Phish, COVENTRY, Coventry, VT- 8/14 & 15
FROM THE TOURING DESK: The Curtain (Hemlock Rockin’ in Northern Vermont)
Brooklyn, New York
1. Dramatis Personae: Wookies, etc.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, dude (and you know we had our share) (or something). For their final performances, Phish starred in (though by no means solely orchestrated) one of the most dramatic goodbyes in rock and roll history. Those who participated – that is, the band and some 65,000 fans – will likely not much remember the music Phish made so much as a sequence of visceral events with four fairly bewildered musicians at the gravitational center.
The stage was dressed before most fans left the parking lot of the band's Thursday show in Camden, New Jersey, and assuredly before they crossed Vermont's southern border. The rains had come a few days earlier (record precipitation, the promoters have stressed) and turned the Newport State Airport into a real-life version of Sunk City, the as-it-sounds installation constructed for 2003's IT festival. One rumor circulating cell-to-cell during the rain-soaked northern crawl suggested that the stage was, in fact, sinking and the National Guard or the Navy Corp of Engineers or somebody had been called into, um, de-sink it. Though later declared to be patently false, it sums up the general conditions of the grounds (and even still seems eminently plausible, with a line of aesthetically-confusing boulders at the foot of the stage). In summary: mud.
Now enter the hippies – tens of thousands of 'em – hurdling up Vermont's Interstate 91 towards Phish's date with eternity. At the site, the overwhelmed staff dealt with a swamp, and directed folks the best they could to the contracting patches of higher ground. Those who arrived on Friday evening (in a drizzling rain) had to contend with pitching their tents or parking their RVs atop rapidly liquefying fields. Those who arrived later were met with a massively immovable wall of cars considerably south of the concert, and – come Saturday morning – an ominous and unbelievable announcement from The Bunny, the festival's on-site radio station: yes, the festival is going on but we're cutting off everybody south of the I-91 turnoff and could everybody else please turn around and go home (we're sincerely sorry, thank you, don't come again). By daybreak, a tape recording of bassist Mike Gordon and Sgt. Bruce Melendy of the Vermont State Police was playing on a veritable loop between the DJs' righteously tasteful cuts. What The Bunny could not broadcast was the sound of several thousand hearts sinking at once.
And so it came to be that, on the 35th anniversary of Woodstock, many Phishheads found themselves faced with a choice between abandoning their cars by the side of the road after enduring some 36 hours of traffic and hiking as much as 15 miles to the concert site or giving up and going home to join their friends at the concerts' nationwide movie theater simulcast. At least several thousand people picked the former, and tramped like refugees across the idyllic (albeit muddy) Vermont landscape of green rolling hills and barns and sweet-as-lemonade l'il houses-with porch-swings-and-whatnot towards Coventry. They came with backpacks, camping gear, and glowed the beatific glow of those on a Mission. By mid-afternoon, a steady stream was arriving on foot at the typically weird Phish festival site: acres of car-punctuated Tent City, long stretches of asphalt filled with the aromatic Shakedown Street bazaar of red-eyed revelers and vendors (frequently with little difference), crazy art pieces and costumed performers coordinated by Russ Bennett and Lars Fisk (this year based around an oversized burlesque medicine show), and small classy touches (including a local farmers' market where concert-goers could construct cheap meals of ridiculously delicious produce and – for Zen/dietary counter-balance – a tent selling gravy fries from Nectar's, the famed Burlington bar where the band used to gig).
Anybody who was there to soak it in had clearly gone through a lot (and clearly cared enough about Phish to do so), and probably already had amassed a heaping mound of campfire stories from the trip up (if there were only campfires to tell 'em around), likely stemming from some combination of long-hours inside-joke camaraderie or shared (and/or misdirected) close-quarters frustration. For Phish's backwoods camp-outs, the Journey To The Middle of Nowhere (most infamously a point so far in northeastern Maine that it is practically in the same time zone as Nova Scotia) has always played a large symbolic role. With Coventry, it reached its absolute apex as an art form for priming an audience for a pure emotional experience with whatever music was being made.
Got all that? Good.
Now enter Phish, about to break up after beating a 20-year path to these two final shows (during which they built a practically religious cult following), playing publicly in their home state for the first time in seven years, with all of the above pressure liberally and profoundly applied to their shoulders. If nothing else, it was the script for an old-fashioned Be Here Now happening on a massive scale, a meta-movie whose main action began the moment Phish stepped on stage early on Saturday evening for the first of six sets over two days.
