Classic rock tribute bands have been a mainstay of American pop culture for decades. Many people like to go out and hear their favorite music more than just when a band might roll through town once or twice a year. Grateful Dead tribute bands have become legion, existing in most major American metropolises across the nation. The Phish tribute band is a relatively newer phenomenon, particularly since Phish is a Gen-X band that’s still active. But there was a five-year period between the band’s 2004 breakup and 2009 reunion when demand rose exponentially and such bands started popping up.
But there’s only band out there that actively seeks to mix Phish and the Grateful Dead together like Reese’s Pieces and that’s the DeadPhish Orchestra out of Colorado. “We play both kinds,” the band declares at their site in an amusing reference to Elwood Blues’ classic query to a roadhouse proprietor of what kind of music is usually played there. Originally a Phish tribute band named Phix that launched in the early 21st century, these enterprising troubadours stir things up by mixing the repertoires of their two favorite bands together. The quartet is not really an orchestra per se, although the way they tightly segue between Grateful Dead and Phish classics does indeed require advanced orchestration of the tone sciences.
Jam rock fans love the segueways and if the transitions aren’t executed skillfully, the community is quick to express colorful critiques. DeadPhish Orchestra (DPO) has carved out a niche for themselves by masterfully executing those segues. They don’t just alternate between Dead and Phish songs, they jam in and out of them in fresh ways that create new twists on the music. Hence the band has started to generate a following that has enabled them to spread their wings and leave their Rocky Mountain nest to bring the music to the masses.
DPO visited the Grateful Dead’s home turf in Marin County with a memorable show at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley last June that saw rising keyboard phenomenon Holly Bowling sit in for hot jams on “Theme From the Bottom” and “I Know You Rider”, whetting the appetite of Marin music fans for more (and a recording of which made it onto the band’s own page of personal favorites.) Renowned musicians from other jambands have also sat in with DPO, such as Michael Kang from the String Cheese Incident in 2011 and John Kadlecik from Furthur in 2013. Tonight’s show at the Hopmonk Tavern in Novato finds the band kicking off a weekend run that will circle down to Santa Cruz and then back up to Auburn in gold rush country. The rolling green hills of Marin County are easily accessible from San Francisco or Oakland and so this is the main Bay Area show.
The Hopmonk is oddly located in a large stripmall where enterprising pet owners could efficiently snag some pet supplies at the adjacent Petco, but it’s a classy joint with a great sound system and a quality selection of craft beer. Those two factors tend to be the most important ones to music fans in these parts and some of the usual suspects filter in throughout the first set, which starts on the early side kicking off just after 8 pm.
The band hits the ground running with a high octane rendition of “Wolfman’s Brother”, the funky jam vehicle that opened up wider in 1997 to catalyze Phish’s cosmic funk evolution of the late ‘90s. The song then rocks tightly into the Dead’s retro classic “Viola Lee Blues” circa 1967 that keeps the dance floor grooving. A peak moment occurs when “Viola Lee” jams into the hard rocking “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing” from Phish’s 2004 Undermind LP. The tune has grown into a fan favorite in Phish’s “3.0” era (since the 2009 comeback) and guitarist Paul Murin shows why by shredding molten hot volcano guitar on an incendiary jam that would surely make Trey Anastasio proud.
Murin is so legit that he actually charmed one of the ladies from the seminal Phish fan group known as The Phunky Bitches to fall in love with him during the Phix era and move from Los Angeles to join him in Colorado, where they’ve since gotten married and been living happily ever after in the Boulder mountains. A musician has to be highly talented to dare take on the Phish repertoire of course and all the men of DeadPhish Orchestra have mad skills. Keyboardist Ted Tillford helps power the dynamic “ASIHTOS” jam with some high energy piano that catalyzes the classic Phishy x-factor that makes a song take off. The band pulls another surprise by veering back into “Viola Lee Blues”, with bassist Brian Adams and drummer Chris Sheldon turning the groove on a dime and pumping it up for a big finish.
Another highlight occurs when “Golgi Apparatus” flows into a charged rendition of “Throwing Stones”, the Dead’s political anthem against the heartless powers that sell guns instead of butter. Some fans will try to argue that the Dead were apolitical, but their pioneering status as counterculture icons always had an inherently left wing flavor. Jerry Garcia and the band may have distanced themselves from the radical agitating of the Berkeley protest crowd in the late ‘60s, but repertoire staples like “Morning Dew” and “Cumberland Blues” always expressed a certain discontent with the status quo. That discontent crystallized with “Throwing Stones” in 1982 and the song’s relevance has only grown over the years. When Phish’s Trey Anastasio joined the surviving Dead members for their summer 2015 “Fare Thee Well” stadium shows, it was no coincidence that “Throwing Stones” concluded the final show’s first set with an electrifying jam that still conjures a spine-tingling feeling for all who witnessed it at Chicago’s Soldier Field. The spaceship-like stadium actually felt as if it might lift off during the jam due to the collective solidarity and synergy with the song’s insightful sentiment.
A great combo occurs when perennial Phish jam vehicle “Down with Disease” segues smoothly into “The Wheel” for some melodic jammy goodness that fits together like adjacent puzzle pieces. “The Wheel” then flows into the elaborate “Lizards”, one of Phish’s most political tunes. As with the Dead, there’s a sector of intellectually lazy fans who will try to claim the band’s songs don’t really have any deeper meaning. But “Lizards” says otherwise, being part of Anastasio’s legendary “Gamehendge” music school thesis about a revolutionary resistance against a greedy and oppressive tyrant. “The Lizards were a race of people practically extinct from doing things smart people don’t do,” the song’s narrator sings, and those words ring with ever greater resonance in an era where Donald Trump’s foul domain seeks to eradicate environmental regulations while the planet burns from climate change. Can it be mere coincidence that DPO jams “Lizards” into the classic worker’s lament of “Cumberland Blues” to close the set? There seems to be a theme.
The second set is not as long as the lengthy first set, but it’s plenty sweet as the band kicks it off with “The Curtain”, a Phish deep cut that jams into “Cassidy”. The band goes on to demonstrate their fearless attitude at the end of the set when they tackle the Dead’s anthemic “Terrapin Station”, an elaborate song some thought might be left on the shelf here with the Dead’s Phil Lesh operating his Terrapin Crossroads club just 10 miles away. DPO nails it however and then goes for broke by pairing it with “Divided Sky”, the epic instrumental song that serves as the sacred hymn of the aforementioned “Lizards”.
It’s an ambitious pairing that reveals the men of DeadPhish Orchestra as daring musical explorers out to navigate some uncharted territory of their own with how they bring these classic repertoires together. They throw in one last curveball when “Divided Sky” takes an unexpected twist into Garcia ballad “Mission in the Rain”, clearly in deference to the historic level of rainfall the Bay Area has endured so far in 2017. To end on such a melancholy note would not do however, and so of course the song finds its way back into the conclusion of “Divided Sky” for a rousing finish to the show.