And the award for the most unlikely (and, in my opinion, really awesome) musical Bromance of 2012 goes to.... Justin Bieber and The Phish from Vermont.
Last night, Justin Bieber played his first concert of a two-night stint at Madison Square Garden. Who cares, right? Actually, a lot of people, mostly because of who was in the audience: Trey Anastasio, the founding guitarist of the rock band Phish.
For the past few months, Phish fans have sat behind their pseudonyms on Phantasy Tour, chuckling about the burgeoning musical bromance that's occurred between Justin Bieber and Phish. The whole thing started way back in 2010, when Trey Anastasio took his teenage daughters to Z100's Jingle Ball to see their favorite artist, Justin Bieber. A picture of Bieber posing with Trey and signing an autograph for his daughter was published shortly after, and, a few months later, Anastasio publicly talked about having Bieber Fever in interviews. But after the sudden burst of a Bromance, no one in the Phish camp mentioned Biebs for a solid year.
On the Bieber side, however, there was this: A February 17, 2011 Rolling Stone article included a quote from Bieber's guitarist and musical director, Dan Kanter, about his current influences: “He’s also going through a huge Beatles phase right now, and I’m trying to teach him about Phish and how great they are. We actually met Trey [Anastasio] at a show. He brought his daughter to see a Bieber show, and what a world colliding there that was. Scooter [Bieber’s manager], said to Justin, “This is the reason why all my friends dropped out of college.”
Then it happened. This past August, Bieber attended a Phish concert with Selena Gomez and Kanter. Like a true swaggy Bro, he rocked his headiest parking lot tie-dye and Flyers snapback (Trey Anastasio's favorite sports team). He and Gomez reportedly tossed glowsticks (a newbie Phish concert tradition). Judging by his reaction on Twitter, the Biebs seemed to enjoy himself:
Clearly an impression was made. Shortly after the show, it was announced that Phish's long-time lighting director, Chris Kuroda, would be manning the visuals on Bieber’s massive, 45+ date "Believe" arena tour.
Let's get back to Dan Kanter, the man who introduced Bieber to Phish: Kanter, 31, is one hell of a guitarist. He's also admittedly a huge Phish fan. Here's what he told the Hollywood Reporter about his obsession with the band earlier this month:
They’re the greatest band in the world and Trey is my guitar hero. Working so much with pop music, Phish became like a vacation for me— it was the complete opposite world. Phish is completely unpredictable and I love going to shows. It’s the one thing where I am a true fan boy.
In the same interview, Kanter discussed bringing on Kuroda (affectionately known in Phish circles as "CK5") to the Bieber tour, and he discussed his wife's friendship with Phish's bassist, Mike Gordon, who attended a Biebs show in New Jersey on November 9:
My wife and I became friends with [Phish bassist] Mike Gordon and his wife. Trey, I've met a couple times but I'm still freaked out when I see him. But I've always been a monster fan of Kuroda’s and after a show in Alpine Valley, I said, “Would you ever be interested in lighting us?” Because Justin was starting to mature and to become critical of his show and we’d always have the conversation about why the lights aren't synchronized with the dancers hitting a certain move or the music hitting a certain note. And I've been saying to him for years, that was Phish -- we don't even look at the band , we look at the lights. After begging Justin and Scooter to [consider hiring Kuroda], they did and he's destroying it on tour. Everyone's blown away by it. Posh Spice even said it’s the best lights she’s ever seen.
Kanter's sentiment is one most Phish fans can appreciate, myself included. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I'm a pretty big Phish fan. Like, big time. I've seen dozens and dozens of shows since 2000 and don't really plan on stopping anytime soon. Just like tens of thousands of others around the country, it's my vacation. Hey, we like what we like and don't really care what you think.
