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Finding a City to Live In: A Short History of Phish’s Big Festivals

Phish have thrown a major camping festival on nine other occasions. These were defining events for the band; if you didn’t see any other shows but these, then you’d have a good sense of their rise, fall and rebirth.

Part of the fascination of the first Phish festival was that none of us knew what it would be like to have 70,000 fans attending a concert for our “cult band.” While the traffic for 1996’s The Clifford Ball was an issue—something that would unfortunately become a theme—the event ran incredibly smoothly. Between the stilt walkers greeting people as the gates opened, the planes with funny messages circling overhead—“A Dime From Here Would Penetrate” was a favorite—and the Ball Square area with temporary buildings, this was an entirely different type of event. With the acrobats doing aerial stunts to Phish’s music on the second day and Ben & Jerry’s Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen coming out to sing “Brother,” the whole experience felt like Phish’s coming-out party.

The following two years added some degree of difficulty points as we moved to Limestone, Maine. Located at the extreme northern tip of the East Coast, 60 miles past the end of I-95, the remote location added some extra excitement to the events. Locals lined overpasses on I-95 and the sides of US-1 just to see the circus.

Perhaps it was the distance that we all traveled to make it to the show, but the theme of both The Great Went and Lemonwheel was band/audience collaborations. The art installations each had a crafting booth. In 1997, fans painted pieces of wood that were arranged into a massive sculpture. During the penultimate Went set, the band took breaks in pairs to create their own contributions to the work. As they turned out the lights for us during “Harry Hood” to admire our joint work, a massive glow stick war erupted.

Glow sticks might be controversial now but, at the time, this was a spontaneous, joyous eruption—one so powerful that it still echoes to this day. Lemonwheel had fans make candles that the band used to light their ambient fourth set on Saturday night. Both times, Trey gave a speech about how we help inspire the music and both times, there was a great jam involved—The Great Went “Bathtub Gin” is a perennial favorite version and the “Ambient Jam” at Lemonwheel was stunning—and both times, our work was destroyed by fire to show the transient nature of the live experience.

1999 was the only year to contain two festivals. Summer’s Camp Oswego had some great moments (e.g “Funky Bitch” with Son Seals, “Beauty of My Dreams” with Del McCoury, a rare “Have Mercy” and a very silly “Icculus”) but was mostly remembered for the insane heat of the day. Fortunately, the massive Big Cypress festival for New Years didn’t have such issues. Held on an Indian reservation on the mythic date of 12/31/99, Phish performed an all-night set of beauty and power. It was such a peak that the band didn’t know where to go from there. Once you’ve greeted the first dawn of the millennium to the soundtrack of “Wading in the Velvet Sea,” what do you do to top that? Without an obvious answer, Phish decided to take a hiatus.

Phish returned to Limestone during their first full year back on the road. 2003 was a triumphant year and IT felt true to that. The weekend featured an incredible “Ghost,” a creepy jam out of “Waves” and a set that featured many of the new songs of the year, sending the message that this wasn’t just a band reliving past glories, but one hoping for new ones.

Unfortunately, that didn’t last long. The band’s personal problems were starting to affect the shows. Merely a year after a fantastic festival, Phish called it quits at Coventry, Vt. Nothing went right. Back-to-back hurricanes hit the region, turning the campground into a swampland. They had to close off the parking lot, which led to the spectacle of tens of thousands of fans abandoning their cars along I-91 and walking dozens of miles to attend. Unfortunately, the music did not reward those who made the sacrifice. While some of the jams hit great peaks, incredibly sloppy playing marred the show. Between the “Glide,” where Trey couldn’t play the signature chord, and having to restart the festival’s final song, Coventry showed what rock bottom looked like in concert form.

Fortunately, that would not turn out to be the end of Phish or their festivals. Phish held their first and only West Coast festival in 2009. Though Festival 8 was not the most exploratory event, it was a joyous weekend, defined by the Halloween cover of The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street and the Sunday acoustic set in the warm California desert.

The final Phish festival before the event we are currently attending was held at this very spot. Like Festival 8, it kept the virtues of this Phish era—18-hour traffic jams and locations in the middle of nowhere are things of the past—but it started to reintegrate the jams and song selections from earlier years. Phish festivals have consistently documented the rise, peak, decline and rebirth of the band. With Magnaball, we get to see what will be next.

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