PORTLAND, ORE. — WHAT would you call a rock band that is as likely to take its inspiration from Bulgarian wedding music as blues, from Igor Stravinsky's "The Firebird" as jazz, from swing tunes or Latin rhythms as reggae - and spends a good part of each day's practice session singing old-time barbershop quartet numbers?
Unusual, to put it mildly. But you could also label the band popular, because it has an increasingly devoted following and a growing list of successful recordings.
The Vermont-based foursome known as "Phish" is on the home stretch of a 70-gig national tour that has been selling out. I caught up with them in Portland, Ore., where their two-night stand coincided with President Clinton's recent "forest summit."
Before the concert, they joined a bunch of legendary rockers - David Crosby, Neil Young, Carole King, Kenny Loggins - at an environmental rally along the downtown waterfront park. Not surprisingly, Phish did something different: They left their instruments behind and belted out a jazzy version of "Amazing Grace" a cappella before an enthusiastic rained-on crowd of 70,000.
The group consists of Trey Anastasio (guitar), Mike Gordon (bass guitar), Page McConnell (piano and organ), and Jon Fishman (drums and vacuum cleaner).
The four men met 10 years ago while students at the University of Vermont. After a few years of self-organized road tours and a self-produced recording, Elektra Records signed Phish. CD Review called their 1992 record "A Picture of Nectar" a "jam-packed jewel bursting with brilliant musical surprises."
The group blends childlike playfulness (especially in its lyrics) with high-quality chops. They are impressive instrumentalists, weaving a mix of structured progressions and improvisation. They are exciting without being showy.
On stage and in person, these young musicians seem to put their music ahead of themselves. It seems unlikely that they could have cultivated the total lack of image they project, which is refreshing.
"We're basically a rock band when it comes right down to it," says Anastasio, who writes most of their work. "But we listen to everything - jazz, bluegrass, classical, rock."
Barbershop quartet is the latest development, which happened almost by accident when McConnell found some old piano-bench music at his parents' house, and then discovered that his landlord was a judge at barbershop competitions. McConnell's landlord is now their vocal coach, and he works them rigorously at breathing exercises and vowel charts.
"Part of the art of barbershop quartet is blending the sounds," McConnell explains. "I think we're blending better now on all our singing as a result of that."
"I don't think any one of us has the greatest voice," Anastasio admits, "but with barbershop we can blend and make beautiful music."
This is quite evident in their latest album titled "Rift," which, in fact, does not include any overt barbershop but shows marked advances in their vocal work over their three earlier albums.
The four-part singing also is a force for improvement in the group's instrumental work. "It's made a huge difference in the other things we do," says drummer Fishman. "It's made me open my ears up to what else is happening around me."
At the second of their two Portland performances, Phish emphasized its faster, high-energy songs with barely a pause between pieces for nearly an hour and a half.
After the break, they were back at it again with more musical virtuosity - but this time they added some of the Monty Python-esque goofiness that fans have come to expect. At one point Fishman (a hobbit-sized man in polka-dotted sundress and goggles) sang through the extension hose of a vacuum cleaner to amazing effect.
Phish fans are typically funky - sort of like a younger generation of Grateful Dead followers - some of whom follow them from city to city. (Making them "Phishheads," one supposes.)
Over the past year, some 13,000 Phish devotees in the United States and overseas have formed an electronic discussion group ("Phishnet") accessed through the Internet computer-mail system.
And like the "Dead," Phish puts out a lot for their concertgoers' money. Over the course of this tour they will have played more than 100 different songs, and in towns where they play more than once, no song is repeated. They also encourage concertgoers to bring tape recorders and swap tapes.
And where else would you find three hours of solid and innovative rock encored with a no-instruments, no-microphone version of that old barbershop quartet favorite "Carolina in the Morning?"
* Phish's national tour ends in Durham, N.H. on May 8. For more information, call the "Phish Hotline" at (617) 647-5521.