As Phish prepare to release ''Fuego,'' their first studio album in five years, an EW writer examines the enduring appeal of the jam-rock gods — and reflects on the roots of his high school phan-dom


As a rule, I do not care for jamming. Whenever it happens during a concert, I suddenly become the Emperor from Amadeus: ”Too many notes!” That wasn’t always the case, though. Despite my early punk-rock indoctrination, scrawling Clash lyrics on my seventh-grade-French binder and dressing like Joey Ramone, from 1995 until 2000 I was a total Phishhead. I tracked set lists, traded bootleg tapes, argued over different versions of ”Chalk Dust Torture,” and replaced f with ph in my AOL profile.

That’s not remarkable in and of itself, but since I was also straight-edge at the time (meaning I eschewed all drugs and alcohol), the so-called ”scene” didn’t particularly interest me — mostly because it seemed more about selling grilled cheese sandwiches to pay for hash than unlocking the secrets of ”Wilson.” But as any Phishhead worth his puka-shell necklace knows, the main draw of the band has always been the live shows. They took the tradition of the Grateful Dead and added pre-Internet nerdiness: There were code words, references embedded within references, even a mythological rock opera that never got performed. For an obsessive kid who loved getting lost in the minute details of everything from film noir to French existentialism, Phish offered another universe to conquer. I couldn’t understand why people would get stoned at Phish shows — to me, the only real way to experience the band was to be completely alert at all times, just in case an audience chess move broke out or drummer Jon Fishman decided to solo on the vacuum cleaner.

My Phish phan-dom waned once I got to college, primarily because the women I wanted to date were not into them. (Priorities.) ”Free” still showed up on my iPod every so often, and I once put the back half of ”My Friend, My Friend” on a mixtape for somebody and told her it was Steely Dan, but I was essentially living a Phish-free existence. And so were the band’s members: After 2004’s Undermind, they took an extended hiatus, returning only to record 2009’s Joy. With the arrival of Fuego, their first release in five years, I wondered: Would new material reawaken my desire to own a pair of hemp shorts? With fresh ears and a deep sense of history, I dove in.

The Phish albums I loved, especially 1996’s Billy Breathes, served primarily as sketches for the real experience, the shows. But Fuego is the opposite: a studiously constructed play for classic-rock transcendence that feels bigger, brighter, and cleaner than anything else they’ve ever done. Listening, I realized my interest in Phish has flipped; today I’m way more fascinated by the culture surrounding the band than what they have to say musically. That’s not a knock on Fuego, which is largely great, but no product they release will ever be able to match the scope of their impact as a juggernaut that hosts its own festivals and inspires devotees to build minor cities in amphitheater parking lots. It’s always been about more than just four dudes telling sonic jokes to each other, which is something I never fully grasped when I was frantically tracking down the legendary bootleg from Providence ’94. I didn’t outgrow Phish — Phish outgrew me.

Best Tracks:
Devotion To A Dream
A bluesy CCR-esque shuffle
The Line
A surrealistic prog trip