“Its [sic] like the whole world getting Curveballed”
- @thequietone, Phantasy Tour/Phish Message Boards User
That thread title made me smile when I first saw it on March 11, 2020, as the pandemic first began to affect travel. I heard it as though from a character where you know it’s a joke, but the actor plays the part so well, the chance that he was serious is what makes it gold. How could one be so narrow-minded to compare the beginning of a global pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus to a single rock band festival cancellation? After all, following the Curveball announcement, we just had to find something else to do for the weekend, get our refunds, and blaze on to Dick's in a couple of weeks. This one-liner from PT is an appropriate place to begin because it's not lost on me that writing a history of these recent times, which have been so hard on so many, in the context of one band may seem indulgent.
That said, the pandemic affected live music perhaps as much as any other industry outside health care and education - essentially shutting down all concerts with an audience month after month beginning in March 2020. Musicians and production crews that worked on the road and in the venues would be severely impacted, and the future of the industry always felt uncertain. Even though it would be hard to find anyone who doesn’t appreciate the arts, for many fans of live music—and especially Phish—the experience offers more than just musicians on stage in the centerpiece of a big swirling production. It provides much-needed respite, camaraderie, and even catharsis when we’re lucky. Furthermore, the industry generates billions of dollars with wide-ranging effects on millions of lives.
The loss of livelihoods and outlets for joy for many was a small but significant part of the broader economic fallout from the response to the exponential spread of the virus known as SARS-CoV-2 in the last two years. In the broadest sense, the pandemic changed everything about the world we had come to take for granted. This piece has been rewritten for months and months, just getting longer as the story continued to unfold and the pandemic dragged on. After all, we are still in the midst of a constant threat of (fortunately milder) infection from ever more contagious variants (BA.5 at the time of publication). Thankfully though, much of life has readjusted to living with the virus thanks to easily available vaccines, including the concert industry.
As a band whose success and even identity have always been bound to their live performances, the pandemic challenged Phish to continue to reach their audience at a time when many would benefit the most from the distraction of chasing tour rumors, planning trips, and following setlists. Fortunately, Phish found engaging ways to keep us tuned. And when the time came, their commitment to return to the road as safely and quickly as possible likely reflects their passion to play together as much as their awareness of how much we would appreciate it.
The challenges and responses that would continue to arise through 2021 and even again this year display the persistence of the band and fans to find some way back to the shows. Since Phish’s first unaffected tour since 2019 just concluded at the eleventh Labor Day run at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, it seems like an appropriate time to finally share a chronicle of all that has occurred with Phish during COVID-19.
In the second week of March, when concerts and professional sports were still taking place in stadiums, my wife and I attended an Allman Brothers’ 50th-anniversary tribute/reunion concert. As the event had drawn closer, it was becoming unclear whether The Brothers, as they were billed, would still take place at Madison Square Garden. Fortunately, the spectacular night carried on with beautiful guitar work between Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks along with a long cast of supporting characters from throughout the Allmans’ iterations. After the final song, I watched original lineup member Jaimoe wave to the crowd and thought about how lucky I was to see this band after I somehow never saw any form of the Allman Brothers thus far. My wife and I were here together with thousands of others, dancing to “Whipping Post,” with literal tears of joy in my eyes. It was powerful and I felt fortunate, without even knowing what was to come.
The already meaningful night became more special as time passed, even if it became clear that maybe we shouldn't have even been there in the first place. Little did we know this would be the last live performance we would personally get to see for the foreseeable future. Another show I was supposed to attend later that week, an already rescheduled Phil Lesh show at the Capitol Theater three days later, was postponed again. The next night, on March 11, the same day as the PT thread from above was begun, the National Basketball Association shut down completely unannounced during a prime-time doubleheader. After the Mavericks vs. Nuggets game, when NBA time stopped, the moment hit hard. The spread of Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) was serious and already had huge implications, becoming something bigger than we experienced before. The future was unpredictable, we were unprepared, and the news would only get worse.
At work, the next day, my colleagues and I realized that we would be among those fortunate to begin working from home for a little while. We gathered up our work laptops as we texted friends to see if they were doing the same. We were still in the cold New York winter, the sun setting before the end of the workday. Soon into the pandemic, we learned how to use virtual meeting rooms, “social distancing” became a hard-to-believe requirement, and we purchased a variety of masks. The world was watching as New York City became a hot spot for the virus. Friends and families called to check in; my mother always hears the New York news from Maine before I do. It was another historic moment for the city. We’ve had many since I moved here in August 2008. We knew we would come together to get through this, New York always does.
