With a new album dropping in June and a summer concert schedule in place, all seemed normal enough in the Phish camp as this week began. But the group shocked fans Tuesday with the announcement that it will break up following a two-day festival in Coventry, Vermont, on August 14-15.
Frontman/guitarist Trey Anastasio wrote on the band's Web site, "We all love and respect Phish and the Phish audience far too much to stand by and allow it to drag on beyond the point of vibrancy and health. We don't want to become caricatures of ourselves or, worse yet, a nostalgia act" (see "Phish To Split — For Good This Time").
Tom Marshall, who co-wrote some of Phish's lyrics, issued a statement on Wednesday in response to the band's decision.
"Of course I'm sad that Phish is breaking up," he said. "It's the end of an incredible era in so many ways. However, I'm incredibly proud and happy for them and more relieved, really, than anything. It's great that they were able to walk away and end on a positive note, because the potential for other, unhappier endings seemed to be increasing."
Josh Baron, executive editor of jam-band specialist magazine Relix, concurred with Marshall. He said signs of the impending breakup were evident after Phish took a two-year break in 2000.
"I think the band's waning enthusiasm and commitment could be seen, in part, in their shortened touring schedules after their hiatus as well as their extensive participation in side and solo projects," he said. "I think ultimately fans and critics will respect their decision to stop playing with their integrity intact. If there's one thing this band has always tried to put first, it's their integrity as vital and creative musicians."
But Phish fans are known to have extremely high, often obsessive expectations for the group. And for many, Phish haven't been themselves for some time. Pop culture aficionados enjoy debating when something ceases to be good: For instance, an entire Web site, "Jump the Shark" (the title references a pivotal "Happy Days" episode), is dedicated to pinpointing the moment TV shows go from great to terrible. So we asked fans, "When, if at all, did Phish jump the shark?"
"I would say it was New Year's Eve 2002," Marni Deutsch, 26, of New Jersey said. "Getting tickets had been stressful for years, but it took blood, sweat and tears to get the Madison Square Garden ticket — only to be disappointed by a mediocre performance. The magic was gone."
Pennsylvanian Tom McNeil, 26, a fan since 1994, cites 2000 as the year Phish jumped, "and they only got it back a few times since."
But for 25-year-old Ryan Sheridan, a Massachusetts fan who started seeing shows in 1994, the answer is "never."
"I will relish the shows I am attending this summer, then deal with whatever emptiness it brings me," he said. "I think it is absolutely ballsy that they are walking away, again, near the height of their awareness in the public consciousness. So while the case can certainly be made that Phish at some point indeed did 'jump the shark,' I just don't think they did."
"Phish could continue to give goose bumps for two more decades," a disappointed Keith Hryckewicz, 37, of New York Mills, New York, said. "They are choosing not to. It's most shameful because I'd always hoped that my son would be a young rookie at shows the way I was with the Grateful Dead."
Marnie Mitchell, 30, got into Phish in 1994. A Deadhead from Oregon, she sees Big Cypress, the millennium festival Phish staged in Florida, as the last great hurrah of her favorite band. "But then Miami happened," she said, referring to the band's four-night New Year's run this past December. "Even with them jumping the shark then, it still didn't stop me from seeing shows," she said. "A major part of my soul died today."
"Big Cypress was the pinnacle event, the pinnacle moment for the band," 27-year-old Tony Reichel of Virginia agreed. "The feelings the band felt as they walked offstage that morning and the feeling that we the fans had was that that could not be topped. I don't know if it was 'jumping the shark,' per se, but we all knew it couldn't be replicated and that things just wouldn't be the same. In 2000," he continued, "they released Farmhouse, toured in support of it, and ended the year with 'the hiatus.' The downhill slide had begun."
Floridian Mario Salazar, 32, started seeing Phish in 1993 and felt the decline began just two years later. "Before then, they were great. After, Trey's head swelled to the size of a watermelon and he quit listening to the other members of the band."
In 1994 Phish released their horn-laden album Hoist. And that was when Matthew Lodgek feels the band began to lose something. "Even though they were playing at the top of their game then, the amazing songwriting was already gone," the 30-year-old Maine resident said.
Larry Penoza of Seattle feels differently. "They jumped the shark sometime in 1998, as I saw it," he said. He called 2000 "a bust," but like many diehard fans, he still believes the band's lows were higher than the best many other bands could offer. "At any time, they were able to jam like nobody else when the fuse lit. Even if for just a few minutes, they could always find a place to jam. But that fire of creation like they had from '93 to '95 was completely unlike anything," he noted, "with the exception of late '97."
Longtime fan Jesse Jarnow, 25, is a bit more forgiving. "Phish didn't quite jump the shark, but on occasion — when they lost interest in playing their older stuff and couldn't get excited about the new tunes — it sure seemed as if they were angling to charge the ramp," the Brooklyn-based journalist said.
Brian Fischer, 21, of Salt Lake City agreed. "I don't think Phish officially 'jumped the shark,' if you will," he said. "I started seeing the band in 1997, and the energy was totally different. The vibe was incredible and it made you feel like you were a part of the show — like you being there somehow personally affected what was being played, like they were playing to you and everyone else directly. Crazy. The energy changed after Big Cypress and they knew that they could not top themselves. Summer 2000 went downhill.
"I think the hiatus was a great move to help revitalize the band," he continued. "It is really sad that they aren't having fun anymore, because we all sure are."