A RunawayJim Retrospective Part 2: The Hiatus

The following article is part 2 of a multi-part series on my life as a Phishhead. I would recommend starting at Part 1.

The hiatus brought with it a lot of time to reflect on Phish and a lot of time to seek out new bands. While the members of Phish had went about to work on their own side projects, I spread my musical roots and went on listening to new music. One of the first jambands I had gotten into while listening to Phish was the String Cheese Incident (SCI). I started listening to them around 1998 when the album ‘Round the Wheel was released. They had won some Jammy awards and I figured they were worth a listen. I really enjoyed what I heard. I bought some other albums and downloaded some shows and got into them, though nowhere near the way I was with Phish. I had also gotten into Trey’s solo work with the Trey Anastasio Band (TAB). The band had grown into a 10 piece group by that point. While these bands are quite different, they are related in my musical growth during the hiatus.

I had gone to see TAB at Great Woods in the summer of 2001 with my then girlfriend (different girl from either of those in Part 1). The scene was similar to a Phish show, but slightly different. People weren’t quite as into it as they were Phish, but it was still a whole lot of fun with all the weirdness that surrounds a Phish show. We had a blast. The Phish community was still pretty intact. Everyone was still friends. The show, while musically not as interesting as a Phish show, was good (though I think David “ZZYZX” Steinberg said it best when he said that TAB would have been better playing 6-8 minute long songs rather than 10-15 minute songs).

I had also, through this girlfriend who was seriously into music, gone to see many other bands during this time. Martin Sexton was one I saw twice. He’s got a great voice and can put on a great show, though, at the time, I felt he needed to mature a bit as a performer. There seemed to be a kind of disconnect between him and the audience.

I had also seen Crosby Stills Nash and Young and Paul McCartney. Both of those shows were really good, but they obviously weren’t the same because they were basically nostalgia acts.

When I found out SCI was coming to Radio City Music Hall in 2002, I had to go. So we went. I didn’t really know what to expect. At the time, the band seemed to be trying to fill the hole that Phish left when then went on hiatus. They were worth checking out. I was excited because I liked their music and I loved the venue. The show started off pretty strong, but went downhill pretty quickly. It had a couple other high parts, but, in general, I was not impressed. The jams all sounded the same. There was no dark/light contrast throughout the show at all. It was all “happy” music. Worst of all, Michael Kang, the lead electric guitarist, sounded as if he was trying to imitate a cross between Trey and Jerry Garcia rather than create his own sound. This bothered me quite a bit as a huge Phishhead and not-so-huge Deadhead. As I said, there were high points. Whenever they played a bluegrass tune and kept it mostly acoustic (Kang also played either fiddle and mandolin), they were spot on and they kicked ass. They also played a cover of the Talking Heads’ Burning Down the House, which could have burned down Radio City it was so good. Unfortunately, though, the majority of what they played was this electric jazzy funky stuff that went nowhere and it all sounded the same. I left extremely disappointed and have since stopped listening to SCI. Every now and then I throw in a CD and try to listen to them. When I do, I’m reminded of how amateurish they really are (again, the exception being the bluegrass). If you have something, build upon it. Don’t try to be what you’re not. That’s the moral of SCI.

In addition to branching out during the hiatus, I also really got into trading and downloading shows. I had lived on campus my last summer at UConn (summer of 2001) and setup an FTP server to allow people to download shows. I discovered Bit Torrent and how people started using that to trade shows. At the time, Bit Torrent wasn’t huge and was mainly used for legitimate purposes, such as trading taper-friendly concert recordings and distributing Linux distributions. During this time, I was more active in an online community called People for a Clearer Phish (PCP). I had discovered them before the hiatus had started. They are a group that got started to get away from trading the analog cassettes that I had mentioned in my previous post. The problem with the cassettes is that they have generational quality issues. Each time you record one, it creates a new generation as you go down the line, slowly degrading the quality. PCP was a group of pioneers who use a file format called Shorten (.shn) to compress the audio and trade it. Shorten is a lossless audio compression scheme, unlike mp3, which will loses data during the compression. The files were huge, about 1 GB per show. When I first got involved, I had no CD burner and could only do a blanks and postage (B&P) type trade. I would send someone the blank CD-R’s and a self addressed stamped envelope and they burned the discs and sent them back to me. Once I got my own burner, I was more actively trading and sending shows to people and helping people out. Once more people had broadband internet connections, this type of snail mail trading died off in favor of FTP hosting and eventually Bit Torrent. PCP became eTree, which started bt.etree.org, a Bit Torrent site full of shows from taper-friendly artists. PCP remained as an email discussion list for Phish. I had many great discussions with many awesome people, including PCP founder Patrick Marshall and ZZYZX, who happened to be a member of the group (there were others who are more well-known Phishheads as well).

Soon enough, rumors started floating around about Phish coming back and a new album. Sure enough, the band was coming back. They quickly recorded their album Round Room, which is about as raw in the studio as you can get (you can hear Trey cough during “Friday” on the album). They also announced their comeback show would be on New Year’s Eve 2002 at Madison Square Garden, followed by a short run at the Hampton Coliseum in early January 2003 and a short 12 date winter tour in February. The hiatus had ended. Phish was back with a new album of new material released before we saw them perform the songs live. This was not normal for Phish. They tended to introduce new songs live before the album was released. No one cared much. Their beloved band had returned. All was right in the world… or was it?

The next article in this series will be about my experience with what will become known as post-hiatus Phish, or later Phish 2.0.