As anticipation builds for the Grateful Dead‘s five Fare Thee Well concerts and the Phish summer tour, the somewhat dormant yet long-running discussion and comparison of the two bands has been awakened. The two legendary groups are forever linked by their similarities, including a hugely dedicated fanbase, roots in guitar-driven American music and their respective improvisational live shows, where they encourage fans to record and share the concerts.
With Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio joining the core four for the upcoming shows to honor the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary, we dove deep into the catalog to find five Phish songs that could pass for the Grateful Dead.
A Phish rarity that has been performed only 40 times since its debut in 1990, “Destiny Unbound” was written by bassist and vocalist Mike Gordon and has a distinct, laid-back Grateful Dead vibe. The band carefully chooses when to bust out this gem, which is part of the allure of the track. In fact, Phish went 12 years without playing it (between 1991 and 2003), before dusting it off at Nassau Coliseum in New York on February 28, 2003. The band last played “Destiny Unbound” on Oct. 25, 2014 in Chula Vista, Calif.
Another Phish song that could easily fit into the Grateful Dead’s repertoire. “The Wedge” is a funky rock track was written by frontman Trey Anastasio and his songwriting partner Tom Marshall. It takes its name from a piece of Interstate I-70 in central Utah, known as “The Wedge,” where the highway cuts through two huge pyramid shaped blocks of sandstone. Lyrics from the song include: “I’m building you a pyramid / with limestone blocks so large / I drag them from the mountain top / You’ll need a two car garage.” The chorus culminates with: “Take the highway to the great divide.” The song is a fan favorite and has a very Dead-type groove.
While “Meatstick” is distinctly a Phish song, the track closely resembles the Grateful Dead classic “Fire on the Mountain.” From its slow funky groove to its full-step progression the music in the two songs are very similar, but Phish makes the song stand on its own with its signature dance and Japanese lyrics including: “Meatosticku Jinuando, Meatosticku Kakushite, Meatosticku Toridashta, Juian, Do Do Atamaga Shock, Do Do Atamaga Shock.” Phish plays the song rarely enough to make it a tasty delicacy.
“Possum” is one of the most-played songs in Phishtory. On average, the band includes it on the set list of every third show, but has been known to squeeze it in even more frequently. The song dates back to 1985 and was written by guitarist and founding member Jeff Holdsworth, who left Phish in 1986. The song tells the story of the untimely death of a marsupial with the sing-along chorus that ends with: “Possum / Your end is the road.” The bluesy rock riff is quite similar to the Junior Parker song “Mystery Train,” which was covered by the Grateful Dead, but was performed more often by the Jerry Garcia Band.
“Alaska” is a track off of Party Time, the companion disc to 2009’s Joy, which marked the first Phish album since 2004. The Trey Anastasio and Tom Marshall-penned slow groove song is similar to the Dead classic “Tennessee Jed” in vibe and tempo. Both also happen to be named after states. While Phish takes “Alaska” to some sonic peaks not reached in “Tennessee Jed,” there is no denying the songs have a very similar bounce and feel.
While there are other Phish songs similar to the Grateful Dead tracks — including “Bittersweet Motel” and “Back on the Train” along with their bluegrass and country influenced songs like “Sparkle” and “Poor Heart” — these five are the best examples of how the Dead have influenced Phish. But don’t take our word for it, see — and hear — for yourself.
The Grateful Dead’s core four surviving members Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, and Bob Weir will be joined by Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and pianist and vocalist Bruce Hornsby at the Fare The Well concerts on June 27 and 28 in Santa Clara, Calif. and July 3 through 5 in Chicago.
Shortly thereafter, Phish will kick off their 22-date summer tour on July 21 in Bend, Oregon. Their tour wraps with a three-day festival called Magnaball at Watkins Glen International in upstate New York on August 21 through 23.