If your favorite band came out on stage and went right into a fierce jam with guitars wailing, keyboards swirling, and drums beating like mad, you’d wonder why the build up was missing. The meat of the show is a great thing, but the build up to the pithy sections, thick with jam, is a major part of the pleasure. The build up can be slow, quick, dramatic, fun, scary, etc. and is the logical precursor to an electrifying musical peak. The same thing goes for actually getting to the show. Sure, it would be cool to jump into a transporter minutes before a given show and zap yourself into front row center so you could skip the lines, the drive, and the general hassle of getting there. But that’s kind of like skipping the meat and potatoes (or vegan curry and rice) and heading right for the delicious pieced of warm apple pie instead. While the actual music is definitely the highlight of the experience, getting there is usually an adventure in itself.
One of the most common elements to getting to the show is the high drama which it can provide. If all the needed planning is done, everything goes as smoothly as planned, and no unexpected bumps in the road arise, the path to the show can be smooth and uneventful. Unfortunately, with jamband fans careful planning can be lacking and the road to the show is almost always filled with rocks and potholes. For instance, back in 1995 after the first two Phish New Year’s Eve run shows in Worcester, we got the bright idea to head down to New Jersey at 1:00am so we could be at our buddy’s house early and get some rest before the two-night stand at the Garden. As we were driving down the dark, barren, sub-zero interstate in my battered, road-weary Chevy Corsica, a strange thing happened the car stopped working. The lights on the dashboard dimmed, the radio got lower, and the car just kind of stopped. We pulled over to the median and got out into the bitter cold darkness of night and tried and tried again to get the Corsica started to no avail.
Luckily we were caravanning, so our friends saw us pull over and stopped to advise us that they would call a tow truck for us at the next exit (this was back in the day before everyone in the world had cell phones). We were in college and low on funds, so that did not sound like a very appealing option. Before they left, I suggested we try to start up the Corsica one more stinking time. Surprisingly enough, the engine turned over on this last-ditch effort. Our group piled back into the car, only to find that, as we headed back down the highway, the vehicle quickly began to lose power again.
We promptly turned off the radio and tape deck, and that seemed to keep the car going. At this point, we knew it was a battery problem. When the car began to lose power again, we turned off all the interior lights in the car. This worked for a short time until the car began to lose power yet again. At this point, we didn’t have many options. Almost all the power draining features had been shut off. In a final effort to keep the car going, we had to turn off the heat. Did I mention how cold it was? So we were cruising along in the middle of the night with no idea how fast we were going, what time it was, etc. And since we had the heat off, the windows began to immediately fog up – and that fog quickly began to turn into ice and block my vision. So to keep the fog off the windshield, I had to open up the windows. Everyone in the car had all their sweaters, winter coats, hats, and gloves on, but it was still freezing cold. No one napped in the car obviously, and by the time we got to our friend’s house in Jersey we were pretty miserable. But it sure made for a memorable trip. And everything turned out fine as we purchased a new car battery the next day and the car worked like charm after that.
Then there’s the self-inflicted drama of poor planning. Like when my friends were heading down from New England to meet us at the first of the Phish New Year’s run shows in 1993 in D.C. A friend was heading down from Maine, picking up another friend in Worcester, MA, and then continuing down to D.C. to meet us in line so we could all head into the show together. Unfortunately for them, the first friend from Maine realized he forgot his tickets for the sold out run of shows…somewhere in New York. If the road trip from Maine down to D.C. wasn’t long enough, the road trip from Maine to New York, back up to Maine, then down to D.C. must have been incredibly aggravating. Add the fact that the run was one of the most treacherous and snowy in Phish history, and you’ve got some tired, angry, road weary Phish heads. When their car stopped working near New York City the next day on the trip to New Haven and they had to seal a pump in their engine with a sock and some duct tape, they knew this was going to be an unforgettable experience.
Of course, getting there doesn’t always have to be memorable for the torture and difficulty of an unfortunate situation. It’s actually been quite some time since my last bad experience while traveling to shows. Traveling to shows now goes hand in hand along with visiting friends. Whether it’s a road trip up to Seattle to see Moses Guest, The Big Wu, Raq, or Galactic, I can count on seeing my Seattle friends. I look forward to staying at their place and hanging out with them as soon as I notice a band that I like will be passing through their area. It’s the same thing with heading south to Eugene. The trip itself is relatively short and uneventful except for the usual smattering of mist, fog, and/or rain, but the visit with friends before and after the show is priceless. Add a kicking show to the mix, and the whole thing turns into a great and memorable experience.
The friends don’t have to be old ones, either. That’s yet another great element of road tripping meeting new friends. For instance, when Jiggle came west back in the late 90’s we hopped in their van and toured down the coast with them. We met all sorts of interesting characters before, during, and after the shows. We met a newly converted Jiggler who went to all the Oregon shows even though he had never heard the band before the first night. He just enjoyed the music that much. Then there were the crazy lesbian hippie girls we met after the show in Arcata, CA and hung out with on the bus. Then there was the time a friend and I drove out to Colorado to see some of the final Phil and Friends shows at Red Rocks. We met some guys there, made some trades, and hung out with them while we were there. They still keep in touch so we can hang out if they are heading here to Oregon for some shows, and they still urge us to come out and visit them in Colorado during the winter to get some skiing or boarding in.
The last sorts of road tripping experiences are the ones that you build up to after years of driving in the cramped car for many uncomfortable miles. As we get older, our desire for less hassle seems to increase (at least it has with me), but the desire for great live tunes enjoyed with many friends does not subside at all. One of my highest road tripping experiences was back in the summer of 2002 when we rented an RV to drive from Oregon to California for the High Sierra Music Festival. Talk about getting there in style! Having a bathroom, shower, microwave, refrigerator, stove and soft bed sure beats breaking down somewhere near Jersey on a frosty night in the Corsica. Stopping over for a night of live music with the Fareed Haque Group in Northern California on the way down there was simple, fun, and easy. We had a place to hang out in private during the set break and our bed was right outside, only a few steps away, at the end of the show. Of course, in my old age another preferred way to get to the show is to fly. Flying into Vegas for Phish shows or down to New Orleans for Jazzfest is usually simple and hassle free. It’s almost like being able to use that transporter, albeit a slow working transporter with small uncomfortable seats and a chance that you will have to sit cramped next to an obese person. But overall, it’s quick and so much less time consuming than a multi-day drive.
So while we usually talk about the show itself, and the music is what’s most important to most of us jamband music freaks, getting there is half the fun. Whether it’s an unforgettable trip due to high drama, poor planning, seeing old friends, making new friends, or the sheer fun of it all, the traveling is a key component to enjoying the live music we all hold so dear. With my sights set on a March Umphrey’s west coast run and High Sierra this summer, I’m hoping for another set of great memories from the road to be indelibly lodged in my psyche for years to come. Travel safe out there, now! And don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.