Trey Anastasio, guitarist for the rock band Phish, was offering a savage critique of a recent show. He was flaying his own performance on a song from the night before, when Phish played the first of two sold-out shows at the Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts in Mansfield, Mass.
“I was listening to what I was playing and thinking, ‘God, this is totally awful,’ ” he said to Mike Gordon, Phish’s bassist, over lunch in a Boston restaurant. “Then I listened to how I was singing the lyrics, and I thought, ‘God, this is awful, too.’ ” He shook his head, appalled but grinning. “I’m never doing that song like that again.”
Over the past 12 years, Phish’s devotion to what it calls its “musical evolution” - especially in its generous, anything-goes live shows - has been instrumental in transforming a college-circuit cult band into one of rock’s most popular grass-roots success stories.
In 1994 the band did $10.3 million in ticket sales, landing it among the industry’s top 50 grossing acts. Phish’s five-album catalog on Elektra sold more than 500,000 units, without the benefit of a Top 40 single and with only minimal exposure on MTV.
The band capped off its year with its debut on “Late Night With David Letterman,” followed by a Madison Square Garden show that sold out in four hours.
This year has been equally bountiful. The band’s recent summer tour, which concluded July 3, played to packed houses from Colorado to Vermont.
Phish’s new double album, “A Live One,” was released June 27 and entered the Billboard chart at No. 18, with sales of almost 50,000 its first week. The band paid a return visit to “Letterman” two weeks ago, and rock culture’s flagship magazines, Rolling Stone and Spin, are planning their first feature articles on the band. Add more radio play and a growing pool of listeners, and Phish is suddenly one of the most talked-about bands of the summer.
If Gordon and Anastasio seem unfazed by it all, it is perhaps because Phish is anything but an overnight success. “It might seem sudden, but we’ve been at this for 12 years,” said Anastasio.
Gordon added that the band has made it a point to exercise caution when it comes to cultivating its popularity. “We didn’t want to grow too much or too quickly,” he said.
What seems to buoy Phish through the band-on-the-verge hoopla is a genuine commitment to its music. “When we first got together, we talked a lot about our vision of the band and how we wanted to continue to grow musically,” said Gordon. Anastasio nodded and completed the thought: “And we’re still talking about our vision of the music. It’s a constant thing. It never goes away.”
The music that Phish - Gordon, 29; Anastasio, 30; keyboardist Page McConnell, 32, and drummer Jon Fishman, 30 - continues to discuss is a particularly elastic strain of jazz-infused rock, with an improvisational slant that encompasses everything from classical to calypso. It is by turns amusing, weird and sublime, and has drawn mixed critical comparisons to music of the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa and Sun Ra.
In concert, Phish offers its legions of young listeners the possibility that anything can happen. At a marathon three-set show last fall in Glens Falls, N.Y., for instance, Phish’s second set was a start-to-finish cover of the Beatles’ “White Album.”
A Phish show is an event - part musical exploration, part neo-hippie spectacle, part ironic sendup of larger-than-life rock concert conventions. (When the band led the 20,000-strong Great Woods crowd in a soulful, hands-above-your-head arm wave to a song with the lyrics “The tires are the things on your car that make contact with the road,” nobody blinked.)
Some fans can’t get enough; in recent years, a ragtag army of “tourheads” has taken to following Phish from show to show, Grateful Dead-style.
That fan base has given Phish leverage in its dealings with Elektra. Concert revenues continued to climb throughout 1994, a fact that helped Phish sell Elektra on the idea of making its next release a live album that captured the energy and inventiveness of its shows.
The result, “A Live One,” which Phish produced itself, contains more than two hours of music, recorded during its 1994 fall tour, with songs up to a half-hour in length.
How much bigger Phish could get is anybody’s guess, but it is already big enough to be a cultural target of sorts. “I wish I was a Phish sticker/’Cause then I would be everywhere,” sings the Burlington band Chin Ho! on its song “Sticker,” a mocking reference to the pyschedelic Phish bumper stickers that are ubiquitous in college towns.