JMT’s Take: The Return Of Phish and The Grateful Dead (no, you’re not reading the wrong blog)

The two biggest jam bands in the world are both touring the U.S. this summer. Biff Bam Pop contributing writer JMT explores where they fit into the world of pop culture.

A couple of my favorite bands are hitting the road this spring and no one besides their fans have noticed. I don’t consider myself a fan of either Vanilla Ice or MC Hammer, but I know they’re playing a double bill in Utah on February 27. The Grateful Dead were one of the highest grossing touring bands of all-time; they sold out stadiums and made millions long before the era of the $100 ticket. The surviving members aren’t the same draw without Jerry Garcia, but all the post-Garcia incarnations of the Dead have put on profitable summer tours of amphitheaters across the United States. They have kept the Grateful Dead’s music alive among a certain set of high-school and college students, even if they haven’t kept the band relevant in the pop-culture consciousness, that vague amorphous collection of shared North American cultural knowledge.

Since many people who have never heard the band’s music recognize their logos and are familiar with the stereotypes of the band’s fans, a pop-culture analysis seems worthwhile. In the pop-culture consciousness, the Grateful Dead have been calcified as an image of their commercial peak, typified in the video for Touch of Grey (or more specifically the annotated version that aired on VH-1’s “Pop-Up Video”; the average deadhead spends $2000 on the band… Bob Weir hates tie-dye). Because almost no one besides the Dead’s fans is even aware that they are touring this spring, the tour has almost zero pop-culture significance.

Phish has long been compared to the Grateful Dead, mostly because college students gravitated to them in the mid-90’s as the former played more dates while the latter played fewer and fewer, and because the fans of both bands often dressed and smelled alike. From 1995 onward, Phish carried the mantle as the punch-line for pot jokes. They received mainstream media attention comparable to other bands selling out sheds and arenas, but they never had a hit song on the radio or a hit video in rotation on MTV. And yet, they never cemented themselves into the pop-culture consciousness in the way that the Grateful Dead had done. If people who have never heard Phish’s music can recall anything about the band, they will likely make a general comparison to the Grateful Dead.

This pop-culture association between Phish and the Grateful Dead was hoisted on Phish by a lazy mainstream media. The rub is that the comparison is only useful in the sense of the bands’ respective pop-culture identities. There are few actual similarities between the music they perform. The comparison was a burden for Phish in its formative (1991-1995) years, as they strove to create an identity and establish a national fanbase. It was only in 1999, after Phish had hit its stride as an arena act that they established a working relationship with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead.

In April 1999 Phish members sat in with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s band for three shows at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, and then invited Lesh onstage with them a few months later at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, Ca. Since then the two bands have embraced their relationship, with members of each appearing together onstage in numerous different configurations. However, this cross pollination has done little to change the pop-culture understanding of these two bands. Instead of emphasizing the differences between the musicians’ individual skills and varied approaches to improvising, performing onstage together has given credence to that simplistic pop-culture stereotype of Phish being little more than the heirs to the Grateful Dead’s legacy.

Jay-Z provides us with a practical example of the respective place of both the Grateful Dead and Phish within the pop-culture consciousness. In June 2004 when Phish played a show in Brooklyn he joined them on stage for two songs, 99 Problems and Big Pimpin’(watch the video here. It still gives me chills). Jay-Z is one of the most recognizable recording artists on the planet, but his pairing with Phish barely made a ripple in the mainstream press. Would Jay-Z’s fans have cared more if he sat in with the Dead? Probably not. But when he name checked the Grateful Dead on the Black Album, his fans probably got his meaning.

I see the disparity between the places of these bands within pop-culture as endemic of the larger problems facing the music industry. Even without the necessary data at my finger tips, I’m confident that there aren’t a lot of bands headlining arenas and sheds that weren’t doing the same ten years ago. The problem for the industry is that there is no new wave of bands coming up behind the ones that are successful now, which will lead to a serious decline as these artists eventually stop touring.

As usual, the interest of the industry and the interest of the fan do not precisely line up. Ideally, the industry would replicate the existing model of large heavily promoted acts that can profitably tour sheds across the country. Arguably the fan is better served by artists recognizing the upward limit of their appeal and then catering to their core, rather than by making decisions intended to bring in new fans. The downside of this approach is that it further cements music into little niches at the fringes of pop-culture. For artists it’s only a problem if they’re niche is not large enough to sustain their standards of living.

As for me, I’m cautiously optimistic that Phish’s second restart will be yield better results than its first. I have tickets to some shows and high hopes that gainful employment won’t prevent me making it to Bonnaroo where they headlining two nights. As for the Dead, if they can conjure the same fire they had in October when they did a benefit for Obama, they might justify the prices they are charging for tickets (barring further major declines in the world economy), but catching them once this spring will be plenty for this lineup.

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