Friday, October 30, 2009

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. | Phish and crew bustle about Shoreline Amphitheatre’s backstage area, a sprawling patio where memories of raging parties from bygone tours linger.

Hours before a recent show, the scene is markedly different. Voices and footfalls carry across the expanse of empty picnic tables. A baby stroller clatters across wooden planks. As afternoon slants into evening, a ruckus finally kicks up: the clip-clop of a ping-pong game between Trey Anastasio and his teenage daughter.

“Fifteen-love,” says the Phish guitarist.

To understand why the touring jam-band juggernaut broke up for nearly four years — only to resurface with a stunning depth of clarity in live performances, its strongest album yet and an ambitious festival slated for this weekend — measure this family-centered serenity against the colossal traveling party the band members left behind.

“We used to have a lot of people hanging around, and it was a crazy scene backstage — crazy,” Mr. Anastasio says later, between sips of tea. “I remember being here, a number of times, and you couldn’t get through. There were literally hundreds of people, all the time. Everywhere.”

The scene was a symptom of a lifestyle the band members knew they couldn’t sustain. So, after 20 years on the road together, they staged a farewell blowout in Coventry, Vt., in 2004, their seventh massive festival. It began with a freakish downpour and ended with the emotionally shattered band flubbing and struggling to say goodbye. More than four years after the split, Phish roared back to life in March with an electrifying three-night reunion stint in Hampton, Va., followed by a summer tour chock-full of bootleg-worthy shows.

The band’s new album, “Joy,” released last month, was critically lauded for its musical and lyrical maturity and refreshed, live-show-inspired sound. On Friday, Phish completes its comeback victory lap with the kickoff of Festival 8, a three-night marathon of sets in Indio, Calif., on the same grounds where the Coachella music festival is held. A fall tour will follow.

Though it would seem Phish, back at full blast, could risk relapse into old habits, the band agreed on a number of changes that have made its rebirth possible. For one, the number of dates the band plays has been scaled back; for another, the band mates have kept their pact to put families first, even on the road.

That means lots of children backstage — seven in the Phish family so far, most of them on tour — and not so much the hundreds of hangers-on that snowballed out of control through the years. As Mr. Anastasio likes to point out, there were 3,500 people on the guest list at Phish’s “farewell” show in 2004. At the reunion show this year, there were 10 — “and seven of them were under the age of 13.”

“It’s just a very nice vibe,” says bassist Mike Gordon. “And the music has been feeling really good as a result. I had no idea whether removing the party element would make it sterile or something — but the opposite happened, where it feels like we have extra consciousness left over to jam harder. It feels like a great era — it’s the beginning of the rest, like we’re in it for the long haul again.”

For his part, keyboardist Page McConnell says he always figured Phish would take up the cause anew and spent his off-time well to that end: Serious study of classical piano and a solo album built extra muscle behind his chops, giving the band more balance through which to hear complex interplay in the middle register.

“I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to come back a little bit staler — I’d like to come back better,’” Mr. McConnell says. “But I really feel it from all of us; the way we’re listening to each other, and the way we’re communicating, we really make each other sound good.”

Working with a vocal coach has also borne fruit for Mr. Anastasio and Mr. Gordon: On “Joy,” the quirky, isn’t-this-silly singing style has been all but abandoned. It’s probably no coincidence that Steve Lillywhite, who produced “Billy Breathes,” a vocally strong and widely cherished Phish studio recording from 1996, also produced the new album.

“I told them, ‘Look — this record is your first in a few years, you’re all in a good space … you just need to be you,’” he recalls. “I really felt like this was a new band. They were very relaxed, and I think one of the reasons was, they have these memories of the ‘Billy Breathes’ sessions, of me just coming in and taking a great weight off their shoulders.”

Whatever the reason, everything about Phish feels lighter this time around. Even the selection of the Empire Polo Fields for Festival 8 was made in part to ease the usual traffic- and weather-related headaches that plagued Phish festivals past: The Coachella site is cool and dry in October; there’s plenty of lodging nearby; and there are plenty of roads leading into the place.

Perhaps the most pressure for Phish will be pulling off its Halloween “costume” surprise, a tradition of covering a classic album by another artist on Halloween night. (Mr. Anastasio was understandably cagey about his choice — but “Thriller” notably was still in the running, according to a process-of-elimination interactive on the band’s Web site.) Whatever the band mates decide to do, Mr. Anastasio says, it’ll be more fun than the last time.

“It is more fun. It’s so much more fun. And it’s hard to believe that, because it was really fun for quite some time. But … it’s fun to let [it] all go, and just kind of ride the wave again.”

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