2. Hemlock Rock
The musical details of the weekend, for the moment, are easy to forget (though, with LivePhish.com's pristine soundboards to go on, within days will be all that is left). Even with all of the above build, the end result of Coventry was still six separate performances from Phish, all around an hour-and-a-half in length. The performances, like every other show Phish has ever played, consisted of four guys making music with (for the most part) voices, guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums.
Objectively speaking, the music Phish made at Coventry was uneven: transcendent at best, atrocious at worst. That said, nearly every person present will likely cherish every strand of memory they can retain from the experience — and not because the band was pissing in people’s ears (though, sadly, they were at times), as they were once accused of doing, but because Phish turned in an incredibly sincere, open, naked performance. For a band that was once frequently attacked by critics for being emotionally sterile, it ironically took the gradual disintegration of their super-human musical precision to make for an expressively rich finale.
The good stuff on the first night of Coventry – of which there was a fair bit – was all very much in the vein of Phish’s 2004 jamming: dark, ambient, and weird. And when they were jamming, it was (for the most part) very good. "AC/DC Bag" was long and intricate (and answered the question of whether Phish would ever play their Gamehendge rock opera again with a resounding "nope"), "Halley’s Comet" slipped quietly into a sly reggae groove before landing in "Ya Mar," "Twist" had the band churning out a series of small, clean patterns (all shifting melody, no chords) which imperceptibly morphed the shape of the improvisation, "Stash" crested one last time from its dark base into majestic prettiness, "Free" had Gordon in an intimate guitar/bass duet with Trey Anastasio and, y’know, so on and so forth.
Atop all of this was an overwhelming sense of sadness and, later, all-out creepiness. In the first set, during "You Enjoy Myself," Anastasio presented the band's iconic mini-trampolines to the crowd, who dutifully shredded them into relics (one can imagine the bits someday going up on eBay replete with notarized proofs of authenticity). One intact piece was borne through the masses like a cartoonish Torah, occasionally brought low so that a fan might be raised above the crowd for a few bounces. There were more explanations, too, as Anastasio let the crowd in on a few more bits of band history, including the band's (gasp!) intentions with Junta’s "David Bowie" (to create intricately out-there music that people could dance to). Unfortunately, the band’s playing on the song’s written-out parts didn’t do Anastasio’s ambitions (nor their monumental success) much justice.
And, even more unfortunately, it was a recurring theme for the remainder of the night, during which the band was overcome by whatever tipsy-fuddled demon gripped them in Las Vegas earlier this year. After a glorious guitar-loop/Jon Fishman-march segue into the introduction to "The Wedge," the band began stumbling over themselves. The bad playing – which seemed to come mostly from Anastasio – continued through the written part of "Stash" (though stopped just as soon as they start jamming again), returned when they segued into "Free" (and, again, disappeared when they went back to making it up anew). The pattern continued for the rest of the set (topped off by incoherent-even-by-his-normally-endearing-standards commentary from Anastasio).
And so Phish went into their last night as a band, forgoing their usual wee morning campgrounds set, rumored to be performed from atop the medicine show wagon in the Commons and dragged down the tarmac, but cancelled when the cars parked on the runway due to flooding got in the way. One to go.
3. The Curtain
Admittedly, it was a lot of pressure. Anastasio admitted as much early on in the first set, following a squiggly "Weekapaug Groove" which sailed gracefully back into its theme. "In 21 years, I've never, ever been nervous going on stage before a Phish concert," he told the crowd. "Tonight, I'm a little nervous." It was unusual, both that Anastasio was nervous at all, and that a member of Phish was straightforwardly addressing an emotion besides joy. When the band struck up "Anything But Me," one of the gradually maturing ballads from the greatly belittled Round Room, lyrics which once seemed trite suddenly snapped into place as a perfect expression of Phish at The End.
Anastasio, especially, has long denied that the lyrics he sings are about his experiences as a member of Phish. After all, they are written by songwriting partner Tom Marshall. Regardless of this fact – for this night alone – nearly every single song Phish played was unavoidably and absolutely autobiographical. Who cares what Marshall's intentions were? If the lyrics were understood to mean as such to the audience, and fairly guaranteed to be on the band's minds as well, then the song's original meanings were firmly jettisoned, and music genuinely existed (as the band has always intended) in the moment — and, for this moment, they were clearly about something, and that something was Phish.
