ust this past Sunday, Phish pulled off one of the most interesting and fascinating stunts of their long history of goofball musical novelties. They wrapped up their 13 night residency at Madison Square Garden, unseating Billy Joel’s previous record there of 12 straight shows. Calling it the “Baker’s Dozen,” they themed each show around a particular flavor of doughnut. For double chocolate they opened with an acapella cover of “Chocolate Rain” and on red velvet night they mixed in some Velvet Underground songs, for instance. Maybe most ambitiously, the band managed to avoid repeating a single song across the cumulative 34+ hours of those those 26 sets. Two of the shows from the run currently rank as the second and third greatest shows the group has ever played, bested only by the seven-plus hour long New Year’s Eve 1999 set that started at midnight and went on through to the first sunrise of 2000. Given all this, it felt like a great time to revisit Phish: Bittersweet Motel, the first (and so far only) documentary about the band, which came out two decades ago, which predates any of that.
It might come as a surprise, but before dominating the doofy frat-pack comedy genre as the director of Old School and the trilogy of Hangover movies, Todd Phillips cut his teeth as a documentarian. His notorious hazing expose Frat House even won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, if you can believe that. It was right around then that he got a call from Phish who had seen his earliest (and by far most extreme) film, 1993’s Hated: GG Allin & the Murder Junkies, and thought that Phillips would be a good fit to film bits of their 97/98 tours. The band at that time had just recently been crowned the kings of all things jam band following Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, and I think they were looking to redefine themselves outside of that limiting perception and maybe hoped that Phillips’s view as an outsider would give the doc some teeth which, ultimately, he did.
It’s been almost a year since I outed myself on this site as a fan of the band, and there’s still a certain knee-jerk defensiveness that I have going into any discussion of them. Nothing about Phish is cool by any definition of the word, and their absurd amount of success, in retrospect, seems like a complete fluke of pop culture. They’re not quite a guilty pleasure thanks to the layers of inside jokes and a dense mythology that they’ve built around themselves, but there’s still this unique stigma to them which may never go away. How is it that they can be one of the most profitable touring acts in the nation, selling out stadiums and attracting tens of thousands to their annual festivals, and maintain the aura of a niche cult band? It’s a mystery.
As an envoy for the band, Bittersweet Motel is perhaps unlikely to win over too many new fans, but there’s a ton of interesting nougat to chew on even if you don’t like the music. Phish were, and still are, defiant outsiders who have seemingly done whatever they want and never compromised their artistic integrity, despite having never gotten much respect from mainstream music press. In one scene Phillips has lead guitarist Trey Anastasio read a profile from Entertainment Weekly which proclaims that the band could literally piss in the ears of their fans and no one would complain. Anastasio grudgingly agrees, but is quick to add that having shitty nights is part of the deal when you rely on experimentation and improvisation as much as they do. The same song could be fives minutes one night, and another night be stretched and teased across a whole set. The fans aren’t so much tolerating the nights when things don’t click as they are just waiting for those magical moments when all four musicians sync up and blast off.
Anastasio, who gets the bulk of coverage here, uses the platform offered by the documentary as a means of setting the record straight about the comparisons between them and the Grateful Dead: “There’s lots about the Grateful Dead that I loved, but there's lots about Boston that I loved.” Fans aren’t the only ones who have a chip on their shoulder, it turns out. The Dead and Phish have a lot on common, including spacey jams, dedicated fans, and a no-set-list approach to touring, but the differences are so much more interesting with the latter drawing from a much deeper well of influences including prog and shoegaze. Sure, Anastasio sat in on the final set of Dead shows, but he and the rest of the band were the ones tapped to induct Genesis into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I can’t help but notice that this film isn’t available to stream anywhere and isn’t for sale on their website. The 2000s saw some tumultuous times for the band, including a hiatus in 2001, a drug bust in 2006, and a full on break up before they reunited in 2009, so it’d be understandable if the let the film quietly go out of print since it no longer represented who they were. Bittersweet Motel captures so much of their goofy magic, though, that it’d be a shame if that’s the reason you have to hit up YouTube to see this offbeat jamband time capsule.