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 recently 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.
Part II of this ongoing series follows last week's first installment. The final part will be published next week.
Two episodes into the Dinner and a Movie series on March 31, 2020, during the setbreak of 07/27/14 at Merriweather Post Pavilion, Phish appeared onscreen in the now familiar format of a four-person digital video call, complete with Trey’s square oriented sideways. They shared their thoughts about the set, as if they were actually watching, and expressed how they were looking forward to “Jennifer Dances.” I was beaming as Phish joked with the same look many of us had when we first started communicating on a Brady Bunch-style split-screen.
What was happening? They took some time to get to the point, but it was soon revealed by Page that they would be debuting their new album, Sigma Oasis, the following day on April 1st, via a live stream record release party. It felt pretty clear they would not be pulling an April Fools’ prank, but the timing made fans naturally suspicious. This was a good opportunity to forget being fooled, and, luckily, they stuck to their word. The following night, the album debuted live on Facebook and Youtube alongside a slideshow by George Loucas of beautiful photos by Rene Huemer, who also took the cover photo of the band outside of The Barn in the Fall of 2019.
Prior to the band’s nine-show Fall 2019 Tour, the band recorded songs that had piled up in recent years. After the pandemic hit, the band realized a special gift simply needed to be boxed and shared. Producer Vance Powell rushed to mix the tracks before businesses shut down and it would soon be forbidden to enter many public buildings. The band added overdubs from home, like layers of Trey’s evermore confident vocals, deeper guitar layers, and Page’s synthesizer washes over songs such as the title track “Sigma Oasis” and “Everything’s Right.” The results were magnificent, one of Phish’s best-sounding records, capturing the organic “live” sound the band has tried to bottle over the years. (Learn more about the recording and production of the album, on Tom Marshall’s 69th episode of Under the Scales podcast where he interviewed Powell.
This was different from Story of the Ghost, Siket Disc, or Round Room where the band turned their studio jams into an album of songs. This was Phish playing with trust gained over the 36 years of playing one another. The sound was something familiar, a closeness the band had been working up to since they returned to the stage in Hampton, Virginia, in March of 2009: effortless Phish rock, sweet and soulful ballads, and in the case of “Everything’s Right” and “Thread,” synth-filled, funky jams. Although all of the songs are credited to Anastasio/Marshall, missing the usual Mike, Page, and Fish contributions, this album flows nicely and highlights all of the band members well. Lyrically, there is consistency in this songwriting partnership and they paint an indelible picture of this time in our lives. In the case of “Evening Song” they were eerily prophetic:
approach the night with caution
no longer shall you roam
when darkness stains the eastern sky
be sure that you are home
So take off, take off, take off your mask
The fear's an illusion, so don't even ask
You're finally weightless, so take to the air
Sigma Oasis, you're already there
“Sigma Oasis” became a song of hope; a dream with no start date, of not only when we would see Phish play this song live again, but when we would all be able to stand next to each other without fear, when indeed everything’s right again. The hope for a future of live music and interaction became an oasis, and for now the album provided a very attractive mirage.
“It’s a lot of drama around taking a giant touring operation and just stopping it,” he says. “It’s not a simple thing at all.” - Trey, Rolling Stone article from April 24, 2020.
On May 1, 2020, as COVID cases exceeded one million and deaths approached 60,000, Summer Tour was postponed until the following Summer of 2021. Generally, the plans just shifted forward a year, but there felt like no guarantee these events would transpire, either. The uncertainty had not dissipated in the least.
Trey was completely sympathetic to others who were struggling, but in regards to his own craft, he offered a unique perspective for musicians and live music fans upset about the lack of live music. It is always fascinating to read Trey's interviews, as he always opens up with an honest portal to his personal philosophies on music. In an April 2020 interview for Rolling Stone, Trey does not shy away from being blunt with his advice to artists in quarantine. He argued that this was a time for creativity, like others in the past who persevered through hardships of life as a musician.
