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Gone Phishing: Charleston-based tribute band plays New Brookland Tavern

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Photo provided/Stuart White

The Charleston-based quartet Runaway Gin, who played two sets at New Brookland Tavern Jan. 26, is, without question, a tribute band.

But their material, primarily the songs of the jam band titans Phish, makes things a bit tricky.

Phish doesn’t have hits, per se, and mostly uses its extensive catalog as convenient vehicles for a kind of unique improvisation only possible with the specific interplay between four members of the band.

So what are folks coming for?

Guitarist Andy Greenberg, a Charleston music scene vet who started Runaway Gin in 2014, attributed it to two things – wanting to have fun and the sense of community that fans feel around Phish.

“A lot of the places that we play, the Phish fans are not really all together unless Phish is in town,” he said. “Although there are obviously other bands that are similar in genre that come through and bring those people together, I do think the fact there's a big community as part of these shows that people come out to meet and hang out with other Phish fans that makes a difference.”

He speaks with some authority here, having been to over 250 Phish shows since 1995 and having played well over 600 gigs as Runaway Gin.

Over time, Runaway Gin has become one of the most notable Phish tribute bands in the country, playing major festivals and top venues, including a sold-out run at the Hard Rock Cafe in Chicago during the Grateful Dead 50th anniversary run. They are consistently voted the best Phish tribute band on jam band Twitter, becoming part of Phish's extended universe in the same way groups like Dark Star Orchestra and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead have carried on the legacy of Garcia and company.

The group originally started at the behest of Pour House owner Alex Harris. His bar needed something to augment their successful Grateful Dead tribute on Wednesdays, and Greenberg had previously done various Phish tribute acts alongside other original funk bands.

“I think before we played our first gig, we already had offers coming in from out of town,” Greenberg said. “So it was just obvious that there was a demand for it. Not as many people were doing it back then – there’s a lot more Phish tributes nowadays.”

The other half of it is the fact that one of the central appeals of a Phish show is that no two Phish songs are the same, with new improvisations each night. As long as the four members – Greenberg, keyboardist Jennifer Reiser, drummer Sean Bing and bassist Tim Khayat – of Runaway Gin can improvise well, most of the central appeal remains intact.

“You have to learn the songs, we never really originally put a whole lot of attention on to practicing jamming,” Greenberg said. “We know the part where Phish usually goes off, and then we just try to do something and create our own way of jamming.”

That’s not to say that the group doesn’t delve deep into Phish history –Greenberg said the band was originally going for the version of Phish that existed in the early 2010s, with a type of collective improvisation. Even still, Runaway Gin will mine all different eras of the group, from the madcap speed of the early 90s to the drone-funk innovations of the late 90s and ambient textures of Phish 2.0 in the 2000s, for inspiration.

Greenberg admitted that not everything his band does is exactly like Phish. In fact, he said there are some shows where folks might not even realize it's a tribute band, but that fact alone makes them most like Phish, he said.

“So it's kind of this this existential crisis kind of thing – you can try and sound like Phish, but then you're not really being a good tribute, in the sense that we would be scripted, and they weren't," Greenberg said.

“I think the way that I've approached the whole thing has been very much unplanned and spontaneous. I never set out to play the songs more than anybody else or anything like that... I just always felt like, from the first time I heard them, that that they were going to be and then eventually became an integral part of me as a person and as a musician," he said.

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