Like the late, great boxer Arturo Gatti, who loved Atlantic City like his hometown even though he hailed from elsewhere, the Vermont-based jam-band phenomenon Phish seems to hold a special place in its heart for the resort town.
Featuring guitarist and principal songwriter Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, drummer Jon Fishman and keyboardist Page McConnell, Phish will be making its fourth appearance in A.C. since 2010, with each prior engagement resulting in multiple sold-out shows on back-to-back nights.
This year’s appearance — rescheduled from last summer due to the pandemic — takes place for the first time on the beach, with shows starting 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 13 to 15. Demand for tickets has again been rabid among the Phish fanbase.
The mutual appeal is reflected in more than just ticket sales, however. Two of Phish’s prior Atlantic City appearances — both over three-night gigs — overlapped their longstanding, legendary Halloween concerts, which had not happened twice in the same city since the tradition began. Their other two-show resort series was at Bader Field in June 2012.
The band’s second A.C. trilogy of Halloween shows — in which Phish typically puts personal spins on classic albums by other artists, such as “Exile on Main Street” by the Stones or “Quadrophenia” by the Who — included something unprecedented when a slew of nearly all new songs got played in Atlantic City. Some of that material, recorded at James Whelan Boardwalk Hall, was released the following year on Phish’s “Fuego” album.
Anastasio, who is originally from Princeton, also recorded a live solo album in Atlantic City in the now-defunct House of Blues, and he opened as a soloist for Neil Young at Borgata during a Hurricane Sandy benefit concert in 2012.
Phish parallels what is widely considered the greatest jam band in American history, the Grateful Dead, in many ways, and in its early days as little more than an uber-talented Vermont garage band, performed a lot of Dead material in shows. Gradually, and with Anastasio’s exceptional and prolific songwriting ability, Phish gained a completely different identity from its West Coast forebearers.
But significant similarities linger.
Phish never plays the same setlist twice, which mirrors the Dead. In a pair of shows at Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheater on Aug. 3 and 4, not a single song got repeated from night to night. Phish encourages the free sharing of its music among fans, as the Dead did, although now in a more high-tech, file-sharing design than the Dead flock’s bootlegged cassettes. And like Deadheads, Phish has a nomadic legion that follows the band from town to town.
Phish is far more quirky than the Dead ever was, however, as evidenced primarily by the somewhat bizarre Halloween shenanigans that has thousands of fans wearing costumes to each show. In their last Atlantic City appearance, a dancer dressed in a wombat costume joined the band members on stage during the song “Wombat.” The person inside the wombat costume was subsequently revealed to be then 92-year-old actor Abe Vigoda, whose name is mentioned in the song, and who starred in a sitcom spinoff called “Fish” in the 1970s.
“The unpredictable is part of the appeal of this band,” bassist Gordon told Atlantic City Weekly in a 2010 phone interview. “That makes it fun for the fans and those who are in the band. We do things a little differently than other bands — we’ve always liked to play many different types of music. It makes it interesting for us.”
In their 1997 official biography “The Phish Book,” penned by the four members with writer Richard Gehr, Anastasio coined the term “cow funk” to describe the band’s jazz-funk influences at the time.
“What we’re doing now is really more about groove than funk,” Anastasio was quoted as saying. “Good funk, real funk, is not played by four white guys from Vermont.”