“Well, my feeling is … how do I say this without oversimplifying? I really think this: I have heard some poor-me, woe-is-me, in terms of this industry that we’re in, this world of music creation. What I immediately think is, how naive could you be about music history to not think that this is just another twist and turn. For example, Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave. He had kings to deal with to get money to write. He was an artist and he wrote music that reflected the era that he was in, in whatever medium he had to write, right? Albert King, the greatest blues guitar player who ever walked on planet Earth, was driving around the South in the Fifties, dealing with stuff that none of us will ever even come close to imagining.
You know, a bunch of guys in [New York] when it was burning and poverty-stricken, couldn’t get other instruments, so they invented hip-hop, and it goes on and on! Duke Ellington was driving around in a school bus, sitting up, playing the most elegant music that human beings have ever created in the history of Earth, not sleeping and writing “Take the A Train” in the back of the bus with – who really wrote it? — Billy Strayhorn. Duke Ellington had guys disappear. He’d pull into a town, half his band would run away and get into trouble and never come back. He’d put on the tux, and come out and play this beautiful music in an era when he was dealing with [all of that]. So this is just another one of those things.
“So my feeling is: Get to it, artists! If [New Zealand author] Janet Frame was institutionalized for eight years or something, from what I’ve read, writing, and scratching on the wall, artists have gone through this since the dawn of time. Your job as the artist is … it’s not even a job. It’s food. It’s your life. If this is what it is, then this is what it is. Make do with what you’ve got. This is it now. I love those Phish concerts, and I can’t wait for them to come back. But my generalized feeling is that here we are today. This is where we are. I just get up, and it’s time to make music here then, I guess.”
Trey - Rolling Stone, April 24, 2020.
“Return to normal” is a phrase many of us soon realized is not an acceptable way to articulate the life we are missing. As the tragic and shocking murders in 2020 of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd became headlines alongside the worsening COVID-19 news, the Black Lives Matter movement that began six years earlier gained new momentum in spite of the restrictions on public gatherings. As new cases continued to increase around the world, many of us came together in public spaces across the country (and globally) to collectively face ourselves, our troubled past, and the present, hoping to make a permanent change for the future.
Much like the Me Too movement shifted our collective consciousness to bring attention to sexual violence, this moment crystallized the need to work for racial justice. In June, following Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, many finally left their homes to join marches, protests, and social distance vigils for peace, justice, and urgent change. The world watched as demands were made for an end to police brutality, literally as protestors faced police brutality in many circumstances such as in the streets of New York City.
On June 2, 2020, social media pages across platforms were “blacked out” on a nationwide day of awareness coordinated by the music industry. Phish responded in kind by postponing their scheduled Dinner and a Movie for that night and donated all proceeds for the next week to Color for Change via their WaterWheel Foundation. It is very rare for Phish to speak publicly in unity with anything resembling a political message. Nevertheless, Phish shared where they stood on the issue. They spoke plainly about the problem of systemic racism and the need for solidarity.
On July 29, after a seven-week break between videos, a new song called “...And Flew Away,” appeared on Instagram with Trey’s most “produced” video so far. Half David Bowie/half David Byrne, Trey is wearing a suit, standing in his Rubber Jungle cave, while the floors move in psychedelic patterns and his body twists into spirals. He made subtle gestures as if expressing something beyond words, an embodiment of what Phish does.
Music can change our mood, spark something in the heart, and you get to carry it onwards inside of you. A song can make you forget about your fear from earlier that day and give you a boost of exuberance. As the tempo shifts into a rocking outro, Trey steps out of the rubber jungle window and flies through the city buildings of Manhattan and through the grassy fields of the country, possibly Vermont, maybe Gamehendge, until he eventually soars out into the universe before the frame finally hones in on an eerie black and white photo of a masked swimmer in a river.
