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Phish wrapped an entire musical education into shows of '90s heyday

Peter Mongillo

I'll admit it. I like Phish. I know the names of their songs. I've seen them play. A lot. Hate away.

I don’t care, because when Phish plays Austin on Friday for the first time since 1999 at this year’s Austin City Limits Festival, I’ll be there, and unless the band self-destructs on stage, I’ll enjoy it. (The band taped an episode of “Austin City Limits” in 2000.) While I can’t say that I listen to the band much these days, I owe a lot of my love of music to Trey, Page, Mike and Fishman.

Unlike Austin, the Connecticut town where I grew up didn't have much in the way of independent record stores or music venues. Obviously, in the early 1990s Pitchfork or iTunes or Amazon.com didn't exist. Neither did the "if you like this, you might like this" recommendation system. If we wanted to buy music, there was a Strawberry's in a strip mall.

I wasn't exactly digging deep into the annals of music history. There was no access. I didn't have an older sibling to turn me on to anything even mildly rebellious. My parents listened to the local oldies radio station, but they didn't keep a record collection. As a result, I knew "Eleanor Rigby" but had no idea about "Revolver."

Most of my musical education came from MTV and the local classic rock radio, which played a lot of songs like Dr. Dre's "Let Me Ride" and George Thorogood's version of "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer." It was a desert island of mediocre music.

My introduction to Phish came by way of the Grateful Dead, which I introduced to myself by ordering the band's fairly benign greatest hits collection, "Skeletons From the Closet." I bought it for a penny from one of those record clubs that would advertise through the mail and end up forcing you to buy Def Leppard albums in order to fulfill the terms of the agreement.

Before long, I was wearing loud tie-dyed T-shirts and hemp necklaces. There was a whole industry built up around selling hippie gear. Someone was making money drawing pictures of brightly colored teddy bears driving a Jeep through a mountain pass. I started beginning sentences with "dude." Yes, I was that guy.

On a less commercial level were the cassettes of live Dead shows. It was kind of silly, but there was something liberating about the tape culture surrounding the band. In some ways it resembled the punk-inspired DIY scene embraced by a lot of indie rock bands today. People meticulously catalogued and traded recordings dating back to the late 1960s. Sometimes the tape jacket was covered with fan artwork. They came clearly labeled with a date, setlist and sometimes a piece of trivia about the last time a song was played or a special guest, and you couldn't buy them in a store. Many had been passed on so many times that the quality was nearly unlistenable.

Everything was great until 1995, when Jerry Garcia succumbed to the effects of decades of drug abuse, ending a new generation of Deadheads' hopes of seeing the band play. Looking back, the Dead of 1994 was not the same band it was in 1974, so it's probably best to have missed those last tours anyway. Still, Garcia's death hit harder than the loss of Kurt Cobain a year earlier. Nirvana was a great band, but it didn't quite make sense when kids freaked out and wrote the guy's initials on their arms.

With Jerry gone, Phish, the great Dead-lite, were left to carry the torch. Like their predecessors, they toured relentlessly, changing their setlists every night and often incorporating abstract instrumental jams into their sets. The Vermont-based quartet had been kicking around New England since the 1980s, and by the early '90s they were selling out arenas, especially in the Northeast, where they still seem to draw bigger crowds than anywhere else.

Maybe there was too much patchouli in the air, but I came to realize that Phish was not the knockoff I had made it out to be. While the Dead crafted an identity that borrowed heavily from Dylan-esque Americana, 1960s R&B and even bluegrass, Phish's material seemed more appropriate for a generation of kids that grew up on "Star Wars." Many of their earlier (and most popular) songs evolved out of a college project written by lead singer and guitarist Trey Anastasio and are populated by a bizarre cast of fantasy creatures that still occasionally find their way onstage. "Casey Jones" it was not.

These shows were nonstop, chaotic fun for a teenager, with a strange mix of freaks and the seemingly straight-laced coming together to create something of a traveling carnival. Sure, there was (and still is) a darker side that includes a good amount of drug abuse, but that's not the entire scene. For the most part, the parking lot at a Phish show wasn't that much different than the one outside Darrell K Royal-Memorial Stadium before a home game.

And that was just the parking lot. Music-wise, Phish offered a strange sonic adventure that had equal potential to impress or disappoint, depending on the night of the tour. This unpredictable nature accounted for some of the band's charm and turned an audience into music critics who would spend the rest of the evening discussing the setlist and the quality of the performance.

The band also infused their sets with fun cover songs that ranged from the unknown to Top 40. The covers could be gimmicky or eye-opening. At a Phish show, I first heard the Rolling Stones' "Loving Cup" from the "Exile on Main Street" album, which they played this summer on the "Late Show with Jimmy Fallon." As a kid who knew "Satisfaction" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash" mostly from the radio, this staple cover was a gateway to "Exile" and an entire world that I hadn't known existed. It was like Pandora for a pre-Internet world.

Ditto for the Talking Heads' "Remain in Light" album, which Phish covered in its entirety as one of their annual Halloween "costumes" in 1996, and continued to incorporate into later shows. Sure, we've all heard "Once in a Lifetime," but the album goes so much deeper.

The list goes on. For every well-known song Phish covered live ("Good Times Bad Times," "Highway to Hell"), they threw in something less obvious, including songs by early Pink Floyd songwriter Syd Barrett, or the bluegrass of the Del McCoury band. Ween's "Roses are Free." Stevie Wonder's "Boogie on Reggae Woman." Even some of the music they played during set breaks at arena shows was new (Phish remains one of the few bands that break their shows into sets).

I wish I could say I knew about all of that music earlier, but I just hadn't been exposed. I haven't seen Phish play in years, and during that time I've been able to extend my enjoyment of music in a variety of directions. Now, as I get the opportunity to see them again, it will be with a different set of musical knowledge, one that in a lot of ways they helped introduce.

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Phish plays at 8 p.m. Friday, October 8, on the Budweiser stage.

Correction: This story has been corrected to update the date of Phish's last performance in Austin.