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Phish Lives On

Could the return of Phish spark a revitalization of the jam-band scene?

After splitting in 2004 with a muddy sendoff at its Coventry, Vermont, festival, Phish will re-school in the spring for a three-night run at one of its favorite venues, the Hampton (Virginia) Coliseum. The prospect of the March 6-8 shows has been greeted with unbridled glee by loyal Phish-heads.

According to the band's Web site, there will be additional tour dates for guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman throughout 2009. To what extent the band will tour remains a mystery. Chip Hooper, Phish's agent at Paradigm, offered only this: "We're contemplating a bunch of stuff. The key phrase is 'stay tuned.'"

Phish once reigned atop the jam-band scene, racking up $175.5 million in concert grosses, with 5.8 million tickets sold to 475 shows reported to Billboard Boxscore between 1989 and 2004. The group's final year of touring grossed about $20 million, including about $10 million from the final Coventry, Vermont, concerts in August 2004.

Coincidentally or not, once Phish called it quits, the jam-band scene as a whole softened up a bit from its late-'90s, post-Grateful Dead vitality. Genre mainstays like Widespread Panic and Dave Matthews Band remain solid draws, but linchpin festival Bonnaroo, while not completely abandoning its jam roots, expanded to include more mainstream rock acts like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Elvis Costello and Beck, as well as harder-edged bands like Tool and Metallica. In the earliest incarnations of Bonnaroo, the idea of Metallica rocking the Tennessee hills was inconceivable.

In reality, Bonnaroo is a direct descendant of Phish's one-band festival extravaganzas like Clifford Ball, It, Lemonwheel and Coventry. Though bigger and broader in scope, Bonnaroo launched with — and maintains — the same self-contained, immersive experience as the Phish events, and their spirit of community.

The improvisational music scene certainly didn't go away when Phish left the stream, and there are still plenty of hard-touring bands with solid followings and dozens of jam-oriented festivals that do well, from Wakarusa in Kansas to 10,000 Lakes in Michigan. But in the context of the overall touring landscape, there was a significant drop-off in attendance from the days when arena-level headliners and new, exciting bands cropped up at every turn. For the most part, the newer fests that have sprung up have more mainstream rock lineups.

Rather than migrate en masse to one or two established bands or even swim toward any particular up-and-comer (though one could certainly draw a parallel to singer-songwriter Jack Johnson's rise to prominence during this era), Phish-heads have splintered among many factions. Given Phish's ability to draw a loyal, cohesive fan base from music lovers of disparate tastes, it could be argued that a certain live music movement came to an end when the band left the road. If nothing else, Phish's return to touring will rejuvenate that fan base.

"We're very, very happy about this, it's something very special," Hampton Coliseum general manager Joe Tsao said. Asked how the show came together, Tsao said, "It's very simple: I got a call from the band saying, 'We want to come back,' and I said, 'Come on!'"

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