It was a world in which all of Phish's welcome nonsense finally meant something. "Can this wait ‘til I’m old, can’t I live while I’m young?" the 39-year old Anastasio sang on "Chalkdust Torture," on the verge of breaking up his once-youthful band just short of his 40th birthday, and it seemed more meaningful than ever. During "Wolfman’s Brother," he explained who the various characters in the song were, and – even if he didn’t point them all out directly – it was easy to imagine that they were all there, hovering on the overflowing bleachers beside the stage, like the funeral at the end of Tim Burton’s fanciful Big Fish in which all of the film’s improbable weirdoes gather at the cemetary for one last goodbye to their mythologizer.
"Down With Disease" has long been the culprit of the obvious meta-interpretation about the lyric's "a thousand barefoot children outside dancing on my lawn" being about the Phishheads, as opposed the much richer image of a fever-induced delirium of thousands of dancing children. But, at Coventry, there was no question what was on anybody's mind when Anastasio sang the eternal yearbook Phish refrain, "this has all been wonderful, but now I'm on my way." And then – as Anastasio launched into the song's distinctively epic solo – came the glowsticks, more of 'em than I've ever seen (and my own first tears of the night) bursting into what must surely have been the most neoningly zappulating glowstick war of Phish's career, and – more importantly – into a gigantic improvisation, the band listening with surprising agility amidst the tossed plastic toys (perhaps happy to have the pressure off). Mid-jam, Anastasio picked up a pair of glowsticks and began carefully hammering at his guitar strings with them (why didn't he think of that before?), creating a prepared piano-style dissonance.
The evening's best jam dissolved into "Wading in the Velvet Sea." Keyboardist Page McConnell was in tears by the second line of the first verse, and it was fucking heartbreaking. Seemingly attempting to convert the emotion to joyous poise, Anastasio wonderfully called for "Glide," a pure slice of Phish happiness from 1991's A Picture of Nectar, and one of the most deceivingly clever compositions to come from his pen. For once, music didn’t do the trick at all. The band wasn’t nearly up for it, and the song’s brief duration was probably the single sloppiest of any in the band’s career… at which point, all hell broke loose, Anastasio, too, breaking into tears in thanking the audience, with other bandmembers chiming in with their own thoughts. It was open, unrehearsed, and honest.
For the duration of the show, the band mostly retained their musical equilibrium, though all of the playing hovered near that same edge of openness — a combination of willing revelation (Anastasio inverting the "can you still have fun?" refrain of "Wilson" to the assurance that "you can still have fun!"), casual spontaneity (several songs made up for crew members, not to mention the emergence of Gordon and Anastasio's during the first set's "Wolfman's Brother," to dance in tandem with their songs during a bitchin' clavinet solo from McConnell), and – in the end – more human grace than you could shake a meatstick at.
The band opened their third set with "Fast Enough For You," probably Anastasio and Marshall's first successful ballad, and still one of their deepest, and moved on into a "Seven Below" (one of their most effective latter-day efforts) whose jam mutated into a quiet tapestry of Fishman's delicate cymbals and snares. Six sets is an awful lot of music over two days, and – by the end of it – it's powerful easy to take it for granted (and even, no matter how devoted to the band, to get tired). So, when it came down to the night's only encore, it came and went before there was all too much time to think about it, nor (thankfully) to draw out the evening with repeated returns to the stage.
The last song was an obscurity, no doubt: "The Curtain With," a distinctly Phishy tune that managed to miss the cut for 1988's Junta (a testament to the strength of the band’s early repertoire) and whose ending was later cannibalized for the title track on 1993’s Rift. It was a great choice, and – while it’s too bad that the band botched the song as badly as they did, even stopping in the middle to restart a section in the correct key – it was absolutely the thought that counted. Though Anastasio attributed the choice to fact that the song was written while he was living in an unheated cabin nearby Coventry, that fact alone didn’t distinguish the song (several others were written there, too). In the end, it was the lyrics that counted:
As he saw his life run away from him,
thousands ran along,
chanting words from a song:
"Please me have no regrets."
It came from the baby's mouth:
we follow the lines going south.
And so, like so many other bits of nonsense, "The Curtain With" – from the baby's mouth of the young Anastasio and the younger Phish – came down making sense once and for all. The show, and Phish, were over, and there was nothing to do but endure another traffic jam and begin the long trip home, following the lines (permanently?) back to the normal world far south, far away from Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. And – give or take a few thousand more personal travel odysseys to tie up loose subplots – the credits rolled. No regrets.