For the next five weeks, the only time I went outside was to empty the trash. I remember my nervous reaction after my wrist grazed a public door handle, potentially leading to some tragic circumstance involving me, someone I love, or a stranger on the street. We were learning together, at different stages of fear and acceptance—the country, the world, working through cycles of disruption and recovery. Hospitals around the United States were underprepared and overwhelmed. There seemed to be no clear answers and no clear idea of what would happen next. We clapped every day at 7 PM in solidarity with the health care and essential workers pushing through the terror to save lives, give hope, and offer some sort of peace to families who experienced tragedy or have lost loved ones. In our lifetime, never has our country experienced a nightmare like this, let alone the whole world experiencing it at once.
Starting on March 13, 2020, as I was sequestered in my Upper East Side one-bedroom apartment with my dear wife and three cats, a member of Phish was in the same scenario (minus one cat). Across the island of Manhattan, Trey Anastasio was similarly quarantined. After years of staying busy and on the road for countless tours with Phish, TAB, and other side projects, Trey and his family chose not to escape to the city to the rural confines of The Barn. He was now stuck inside his self-described “Rubber Jungle” (referring to the mess of his mobile home studio) and quickly began creating new music to share with the world through his Instagram page.
A majority of lyrics to these songs were written on a songwriting trip right before the lockdown, between March 13 and 14, 2020 with longtime friends and songwriting partners Tom Marshall and Scott Hermann. The music channeled the spirit of classic home recordings like Paul McCartney’s solo debut McCartney, Prince’s third album Dirty Mind, and Ariel Pink’s House Arrest. It harkens back to Trey and Phish’s early four-track songwriting and recordings on The White Tape. After all, what else is a relentless songwriting machine to do when locked up inside?
From the Rubber Jungle, Trey’s audio-only song debuts soon turned into creative, homemade music videos. It all started with “Lost In the Pack,“ recorded on March 17 and released on March 18. Along with the second song “When the Words Go Away”, both videos were accompanied simply by an image of Trey taken by Sue in the Rubber Jungle and seen at the top of this article. They were solo acoustic numbers and felt like nice gifts you least expected to receive but really needed. Perhaps these were leftovers, and that is all we would be receiving?
Instead, this was a start of a long process of Trey sharing his creativity in a completely new way. By the third song, “Timeless,” Trey was now using video as well. First, he simply sat casually on a chair with his acoustic guitar in his lap. Then, for the fourth song, “I Never Needed You Like This Before,” all the furniture was removed, lights played on the ceiling, and Trey stood rocking out alone singing into a mic taped to the wall. Other videos included a pan across Mexican artifacts in “The Greater Good,” a fake vinyl spinning for “Lotus,” a "lyric" video with Trey placing hand-written notes on his piano, smiling face reflecting in “Evolve,” a haunting stop motion video with Trey with a respirator mask, and the green outfit from the New Year’s clone set in “Shaking Someone’s Outstretched Hand,” and an amusing tour around Trey’s apartment from the viewpoint of one of his cats “Joey” in “If I Could See the World.” Trey was having fun, and we were getting treated to new music like it was the start of the Summer 1997 tour.
Through this series of videos, he established a unique virtual connection under circumstances much different than a regular online song debut: these songs reflected our shared strange new isolated reality. As we tried to adjust to our new homebound situations, other musicians provided lots of new music: Neil Young via his Fireside Sessions, Robert Fripp and Toyah Ann Willcox‘s Sunday Lunch YouTube series, John Legend’s Together At Home concerts, and Waxahatchee / Kevin Morby’s living room streams on their Instagram page. Questlove was another artist who has been providing us with a surplus of music, in the form of his DJ sets layered with live stories and musical philosophies. There were also live sets by Billy Strings’ “Live From Out There”, Goose’s “Bingo Tour,” and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead’s “Rad Night In America” among many more.
Trey’s songs and videos from his home were a creative portrait of our time during the quarantine days, a reflection surely for many New Yorkers but also people across the country. The songs will always exist in the time they were created and recorded. For the release of Trey’s ninth quarantine song, “Lonely Trip” on March 31, he included a comment describing his quarantine experience as reflected in these songs and offering his gratitude to everyone who had been risking their lives to help others.
“Hi everyone. I hope that all of you and your families are safe, and I send my deepest love to everyone who is struggling thru [sic] this time, physically, financially, emotionally, and in so many other ways.
In the videos I’ve been posting you can see two windows behind me that I sit next to when I write. The windows look out of our apt into the streets of Manhattan. Every night at 7pm the whole city, all 5 boroughs, leans out their windows to scream and cheer and bang on pots and pans to show support for the essential workers, the doctors, medical, police officers, food delivery people, who are going out there and risking everything to take care of others. I wish you could hear the sound. It’s overwhelming. An entire city screaming with love and gratitude.
I honestly don’t know how they do it. These Nurses, grocery store employees, Pharmacists, people who do elder care, animal care, so much. Not just in my city, but essential workers everywhere. This is happening all over our country, and all over the globe.