The image felt like an announcement, which was confirmed the following day. Trey’s home recordings from March to July 2020 (featuring Fishman drum tracks left over from earlier Phish collaborations) were professionally mixed by Bryce Goggin and compiled for a new album entitled Lonely Trip. The cover was indeed the masked, isolated swimmer by Rene Huemer and photographer Alice Chérie Hansson shot in the river Danube in Vienna. This was the second Phish-related release since the pandemic started, but it would not be the last. The announcement of the album came with a summary by Trey and a dedication to healthcare and essential workers:
Lonely Trip was conceived and recorded in isolation at my home studio (aka Rubber Jungle) during the peak of New York City’s COVID-19 crisis, March – July, 2020. When the lockdown began, I had by chance just completed a weekend songwriting session with my friends and longtime collaborators Tom Marshall and Scott Herman. That session took place March 13th and 14th just as the crisis was beginning in New York, so the themes of fear and isolation were already finding their way into those first songs. By the time I arrived home, the situation in NYC had gotten much worse.
Knowing I wasn’t going to be leaving my apartment for a while, I started working. It felt therapeutic to write. I wanted to connect with our community in some way. The unplanned nature of the recording meant I didn’t have a lot of gear during this process. I had an electric and an acoustic guitar, a small amp, two microphones, some percussion, and two keyboards, including an old Kurzweil with very realistic drum sounds on it. Everything was recorded through a Spire 8-track. Lonely Trip is truly a raw, low-fi recording.
The process of writing songs became a reflective and healing experience. Being able to share these songs instantly with our community via Instagram felt equally profound. It harkened back to my youth, before there was a Phish, when I would write songs and home-record them specifically with the intention of sharing them with my circle of friends via cassette four-track recordings.
As the weeks went by, I worked on improving my recording techniques. I called recording engineers including Ben Collette and Vance Powell to get tips on microphone placement, and I purchased a bass guitar online. I also started tapping into a Dropbox folder with about 30 four-minute drum sequences that I had recorded with Jon Fishman over the last year.
For the previous few Phish albums (including Kasvot Vaxt and Sigma Oasis), I had been experimenting with writing songs, starting with drum beats that I had sung into my phone. Fish and I would go into the studio and record the beats exactly as I had sung them, with Fish launching off in his unique way after a minute or two. I used these beats as building blocks to many of the songs on Lonely Trip, and it explains how I could do a whole album in Rubber Jungle with such good sounding drums. Thank you Fish!
The album was ultimately mixed by my friend Bryce Goggin, and as always, Bryce’s mixes sound incredible. Thank you Bryce!
Lonely Trip was my message in a bottle during this time, and I wish I knew how to properly thank all of you in our community for listening and responding. It meant so much to me. Thank you. Wishing all of you much love and safety during this turbulent time.
This album is dedicated to the heroism of our healthcare and essential workers.
On August 11, Trey debuted the new song “I Never Needed You Like This Before” for a special performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. It not only marked Trey’s first performance out of his home, but it was also Fallon’s first live in-studio performance since the pandemic began, as recent musical performances were usually shot in the artist’s living room. The Roots, Fallon’s house band, provided Trey solid support, performing in Late Night with Conan O’Brien’s Studio 6B where Trey played “Push On To The Day” 19 years earlier. Since the previous New Year’s run, Trey’s hair had grown long, and with bangs in his face, he locked intensely into Questlove’s groove.
After the performance, Trey was jubilant:
“I’m still buzzing after playing with the Roots. Man, I needed that. I don’t know what was better, feeling Questlove’s drums shaking my whole body or watching the crew in the back of the room dancing around while we played.” - Trey, Pitchfork.
This one-off performance was a sort of finale for the Rubber Jungle songs while also providing viewers real hope for a return-to-live musical collaboration. The appearance carried a lot of weight, said best by Fallon post-performance stating, “Oh my goodness. Oh, how I’ve missed live music.”
A couple of weeks later, Trey was photographed in Central Park wearing a mask and holding his acoustic guitar with a small production crew in tow. It was likely during his recording for the Summerstage Jubilee, a free digital concert supporting the Central Park Foundation, which was shared online September 17, featuring his solo acoustic performance of “Everything’s Right” and “More.”
