Perhaps no band or its fanbase is more derided than Phish. They’re divisive, to say the least. Only that doesn’t quite cover it. If you don’t get it, you really don’t get it, and non-fans usually aren’t very quiet about their distaste. Plus, opinions based on sweeping generalizations are the easiest kind to make, and people are lazy. So, instead of falling into that trap, in advance of the band’s three weekend shows at Randall’s Island, we reached out to a couple of very smart people we know who really, really love Phish and asked them to explain the band’s appeal to those who may turn up their nose.
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Felicia D’Ambrosio and Nick Cajas are a couple of Phish devotees who are quite convincing in their case that a Phish concert is a grand place to be. She’s a former food writer and current communication chief for CookNSolo, the group behind incredible Philadelphia-based (but not for long prob) restaurants Zahav, Percy Street Barbecue, and Federal Donuts. Nick works in social media marketing. We asked them both why they love Phish so much, and damned if they didn’t make it — the band, their concerts, the community of Phans, the whole Phish experience — sound like a lovely, nonjudgmental space many people could benefit from visiting. Haters be damned.
When did you first see Phish live?
Nick Cejas: July 1, 1994, at the Mann Music Center (now called The Mann Center for Performing Arts) in Philadelphia
Felicia D’Ambrosio: July 10, 1999 at the E Center (now called the Susquehanna Bank Center) in Camden NJ.
Did anything immediately stand out to you when first seeing them? What about the show made them, pardon the bad pun, get their hooks into?
NC: The energy. The suspense, the risk-taking, the feeling like you are watching somebody tightrope walk across a pit of snakes without a net. And them making it across the tightrope cartwheeling and flipping all the time. Their artistry is so refined that they can control the energy of the crowd, and sway it from blissful serenity to furious frenzy with a tasteful modulation or a seamless segue.
FD: Right away the weirdness of the parking lot caught my attention, since I went to my first show having not heard any Phish at all. When the show started I was gobsmacked by the power of the music and couldn’t believe such a thing existed. It was like going to the circus and finding out it was actually where you were born and you are finally home. I didn’t have to think about it or acquire a taste for it. The first song of my first show was a “Chalkdust Torture” that is still regarded as one of the best versions of the song ever played, and figured largely in the 30 year montage the band created for the New Year’s Eve show at MSG this year.
How many times have you both seen Phish?
FD: Not sure of exact number. I think I got a count last year of 80-ish?
NC: [shrugs] Over a hundred? How many drops of water are in the ocean? It doesn’t matter. What matters is I’m going to the next show.
Are you as devoted to any other band as you are Phish?
FD: No. If it were 1969 I’d be following Led Zeppelin around though.
NC: No other band that tours as much as Phish is personally worth my devotion. In context, the other bands I’ve seen the most are Primus, The Who, Paul McCartney, and Slayer, each fewer than 20 times.
A common criticism of the band among those who hate them is that its fan base is too blasted on drugs to hear the band anyway. What do you say to that?
NC: I’m not in the business of converting people. How do you know what someone’s else’s perception is? I strongly suggest you stay away from Phish. It seems like your soul is too crushed by life to appreciate fun. Not that being too blasted is a good thing at all, it’s not. One must be prudent in blast, yes.
FD: I’m no evangelist nor apologist. Humans have been altering their experience with anything we could get our digits on since we flopped out of the ooze. There’s tons of stuff in the world I don’t care for much, but if you like it and it’s not hurting people, have at it. Haters are tedious.
Nick, you play bass, and many of the Phish-heads (is that what they’re called … OMG DID I JUST COIN A PHRASE?) I know happen to also be musicians. Talk to me about Phish’s musicality if you could. Is there something about their songs/music that appeals to people who can actually play an instrument?
NC: All four guys are tremendous virtuosos that dedicated countless hours to mastering not just music, but achieving the goal of every great musician: possessing a singularity in sound; a voice that is uniquely yours. Each of the four guys uniquely sounds like themselves.
As Phish Phans (DID I DO IT AGAIN?), you’ve both probably had some asshole turn his nose up upon mentioning your like of the band. Tell us your best Phish hater story.
NC: I don’t concern myself with haters. If you like Phish, great, if you don’t, please get out of my dancing space, I have some groovy moves I want to bust.
FD: Nothing much stands out. I do take shit from some of my co-workers, and Twitter followers for tweeting about Phish during tour etc., but it’s pretty good natured. Jeff Ziga from Little Baby’s Ice Cream once said my tweets about Primus and Phish amused him because I have the musical taste of a college freshman. Today he posted that Phish were the tits because they hired Little Baby’s to cater the backstage at the Mann Center shows.
How do you take that kind of thing? Are you able to laugh it off, or is it irritating. Why for either?
FD: Giant shrug.
Anything you’d like to add about Phish — the community, common misconceptions, anything that will enlighten non-fans?
FD: Every time I see the band, my soul is filled up with love and happiness. Though the world is a fucked-up place, we find a little utopia with our friends on tour, and then are recharged and can take a little of that loving kindness and acceptance into the real world with us. Phish is the one place you can wear whatever you want, dance like a total dork, and be free. I hope everyone has something in their life, no matter what is it, that makes them feel that way.
NC: It goes deeper than just Phish. It’s music as a whole that is important, what speaks to your soul, what moves your spirit and animates imagination. A feeling of Freedom in the truest sense. These are things that scare the criminals in power. Frank Zappa perfectly stated, “Music is the best.” Phish provides this feeling on a level that remains unchallenged for my taste.
Phish perform three shows this weekend, July 11 – 13, at Randall’s Island.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 11, 2014