Will Phish’s 16th album, Big Boat, make converts of long-time haters and skeptics?


I should disclose, first thing, hand-on-Bible-style, that I have a soft spot for Phish. There was a long time when, entranced by the notorious joke band’s genre-blending, free-form jamming, I was really into Phish. Years later, I’ve come to wear this fact not as a blemish but as a badge of pride.

In our current culture of hyper-inclusive, omnivorous taste formation, where we’re expected to enjoy lame top-40 bands like Steely Dan and the Bee Gees, being a Phish-head is still a no-no. In their goofiness and perceived obnoxiousness, and their association with all manner of stinky pothead clichés, they are irrecuperable. And more power to ’em!

Now, will Big Boat, their 16th studio album, make converts of long-time haters and skeptics? Well, no. But then, appraising Phish – whose medium is live performance – on the basis of their albums is like reviewing a film based solely on a screenplay, or a chef’s chops based on a basket of unprepared foodstuffs. Their records are blueprints laying out a basic architecture to be improved upon, expanded or subverted when the band plays live.

Big Boat offers glimpses of the group’s playfulness, as when a vocal harmony on Home crescendos toward one of Trey Anastasio’s widdly-widdliest guitar solos. The obvious highlight is closer Petrichor, a multi-faceted, musically complex piece running nearly 14 minutes that, like long-time fan favourite You Enjoy Myself, gives a sense of how much thought goes into the songs even before they’re drawn out onstage.

I’m honestly not sure if anyone – even Phish fans… especially Phish fans – listens to their studio records. But as a teaser for some of the music that might come to fruition on the forthcoming fall tour, Big Boat (god what a stupid name for an album) is pretty tantalizing.

Top track: Petrichor

Listen at NPR.



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