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POP MUSIC : Who'll Wear the Mantle of the Dead? : The scene looks familiar, but those aren't Deadheads--they're Phish Heads and fans of other jam-happy bands proudly embracing the Dead's legacy of musical improvisation and free-spirited community.

October 29, 1995|Chuck Crisafulli | Chuck Crisafulli is a regular contributor to Calendar

It's a familiar rock 'n' roll scene outside the Greek Theatre as hundreds of eager fans mill about in the crisp night air, hoping to score a ticket to a sold-out show.

The hair tends to be long and the shirts tie-dyed. Hacky Sacks are being kneed and toed, and handicrafts are peddled. The rhythms of impromptu drum circles energize the atmosphere--which is thick with the smell of pot and incense.

These are the same sights, sounds, smells and hopes that have surrounded innumerable Grateful Dead shows since the late '60s. Deadheads made each concert a communal, psychedelic event, often traveling with the band from city to city and show to show.

But the headliner is not the Dead, it's Phish, the Vermont-based quartet that during the last decade has built its own group of remarkably dedicated fans--called, of course, Phish Heads.

Because of the band's penchant for heady improvisation, its disregard for music industry business as usual and its wildly devoted fans, Phish is one band that has been often cited as an affirmative answer as rock fans and industry observers begin to wonder: Can anybody ever replace the Grateful Dead?

Of course there won't ever be another Grateful Dead, just as there won't be another Beatles. But with the future of America's foremost psychedelic institution uncertain after the death in August of guitarist Jerry Garcia, a thriving group of younger, Dead-influenced bands is carrying on the free-spirited philosophy and the sense of community that surrounded the Dead.

Along with Phish, the bands most often identified with this informal movement include Blues Traveler, the Spin Doctors, Widespread Panic and the Dave Matthews Band.

There are some clear signs of the Dead's musical influence in the work of all of these bands, but each has also managed to develop its own distinctive sound and its own set of devoted fans. Perhaps the strongest link between these bands and the Dead is a love of touring and live performance.

That love has turned into big business. Phish, for instance, grossed more than $10 million on a 99-show tour last year.

Many of those Phish tickets were undoubtedly bought by some fans who would consider themselves both Phish Heads and Deadheads, but it would be wrong to assume that the bands' fans and music are interchangeable.

"For us first-generation [Dead] fans, the Dead were the backdrop for everything important in our lives over the last 30 years," says Toni A. Brown, publisher and editorial director of Relix magazine, which for two decades has chronicled the Grateful Dead phenomenon.

"Phish or Blues Traveler won't replace the Dead. But using the Dead as a jumping-off point, they're taking the music to an even higher level. And that celebration of music is definitely worth being a part of."

The members of Phish have heard themselves being compared to the Dead since they began playing together in the mid-'80s, but they are understandably uneasy with the notion of being seen as the heir apparent.

Still, they freely admit their fondness for the Dead's music and its influence.

"The Dead were hugely important to American music," says Trey Anastasio, Phish's guitarist, in an interview before the Greek show. "They showed that rock 'n' roll music could be used as a builder of community and that it could offer a journey into some kind of dreamland that the band and an audience could share. That's an approach that Phish has definitely embraced."


From the first ringing note to the last crescendo three hours later at the Greek Theatre show, the crowd is on its feet, with hundreds dancing in the peculiar boneless fashion that has possessed fans of the Dead for 30 years. As recognizable songs emerge from surging improvisations, applause builds and the dancing becomes even more frantic.

Phish never plays the same show twice, and much excited fan discussion before and after the show centers on the performance of rarely heard Phish songs or particularly striking outside material. This night, fans get a barbershop rendition of "Sweet Adeline" and a soaring, set-ending version of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life."

Since the group's humble beginnings playing happy-hour gigs in Vermont taverns, the members of Phish have mainly concerned themselves with putting on a live show that would speak to whatever audience they could play for.

Drawing from influences such as King Crimson, Frank Zappa and Sun Ra as well as the Dead, they have forged a style that relies on complex song structure, superior musicianship and the organized chaos of group improvisation. They have also eschewed any standard commercial considerations of the music biz, instead taking a grass-roots approach and winning fans one van tour at a time.

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