Anyway, on September 29, Justin Bieber's "Believe" Tour kicked off in Glendale, Arizona with CK5 at the lights. Shortly after, Kanter began working Phish songs into Bieber's set, trolling moms and dads who came of age in the '90s with subtle and not-so-subtle teases of mainstays in the Phish songbook, including “Divided Sky,” “Sand,” and “First Tube." It's safe to say their screaming teenage daughters didn't notice:
The teases kept coming. Since October, Kanter estimates he's now incorporated over 25 Phish songs into Bieber's live show. Some Phish fans, notoriously smug in their musical appetites (though WSP does sorta suck), scoffed. In a thread dedicated to Bieber/Phish on Phantasy Tour, user samiam_eggsandham blasted the band: "I mostly agree with the "haters" on this one. Beiber [sic] is a fad for girls ages 10-15, that's pretty much his whole fan base. Those ages don't generally have a large catalog of musical appreciation, I know I don't at that age and I know that 100% of the "beliebers" I've met don't (I work in a school). I get that it's kinda funny, but Beiber [sic] is superficial pop music for screaming children, you can't deny that. Phish can do whatever the fuck they want but it's weird they'd want to be associated with that." The Phish fan isn't alone: There are hundreds of threads and reactions on the subject, many with conflicted feelings about the increasing chumminess of the biggest bubblegum pop act in the country and their favorite band, a grassroots outfit that's barely had a pop single in their nearly three decades of touring. Others think it's pretty cool the Biebs is introducing his fans to an older generation of live music, one you could argue enjoyed it's most brilliant moments over a decade ago.
Meanwhile, Chris Kudoa's job performance seems to be OK-5. The San Francisco Chronicle raved about the lights at a Believe Tour show: “The MVP on the technical side was Phish lighting director Chris Kuroda, who made the whole of Oracle Arena look and feel like the inside of a pinball machine. Excellent work.”
Which brings us to last night. In a month, Phish will play a sold-out four-night New Years run at the band's spiritual Northeastern home, Madison Square Garden. There's a lot of speculation in the Phish fanbase that Bieber will come out at least once during the run. As our friends at Hypervocal note, Justin Bieber doesn't have a New Year’s Eve show on his tour dates page. To push that theory even further, Tom Marshall—Trey's close childhood friend and songwriting partner—Tweeted out this pic of Trey and CK5:
After the show, there was this exchange, acknowleged by the Biebs himself:
@tommarshall111 Trey is the man. glad he came to the show tonight— Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) November 29, 2012
Followed by Tom showing the world the shirt the Bieber tour crew is wearing:
Shirt worn by the Bieber crew...proving the Phish infestation is not contained yet. twitter.com/TomMarshall111…— Tom Marshall (@TomMarshall111) November 29, 2012
Followed by a set list of teases:
Followed by Kanter Tweeting this:
The whole gag, if you can even call it a gag at this point, is classic Phish showmanship, pranking their fans with the most unexpected thing possible, like entire sets that cover classic rock albums or midnight jams on top of air traffic control towers. After all, this is a band that brought Jay-Z out in 2004 during a gig in Brooklyn, before gigs in Brooklyn were cool. And Wynonna Judd and Kenny Rogers at Bonnaroo and Kid Rock, live on SNL even. It's in their DNA and what makes the entire Phish thing just so damn special.
Dan Kanter doesn't seem to mind the worlds colliding. If anything, he seems to be enjoying the ride the most. Via the THR:
THR: It almost feels like you’re causing some sort of rift in the space-time continuum by introducing the psychedelia of the hippie jam band scene to impressionable pop music fans. The music of Phish is pretty much the polar opposite of Bieber's, no?
I agree that musically Phish is the furthest thing from Justin, but there are so many similarities: the way that Phish built its audience grassroots style -- Justin did the same thing. And I don't know any artist other than Justin and Phish where the fans are so protective and feel so much ownership and pride. I also feel like Phish very early on were ahead of the game when it came to internet and releasing shows. Justin's been on YouTube and he and Scooter have distributed music and content to the audience. ... I don't know if Bieber fans have looked into Phish because of my love for the band, but the more the merrier!
Set the gear shift to the high gear of your soul and get cozy with the it, Phish fans and Bieberites. This is what keeps suckers like myself paying good money to keep coming back to have my ears pissed in. Now, fingers crossed, I just have to sit back, giggle, and groove with the fact that we'll be dripping in the very strange design of raging to a Harpua > Boyfriend > Vaccum solo > Harpua sometime in the near future.
This unapologetic fanboy wouldn't have it any other way.