I want to thank them.
If you are one of these people, Thank You.
In a time like this I see so much good in people. Thank you to all of you who are going out every day to feed people, care for them, protect and treat the sick.
With deepest Gratitude, Trey”
Soon, there would be many musical bright spots as winter completely gave way to spring, and artists adjusted to the new challenges. We were fortunate to have the technology to not only work from home but to also stream live performances from a musician’s den to fans’ living rooms. As is often the case with technology, before everyone else caught on one band had been mastering this art of the live stream.
By 2020, Phish had already been streaming live shows for years. Since soon after the band returned in 2009, fans have grown accustomed to going on “couch tours” as the band shared more and more shows via live webcasts through the LivePhish website (a percentage of proceeds of which support the Mockingbird Foundation!). It only made sense then, when on March 23, Phish announced the first in the weekly Dinner And A Movie: An Archival Video Series, named after the song on Phish’s 1989 album Junta, released 31 years earlier.
Every Tuesday night moving forward, Phish would present a full show from the archives for free on their YouTube channel meant to be enjoyed along with a recipe hand-picked by a band member on a rotating schedule. Furthermore, each release would be accompanied by a Waterwheel fundraising effort for a different charity every week, even featuring the Mockingbird Foundation during a special Labor Day presentation of three shows from past concerts at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, CO. We will share a more extensive breakdown of all the Dinner and a Movie episodes soon (stay tuned).
Trey shared his Grandmoony’s Eggplant Parmigiana while Mike passed along his favorite vegan options from Burlington, Vermont’s Hen of The Wood restaurant, Lincolnville General Store owners Jon and Briar Fishman offered a three-course meal to celebrate Magnaball’s 8/22/15 three sets, and Page offered his own gluten-free tuna sandwich recipe to the delight of many meme-loving fans. We now had something to look forward to each week, a way to bring together the community of friends, family, and fans who had no idea when the next time we could all gather together again, sharing in the groove.
Meanwhile, Mike Gordon presented live bass lessons and one-on-one video chats with friends, bandmates, and family on Instagram. Interviews included his photographer Danny Clinch, bandmates Scott Murawski and Robert Walter, and even his mother, artist Marjorie Minkin, who created backdrops (known as a Minkin) for Phish’s stage throughout the 80s and the early 90s.
He stayed active in other ways as well. On May 1, Mike and his daughter Tessa performed "Pride Of Cucamonga" for a Terrapin Crossroads staff benefit. On May 28, Gordon participated in a bass-focused online discussion run by Victor Wooten and Steve Bailey through the Berklee School of Music Bass Department. This edition was called "Gordon, Chancellor, Lessard, Inez, ... Royalty of Rock Bass,” hosted by Steve Bailey and Victor Wooten at Berklee College of Music Bass Department. Steve, Victor, and Mike are joined by Justin Chancellor (Tool), Stefan Lessard (Dave Matthews Band), and Mike Inez (Alice in Chains). System of a Down’s Shavarsh "Shavo" Odadjian even made a surprise appearance. Steve and Victor asked questions about their careers, music theory, and bass playing. Mike offered thoughts on bass, creativity, and originality. He even said something that still haunts me since I heard it. Mike pondered, “What if live music never returned?” A few months later in October, Mike once again participated in a bass summit called "Pick Bass and BEYOND,” along with Anthony Jackson, Bobby Vega, Dave Ellefson, Carol Kaye, and Jack Casady.
Mike, Tessa, and Mike’s wife Susan Schick would also perform online for a memorial concert called “Touch & Go“ for Gordon Stone, the banjo player and multi-instrumentalist from Burlington, VT, who collaborated with Phish in the studio and shared the stage in a variety of settings. Stone passed away on July 10, 2020.
Jon Fishman chugged through the quarantine as host for The Errant Path on SiriusXM’s Phish Radio every Wednesday at 6 pm and Sunday at 12, turning us on to his eclectic taste of music and celebrating life, his casual but caring demeanor bringing calm and needed chuckles. During his themed shows, to hear Fish's insights on a full range of music as if you’re having a phone call with him is a delight. Trey also hosted a couple of episodes of a special SiriusXM radio show, Rubber Jungle Radio. Trey played his favorite tracks by newer artists like Big Thief, Laura Mvula, and Kendrick Lamar and older classics by artists such as Morphine, William Onyeabor, and Destiny’s Child.
We would soon discover at the end of March that Page McConnell had indeed been at work as well doing overdubs on a new project. He would later speak to Rolling Stone in a candid interview that followed a few days after an earlier one with Trey in the same publication, both highlighting the need to create despite the difficult circumstances. As it turned out, the entire band had been busy together on something new right up to the last minute before interstate transportation was largely grounded…
[TO BE CONTINUED. STAY TUNED]
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