In August of 2000 the Todd Phillips-directed Phish movie, Bittersweet Motel was released featuring footage and interviews captured in 1997 and 1998. To date it remains the only feature-length documentary about the band. Much has changed since the film’s release in the world of Todd Phillips (who has since added Old School and The Hangover to his directing resume) and certainly in the world of Phish. After forcing my roommate to sit down for his first-ever viewing of the flick, I was inspired to put together this list of 10 aspects of the film that would seem out of place in today’s Phish world. If you haven’t watched it in years, I recommend it – I always get a kick out of my repeated viewings.
1) Boozing: Whether it’s the wasted footage from New Year’s Eve 1997, the casual beer drinking at tour rehearsal or Mike looking like he is about to fall over while the band runs through Roses Are Free before its first performance in Rochester – the inebriation present in the late ’90s isn’t found anywhere near the backstage of a Phish show these days.
2) Brad Sands: “5th band member” lighting designer Chris Kuroda and sound engineer and builder of Trey’s guitars Paul Languedoc make mere cameos in the film. Tour manager Brad Sands, however, is all over it. Whether he’s cutting heads off of fan photo opportunities or dodging objects thrown by Trey, Sandsio co-stars in the movie, yet has not been a permanent member of the Phish crew since 2004.
3) Ticket Prices: While discussing the “bad reviews” both Trey: “Somebody comes and they pay their twenty dollars,” and Fishman: “They only have to pay twenty two bucks to get theirs ears urinated in,” mention the price of attending a Phish concert. Twenty dollars, wouldn’t that be something? Even accounting for inflation, $20 in 1998 is only supposed to be in the neighborhood of $30 in 2011. Then again, look at the price of gas on the way to The Great Went.
4) The Rolling Stone: Sitting backstage discussing the counter-culture nature of Phish’s popularity, Trey says, “We’re basically, completely off the radar – we’re not in the media. When Rolling Stone prints up their ‘Who’s on tour’ list, we’re not in it. Of course, you know. So we’re just, completely…nobody’s paying any attention.” Since then Phish has graced the cover of The Rolling Stone and the music rag writes about them all the time.
5) Festival Attendance: “The tour ends with a two-day concert in Limestone, Maine. 70,000 fans show up.” In an interesting juxtaposition to #4, despite Phish’s heightened love from the mainstream media, attendance at Phish festivals has been significantly lower, with the official tally from Super Ball to be in the neighborhood of 40,000 attendees with Festival 8 rumored to be significantly lower than that.
6) Digital Cameras: The gag with Brad Sands intentionally cutting the heads off of fans seeking photos with the band members would never fly in the binary world. Since Bittersweet Motel, not only have we lived through the popularization of digital cameras, but now the majority of concertgoers have one on their phone.
7) Europe: “Later in the year Phish goes to Europe to play small clubs” a title card displays after Trey stabs a final gigantic New Year’s Eve balloon with the headstock of his guitar. Phish has not returned since 1998, though many fans would jump at the opportunity should the band schedule future shows in a foreign land.
8) Anniversary Confusion: In a hilarious interview with Fishman and Trey on the tour bus, the band reflects on the first time they played in front of people. The exact dates and locations of the first gig has long been a bit of confusion but on the new phish.com show notes, Phish’s archivist Kevin Shapiro finally set the record straight,
Phish (Trey Anastasio, Jon Fishman, Mike Gordon and Jeff Holdsworth) was called “Blackwood Convention”. This was their 1st show – a semi formal Christmas dance in Mike’s dorm commonly mistaken by the band to be 10/30/83 (including in the Phish book, Bittersweet Motel and onstage 10/30/98). A hockey stick was used as a microphone stand. This show included the 1st performances of: Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress (The Hollies cover sung by Jeff), Proud Mary (John Fogerty cover sung by Trey), In The Midnight Hour (Wilson Pickett cover sung by Jeff), Squeeze Box (The Who cover sung by Trey), Roadhouse Blues (The Doors cover sung by Jeff), Scarlet Begonias (Grateful Dead cover sung by Trey), and Fire On The Mountain (Grateful Dead cover sung by Trey). The “soundcheck” jam was performed in front of the audience. Happy Birthday was sung by Trey to Sue three times before the band took a long break. After the break, Trey said something like “you guys are so excited about our music” and bantered with Sue in a friendly confrontation. Someone put a Michael Jackson “Thriller” tape on the stereo and Trey played drums along to Billy Jean and Human Nature. After teasing Good Lovin’ and Beat It, Trey said “Big surprise now, more Michael Jackson” and noodled around a bit more before the show and recording ended. This was, of course, the band’s 1st performance at UVM. [12/02/83]
9) The Grateful Dead: “The rest of that review, the guy says ‘You know they want to be like The Grateful Dead – but they’re not.’ You know, The Grateful Dead did this…I’m not The Grateful Dead, I don’t care if The Grateful Dead had that you know. There’s aspects of the Grateful Dead that I love, there’s aspects of you know Boston that I love…” This is where we see Trey most on edge while discussing Phish’s music. With the band’s stock still on the rise and Jerry Garcia having been gone for only two years, Phish in 1997 were reluctant to embrace the comparison. Since then Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann have all joined the band onstage, Phish covered Terrapin Station at Virginia Beach 1998, Trey and Page joined Phil Lesh for one of the first lineups of Phil Lesh & Friends in 1999 and Trey and Mike have repeatedly sat in with Phil, including co-billing on the 2006 GRAB/Phil & Friends tour.
Growing even more comfortable, Gordon told Scott Bernstein right here on Hidden Track, “Well y’know playing Dead songs had been taboo for us for many years because of having too many comparisons with the Grateful Dead, especially early on. Eventually people realized ‘oh it’s a little bit of a different sound’ but clearly they were a huge influence on us. Anyway, it wasn’t only taboo to play Dead songs but also to play certain rhythms that the Dead played a lot. Like the Not Fade Away one for starters. Even playing a country song with a shuffle beat was off-limits for Phish because the Dead did it so well.”
Now, not only is embracing this influence acceptable, the band will even do it intentionally. Phish lyricist Tom Marshall told jambands.com that the song Alaska, “…had a ‘Tennessee Jed,’ Grateful Dead kind of vibe going on there. I think we wrote it in Saratoga Springs in Trey’s apartment when he was staying up there. I just remember really—that was one, again, we wrote together. I think the challenge to ourselves was ‘Let’s just write a happy, funny, ‘Tennessee Jed’ kind of story with a swing to it.’ And that’s what we did. That was our take on that sort of thing.”
10) Feelings on Messing Up Songs: “I couldn’t fucking care less if we miss a change, or a number of changes” Trey tells Phillips in a quote that makes some Phish fans uneasy. While Phish will still never win any awards for world’s tightest band, Trey now claims to care. “The problem is that some of the songs are so complicated that, if we don’t run it beforehand, then it sucks and there’s lots of self-flagellation. Like, ‘Oh my god, I messed up Peaches en Regalia.’ You know? Which is exactly what happened when we played it last time. I felt terrible,” he told The Believer.