Not many bands can stretch two dozen songs over a three- to four-hour set, while veering from jazzy to groovy to country to psychedelic. Matter of fact, not many bands can even play that long, would want to, or draw fans who would hang through it.
That's just part of what makes Phish such an odd duck in the pop/rock landscape. Add to that that Phish, despite a nearly 30-year history, isn't associated with any big radio jam or classic track, like its forebears, the Grateful Dead, had with "Truckin' " or "Touch of Grey."
None of that has stopped Phish from being one of the few rock bands of its day that can pack a 20,000-capacity venue like the First Niagara Pavilion.
Phish and its hard-traveling phans return there Saturday for the first time since the reunion tour in 2009. It's the 10th show and sixth city on a summer tour that started with a two-night stand in Worcester, Mass., earlier this month.
True to form, the tour is packed with "event" shows. On June 10, it returned to Bonnaroo in Tennessee for only the second time, playing a rainy-night set that will be remembered for country (and psych-rock) legend Kenny Rogers joining them for "The Gambler." The cameo drew mixed reviews from Phish phans, who were divided about the whole show in general. "I don't even count it as a Phish show," one phan posted, arguing that it was more geared toward the general Bonnaroo crowd than the hardcore following.
At Bonnaroo, Phish, one of the Great American Cover Bands (like the Dead), also took on TV on the Radio's "Golden Age" and the Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll." (Among the other songs covered on this tour so far have been Stevie Wonder's "Boogie on Reggae Woman," Bob Dylan's "Quinn the Eskimo," Ween's "Roses Are Free," the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" and Talking Heads' "Crosseyed and Painless.") Billboard listed it as one of the festival's 10 best performances, writing, "Phish dutifully honored the spirit of the festival with noodling guitar solos, hazy harmonies and lock-step drumming." (Every Phish story has to have the word "noodling" in it.)
Last weekend, Phish raided the Atlantic City coastline for three dates at the 142-acre Bader Field landing site that had a festival feel and deep-jam sets geared more to the hardcore base.
While Saturday's is the first Phish show here in three years, frontman Trey Anastasio -- ranked 73rd in Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time" -- has visited the local Phish community two straight Februarys with a 2011 half-acoustic/half-electric show at Stage AE and a gig this year with the Pittsburgh Symphony that demonstrated how symphonic rock should really be done.
For that show, he and his large "band" worked from a score with scant room for improvisation. Normally, Phish makes it an art, and a science, starting with its methodical approach to rehearsal.
"We're the most analytical band, in some ways," Mr. Anastasio told The Believer last year. "We'd talk and talk for hours about this stuff. I see improvisation as a craft and as an art. The craft part is important. There's a lot of preparation and discipline that goes into it just so that, when you're in the moment, you're not supposed to be thinking at all."
The ever-changing set list, he explained, flows out of that improvisation, making every Phish show a fresh adventure.
"Since Phish came back," he said in that same interview, "I'll just walk around backstage and ask everybody, 'What do you want to play?' and people will say, 'Oh, I want to sing this or that,' until I have 30 or 40 songs on a piece of paper. It's like the writing. The set lists are all over the place. A mess. Then we go out onstage and just forget about it. We give a set list to Chris every night and he just laughs and rips it up. We never even play the first song."
PHISH SO PHAR
1983: Trey Anastasio hears Jon Fishman playing drums in his dorm room at the University of Vermont. Joined by guitarists Jeff Holdsworth and bassist Mike Gordon they play their first gig as Blackwood Convention on Halloween weekend in the basement of an ROTC dorm. The set, which includes "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "Proud Mary," is eventually stopped for a spinning of Michael Jackson's "Thriller."
1984: The first official gig as Phish is played in the basement of Slade Hall at UVM in October with a handful of Who songs. Phish also records "The White Tape."
1985: Keyboardist Page McConnell leaves Love Goat and joins Phish.
1986: Mr. Holdsworth reportedly "finds God" and leaves Phish.
1988: Phish records the double album "Junta," which is issued by Rough Trade and later by Elektra in 1992.
1989: Beginning an annual tradition, Phish rings in the New Year with a gig at Boston's World Trade Center Ballroom.
