NEW YORK – In the two decades since Phish played its first improvised note, the jam band has become something of a secular religion. People get married at Phish shows. They collect and trade the group’s live recordings as if they were sacred shards of scripture.

Most of all, the crunchy masses always turn up any day, anywhere, that the Vermont-based quartet takes the stage.

That abiding faith has made Phish one of the nation’s biggest concert draws, selling out multiple nights at arenas and stadium-size festivals alike.

But Phish’s messianic days are drawing to a close. After 21 years, the group is calling it quits.

But who will ascend the throne once the king is gone?

With the exception of such icons as the Dead and Dave Matthews Band, none of Phish’s musical kin have matched its phenomenal success.

“When Phish went on hiatus on 2000, you saw a lot of bands grow quite a bit,” says Josh Baron, executive editor of Relix, a magazine devoted to “grass roots” music. “String Cheese Incident played Radio City (Music Hall) for two nights, and before Phish went on hiatus they never could have done that.”

So now that Phish is about to go off the road for good, we’ve laid odds on who will ultimately take over the jam-band crown.

Here’s an insider’s look at the most promising prospects – and a few of the long shots who may eventually convert the most disciples.

•Widespread Panic: 2 to 1

Formed the same year as Phish, Widespread Panic has one of the jam scene’s most storied reputations, especially since the group survived the 2002 death of founding member Michael Houser. The Panic is on a year-long hiatus, but its return promises success.

“It’ll be curious to see how big they can get,” Baron says. “They played the (Madison Square) Garden last Halloween. But they didn’t sell it out.”

•moe.: 3 to 1

Sporting an enigmatic period at the end of their lower-cased moniker, these upstate New Yorkers have toiled on the scene for a dozen years. Their latest album, “Wormwood,” is considered a groundbreaking effort for its synthesis of live performances seamlessly matched with studio overdubs.

•Gov’t Mule: 4 to 1

The Allman Brothers spinoff has made a habit of stringing together capacity nights at the Beacon Theatre. The power trio’s dedication to Southern-fried blues attracts both jam-band freaks and classic-rock die-hards.

•Trey Anastasio: 6 to 1

Phish’s lead guitarist and singer is the crown prince of the ruling dynasty. As a solo artist, he’s already demonstrated an ability to sell out some venues

•Galactic: 20 to 1

A funky New Orleans quintet. By incorporating electronic beats, the group has allied itself with the burgeoning “livetronica” movement.

•String Cheese Incident: 5 to 2

It has taken a decade for the Colorado quintet to reach the scene’s top tier. Biggest sign of their crossover appeal: Lollapalooza tapped them to headline two nights of the alt-rock festival. “They’re one of the bands that has been able to blend rock, jazz and bluegrass and really make it work,” says Lenny Bloch, who programs the Jam On channel for Sirius satellite radio. “They’re able to bounce comfortably from one to the other with a level of musicianship that’s unparalleled.”

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COMING SOON TO A FESTIVAL NEAR YOU

There are hundreds of other jam bands filling the stages at festivals such as Bonnaroo in Nashville, 10,000 Lakes in Minnesota and All Good in West Virginia. Among the most talked-about acts are “one man band” guitarist Keller Williams, world music synthesists New Monsoon and rustic blues-rockers the North Mississippi All Stars.

But the name that keeps surfacing is New Jersey pedal-steel virtuoso Robert Randolph.

Randolph learned to play in an East Orange church, where gospel and blues influenced his playing as much as Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

“Robert certainly has a lot of momentum behind him,” says John Mayer, one of the Bonnaroo festival’s producers. “He’s an amazing player, and he’s doing something that no one has done.”

Also on the rise are bands that combine improvisation with deejays and samples. Prime players are Georgia’s Sound Tribe Sector 9, Philly’s raucous Disco Biscuits and Savannah art-schoolers Perpetual Groove.

There’s even a throwback movement, with such bands as Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon and Hot Buttered Rum String Band fusing bluegrass with jam-band trappings.

It’s also possible for straight-up rock bands to be adopted by the jam scene.

The slightly unhinged country twang of the Drive By Truckers and the Neil Young-like thunder of My Morning Jacket have attracted a crossover audience that first showed its open-eared acceptance when veteran rockers Los Lobos appeared on the H.O.R.D.E. tour in the mid-“90s.

Unfortunately, there’s no real formula to achieving superstardom in the jam scene. The fans are deeply concerned with an “organic” identity and tend to be suspect of any overt commercial successes, such as the Dave Matthews Band.

All hopefuls can do is keep touring.

“Phish and the Grateful Dead didn’t necessarily ask for what they got as a following,” says Relix magazine’s Josh Baron. “They never said, “Let’s get tens of thousands of people to come see us and get obsessed about following us.’

“All the other bands can do is continue to be creative, make music with integrity and put on a great live show,” he adds. “If there was a secret way, everyone would be doing it.”



(c) 2004, New York Daily News.

Visit the Daily News online at http://www.nydailynews.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-06-18-04 0907EDT



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