For me personally, the songs on Lonely Trip will always be reminders of that bizarre Covid Summer when I finally started exploring the outside world beyond my block and into Central Park. I was not far away from where these songs were recorded in the Anastasio home. I listened to this album on my headphones as I explored new areas of the park, on high alert for a potential Trey sighting. I never saw Trey but I did find his rock. I love this album, and will always attach it to the joy it brought me when I had nowhere to go but my neighborhood, my extended home.
I suggest going back and rewatching the original Lonely Trip songs’ videos from Instagram as the visuals are simply fun. There are also two songs that didn’t make it onto the Lonely Trip album, “Timeless” and “My World Is My Home.” While you’re at it, start a few videos before “Lost in the Pack,” where two months earlier, before their concert at the Wiltern in Los Angeles, all four Trey Anastasio Band vocalists rehearsed an acapella version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a beautiful and hopeful prelude to the new body of work in a confusing time.
A month after Lonely Trip, Mike announced a new album, Noon, the third by the duo of Gordon and Leo Kottke but first in fifteen years, which was recorded in New Orleans and various parts of Vermont. Jon Fishman played drums on five songs and would join Mike and Kotke in a performance of “The Only One“ via a #PlayAtHome series on A Late Show with Stephen Colbert and a four song setlist for NPR Music's Tiny Desk (home). They were unable to tour for the initial release, but luckily went back on the road in December of 2021.
A couple weeks later Trey announced a new solo band live album Burn It Down, a compilation from the Winter 2020 tour, his last before the shutdown. Mike also released shows from his band’s Winter 2020 tour on LivePhish. Then, on Christmas Day 2020, we were gifted with a new release from Page and Trey called December. These warm and intimate versions mixed and produced by Bryce Goggin of well-known Phish “ballads” were a welcome surprise as the dark days of COVID winter continued to keep many families apart.
Fast forwarding a bit, there would be more releases the following year as well. In the spring, in April 2021, Page announced his third solo release, a new instrumental electronic album, Maybe We’re The Visitors, begun in Iceland before the pandemic and continued in his home studio throughout the rest of the year. Each musical element for these pieces was recorded live in one take as a "response to the epic landscapes, dramatic weather and geologic fury that he experienced in Iceland." (Learn more about it here and in a rare Page interview via Oteil Burbridge’s Comes a Time podcast.)
In May of 2021, the band began a new ongoing curated Live Phish on Long Play vinyl release series, highlighting some of their best jams instead of a regular full live show, starting with “Ruby Waves” from 7/14/19 in Alpine Valley and “Waves” from the 5/6/11 soundcheck in Bethel. In July of 2021, Tedeschi Trucks Band released Layla Revisited (Live at LOCKN') featuring Trey Anastasio, the special set from 8/23/19 at Lockn 2019 when TTB and Trey covered the classic Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs in full.
Not including any Live Phish archival releases, this brings a total of nine Phish-related albums to come out in less than fifteen months, all during the pre-vaccination quarantine.
On July 15, 2020, Trey’s daughter Eliza Anastasio posted an Instagram story of Trey debuting his new machine, a high hat with a purell dispenser, along with the accompanying tune of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and an ecstatic Trey smile… visible even behind a mask.
Later in the day, a photo emerged on Twitter: a shot of Trey, Mike, and Fish in the Barn. There was no other information, but fans could not help but think that they were up to something, even if this came only a couple of weeks after a Relix article where Trey stated he did not want to perform any online concerts.
We got a taste of live Trey from the Fallon show and the Central Park jubilee, and I couldn’t help but think about what Phish’s next move was. Would live Barn sessions be revealed? Would there be more Instagram songs? More albums? Would there be a live Dinner and a Movie? No, Not quite.
But for Labor Day weekend 2020, Phish announced a special triple-feature Dinner and a Movie, with proceeds benefiting the Mockingbird Foundation, who would announce that same weekend 25 unsolicited grants totaling $105,000 for COVID-19 relief to music education organizations across the country! After this episode, already the 23rd, Dinner and a Movie would become a monthly series, rather than the usual weekly presentations. And naturally, there were other rumors…
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