1990: Phish tours Colorado and then hits the Northeast and the South before taking time off to practice and write songs. "Lawnboy" is released in September, featuring such songs as "Squirming Coil," "Reba" and "Bouncing Around the Room."
1991: Elektra signs the band in late November.
1992: "A Picture of Nectar," featuring fan favorites like "Tweezer" and "Chalk Dust Torture," is released in February, and Phish begins a national tour in March, then an opening slot in Europe with Violent Femmes and four shows on the first H.O.R.D.E. tour in July.
1993: The concept album "Rift," produced by Barry Beckett, is released in February. Phish tours throughout the country, headlining amphitheaters.
1994: Phish's popularity as a live band takes off. "Hoist," featuring guest appearances by Alison Krauss and Bela Fleck, is released in March, and Mr. Gordon directs a video for "Down With Disease." A Halloween "musical costume" tradition is born when the band performs the Beatles' entire White Album.
1995: "A Live One" (double CD recorded live, the Clifford Ball, 1994) is released in June. The Halloween tradition continues with a performance of the Who's "Quadrophenia" at the Rosemont Horizon in Chicago.
1996: Phish returns to the studio with Steve Lillywhite and issues "Billy Breathes," which debuts in the Top 10 and prompts Rolling Stone to write that the album "confirms that Phish is not just a jam band from Burlington." The single "Free" enters Mainstream and Modern Rock charts. The band's first two-day festival -- The Clifford Ball -- at a decommissioned Air Force base in Plattsburgh, N.Y., draws between 70,000 and 80,000 people. The "musical costume" is Talking Heads' "Remain in Light."
1997: Ben and Jerry -- the ice-cream guys -- join Phish on stage at Burlington's Flynn Theater to celebrate the debut of Phish Food, a chocolate marshmallow concoction stocked with little fudge fish. Live album "Slip Stitch and Pass" is released in October.
1998: Phish headlines Farm Aid with Willie Nelson, Neil Young, etc., then releases "The Story of the Ghost," its "cow-funk" album, in October. The Halloween show features the Velvet Underground's "Loaded," and two nights later they play "Dark Side of the Moon."
1999: Phish releases the ambient "The Siket Disc" through its website and treks to the Big Cypress Indian Reservation in the Everglades for the Millennium Celebration, part of which is televised on ABC.
2000: "Farmhouse" comes in March, featuring the band's biggest single to date, "Heavy Things" and the Grammy-nominated "First Tube." But there is no summer festival or Halloween show, as the band members pursue solo work.
2002: After a two-year hiatus, Phish plays a New Year's Eve show at Madison Square Garden and releases "Round Room," culled from rehearsal sessions. Phish also makes "SNL" debut.
2003: Summer tour and the first summer festival in four years.
2004: Phish announces its breakup after a run of shows in Las Vegas. First, though, Phish jams with Jay-Z, plays atop the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York and says farewell with a festival in Vermont. The band also releases "Undermind," with a cover resembling the Beatles' "Let It Be."
2008: Phish receives the Jammys Lifetime Achievement Award in May and reunites for a wedding in September.
2009: Phish reunites for three shows (March 6-8) at Hampton Coliseum in Virginia and launches a summer tour at Jones Beach in June, including a stop at Bonnaroo, where the band is joined by Bruce Springsteen. In September, it releases its 11th studio album, "Joy" with producer Steve Lillywhite, featuring the songs "Backwards Down the Line" and "Time Turns Elastic." Over Halloween weekend, Phish plays Festival 8 on the Coachella grounds in Indio, Calif., covering the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main St."
2010: Phish inducts Genesis into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, performing "Watcher of the Skies" and "No Reply at All." The year also includes the release of the movie "Phish 3D," two tours, a gig at the Austin City Limits Music Festival and a Halloween show in Atlantic City featuring the "musical costume" of Little Feat's "Waiting for Columbus."
2011: Phish plays Super Ball IX, a three-day festival in Watkins Glen, N.Y., in July and, in September, its first Vermont gig in four years, raising $1.2 million for flood relief victims.
2012: Phish launches summer tour, which includes Bonnaroo.music
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.