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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2011/08/31

A Tale of Two Festivals

Two things are remembered about Superball IX a month and a half later. The first is simply the attendance. By any normal standard, 30,000 people (the common estimate given for the show in the media) is an incredible crowd in 2011. The economy’s slow. There’s a ton of competition. Webcasts and couch tour have reached the point where it’s getting harder to rationalize spending thousands of dollars to attend in person. Still though, it’s hard not to compare Superball to past festivals.

Economy and technology reasons aside, a large part of the reason why Phish drew a crowd less than half of what they used to inspire to travel to the northern tip of Maine is due to the fan base. The pre-breakup (and especially the pre-hiatus) crowd is getting older and less ready for adventure. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem because we would have been replaced by a constant influx of college students. That hasn’t happened for two reasons. The five-year breakup cost an entire generation of college students. To some degree Phish was passed down from generation to generation. New students would discover the joys of touring from upperclassman. The late teens are a time when people develop their tastes, where you’re still open to new experiences. There already are logistical hurdles to overcome for modern touring (ticket and gas prices with fewer easy ways of making money in the lot) so this led to a quick aging of the population.

Since we’ve lost that generation, we have a problem in scheduling. Older fans want amenities. Instead of thinking that camping on an Air Force base is the best thing ever, we want hotels (or better yet, condos with swimming pools and hot tubs!). Maybe Phish could play Hawaii or a resort in Mexico. Sure it would be expensive, but that’s what our jobs are for. To the degree that Phish play along with those desires – and I confess that I would be all about some of the wackier plans I’ve heard suggested – it makes it that much harder for new people to find a place. Phish need an influx of newer fans to offset the natural jadedness that happens when you see a band scores of times.

If Phish fandom is defined by jadedness, the Northwest String Summit at Horning’s Hideout is the other extreme. People go into the festival assuming that they’re going to have a blast and just need the music to not be completely horrible. Hoop during the day. Find cool glowing toys at night. The entire vibe at the Hideout is that the crowd is fully capable of entertaining themselves. People set up fun camps and with the child friendly nature of the event, many hang out there during a lot of the bands. Wandering through the camping area is always an adventure. It’s easy to stumble across a band (real or made up on the spot) or see some interesting outfits or the peacocks that stroll the site could be showing off or you could hang out on the pond in the paddleboats. The music almost feels like an afterthought at times.

That can be liberating for an artist. It’s easier to take risks when you know that the crowd won’t turn on you if it fails. On the other hand, if people aren’t paying complete attention, they won’t be quite as blown away when everything clicks. That’s the contrast my summer brought up: would you rather have an audience that follows every note, listening for every hint and tease, but who also are going to critique every dropped chord and repeated idea or one that wants to dance and have a good time and as long as everyone’s trying and playing competently, it’s all good.

I’m sure there are days that Phish wish they could swap, days when they get tired of people timing their songs and creating websites that show how many second sets open with Tweezer. However, let’s go back to Superball again.

Throughout the first leg of the summer tour, there was a running joke. Before every keyboard solo, we were reminded that we were going to Page’s house. Other calls were for Mike’s house and Fish’s house. It went on throughout the tour and no one really thought there was anything going on until early in the morning of July 3rd. Phish played a late night ambient set in a fake storage unit. What stood out though was that if you were standing on one side, you could only see one band member through the dark glass. For that set I was indeed seeing Page’s house. The entire tour was a long setup for a punchline… and that was extended further in the narration the following show, in which the “true meaning” of the Storage Jam was explained. An elaborate stunt was set up over the course of a 6 week period, one that had additional layers the more that you looked at it; for example, the What Cheer Brigade played all over the Ball Square throughout the weekend. Before the Storage Jam, they played a set by the unit to make sure people would stick around to hear it, but then they dramatically walked off (like they had been doing the entire weekend, an act that we were then trained to follow to see what antic they would do) and while they did that, Phish snuck into the building.

This isn’t the first time that Phish set up a prank like this. The 2009 New Year’s Eve run had the big stunt (Sarah pretending to be the drummer) set up first by the announcement on 12/28 that we’d be hearing the final vacuum solo of the year, which forced Rich to come out to play vacuum on 12/30, which led us to the idea that a fan could come on stage and play. Even earlier than that, the 12/31/97 movie all came out of concepts from the previous night’s Harpua narration.

Sure I bet there are days where Phish wished that they could have a less critical fan base, but from the days of the secret language, they’ve always enjoyed having an audience that was constantly paying attention. I personally would prefer the “It’s all good” crowd if I were a musician, but if you’re willing to take the risk, the reward is so much stronger.


David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

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