After some 36 hours encamped on a stretch of dusty Central Washington farmland dotted by Honey Buckets, make-shift Bloody Mary bars, rented RVs and taking in about 40 songs from one of rock music's most storied live bands, here is how I'll remember the Phish shows at the Gorge Amphitheater last weekend...
Winding through the gleeful horde at the allegedly sold-out second show on Saturday night is a man seemingly in his 40s with an at-least-12-foot fishing pole protruding from a complex and clearly self-made, harness-like apparatus around his chest. Dangling from about six feet of fishing line at the end of the pole is a Homer Simpson doll adorned somehow with flashing lights and as he walks, fans both viciously and joyfully bat the doll around. Now, the doll itself isn't that strange. What's intriguing is the fact that someone would A) go through the effort of creating this thing B) somehow get it though the ostensibly rigid security at the gate and C) willfully wear this intentionally annoying and spatially impractical apparatus around for four hours.
I suppose what makes this especially notable is the fact that this was the weirdest thing to happen all weekend, and for a pair of Phish shows, at least how I remember them, this wasn't all that weird. Something happened in the five years while Phish was broken up - things got less tie dyed. People went and got jobs, took showers, started wearing collared shirts, bought SUVs and had kids, whom they brought to the shows. There were hippies a plenty among the thousands camped out at the Gorge, but not the sort of volume that traveled across the country at the beginning of this decade.
I was the junior Phish fan in our foursome traveling up from Bend, having only seen three shows between '03 and '04, which was nothing compared to the 50-plus combined concerts my three car mates had attended. Two of them had actually driven all the way to Vermont to see Phish's supposed "last concert" almost exactly five years earlier. (Side note: During the set break of Saturday's show, a man told me that Phish should issue an apology to its fans for it's "fake farewell" concert.) There are no hippies in our car, either, just people traveling 300 miles to see a band they once would have dropped everything in their lives for.
Now, this isn't exactly a music story, but more of a cultural look at the weekend, but there has to be something said about the nearly eight total hours of music the band cranked out. As someone who more or less stopped listening to or caring about this band a couple years ago, I walked away somewhat in awe of Phish, something I didn't think would happen again in my lifetime. They sounded cleaner, crisper, livelier and essentially more impressive than I remember, opening the weekend with "Down with Disease" and closing it out with an encore performance of Led Zeppelin's "Good Times, Bad Times," peppering in favorite after favorite in between. Things were tight, even the long, scripted "You Enjoy Myself," a tune that Trey Anastasio once said he'd grown tired of playing - that was, of course, before his famous arrest, doped-out mug shot and rehab stint.
Inside the show, the Phish idiosyncrasies remain. Tortillas were tossed pre-show, folks clapped appropriately during "Stash" and knew they'd have to wait until the sun dipped behind the desert hills for the show to begin, regardless of the time printed on the ticket. In the campgrounds, the traditions continued, most notably on Shakedown Street, the row of marketplace kiosks managed by the entrepreneurs of the jam-band world. Here, the recession is hard to find, but pretty much everything else, legal or otherwise, is not. For sale are hula hoops, Phish-related and non-Phish-related clothing, foods ranging from grilled cheese to barbecue ribs, microbrews and macrobrews, jello shots, crystals, pipes of all varieties, a sticker of the president inexplicably dressed as a Jedi inside of a Grateful Dead logo and, perhaps most ridiculously, greeting cards almost certainly shoplifted from a Wal-Mart. It's here that some marginal band will, albeit without permission, play well past 2 a.m. night as beer-toting fans flow up and down the walkway, shady folks whispering code words of various drugs - this is what every mall in America would look like if the hippies had won the culture war. But again, most of the people pacing this hall of commerce aren't hippies, but maybe, like myself, waxing nostalgic for the days when this sort of thing made your summer.
Maybe you could call it a "cultural vacation" - diving headfirst into the world Phish cultivated over its three decades in existence, whether you were a part of it back in the day or not. And many of these people weren't; they were too young. The amount of late teens and early 20-somethings is somewhat surprising. Weren't some of these kids in middle school when the band broke up? Maybe it was the massive availability of tickets, which, although "sold out" within minutes through Ticketmaster, could be found the day prior to the show on craiglist.com for $20 - less than half the face value. At the Gorge, there were people actually giving away tickets near the gate. Perhaps these next generation fans just wanted to get in on what their older brothers and sisters had been talking about all those years.
It's this younger set that I find next to our campsite at 8 a.m. on Sunday morning, still drinking beers, passing a joint and listening to scratchy techno through a boombox with one blown-out speaker, saying brain-boiled things like, "Hey man, let's try to remember the first time we met." A line of cars with license plates from around the country is beginning to form toward the exit, tents are being broken down everywhere and for the first time in three days it's mostly quiet. Almost all discussion is either centered on the previous night's music or the best route home as we, after an hour in that line, finally make it out of the campgrounds, passing a bearded man with a cardboard sign reading: "NEED A RIDE TO CHICAGO." By the time you read this, Phish will have played in Chicago and hopefully that guy will have been there. Us? We'll be here in town, completely satiated with our helping of Phish.