their recorded output. If that happens, he posits, it is possible we will begin to look at bands whose legacy is tied primarily to live performance, such as the Dead, as being on par with or even greater than bands, such as the Beatles, whose status as all-time greats rests largely in the excellence and subsequent influence of their recorded works. It's an interesting "what if" to consider.
Quibble all you want with their studio records, but Phish are among the top-grossing live bands in history. And their impact on the modern live concert experience — particularly the increasing mainstreaming of festivals as not just musical but cultural events — is inarguable. Might there come a day when we place more importance on that sphere of influence than iconic records or songs? A time when, as Hyden writes, we "stop talking about fixed versions of songs and begin evaluating bands on their ability to perform and refresh their body of work?" Possibly. Viewed through that prism, you can make a compelling argument that Phish are indeed all-time greats. And Hyden does. "If artists no longer have the means to make records, the concert stage will become their primary canvas," he writes.
And if that happens, a band that paints in psychedlic watercolors will very likely be viewed in a new historical light.