"Build a city, build myself a city to live in," guitarist Trey Anastasio chimed on the first day of Phish's weekend extravaganza, pausing that Talking Heads cover mid-song to call out to fans on a faraway Ferris wheel.
It was a fitting line, given the setting: a veritable nomad city of 65,000 built upon the turf of the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine. Lemonwheel, this summer's grand Phish tour finale, was well underway. And in the tradition of 1997's Great Went (also held at Loring) and 1996's Clifford Ball in Plattsburgh, N.Y., the tribes had turned out in force.
The return to Loring allowed for creative planning that resulted in a more highly evolved theme-park vibe. Inside the concert grounds sprouted a Garden of Infinite Pleasantries, an Asian-styled playground with tiki huts, huge papier-mache cranes, a stacked-Portalet pagoda, walk-in sapling sculptures and a rock garden where fans piled stones.
Then, of course, there was the music -- more than four hours of Phish per day, as well as an after-hours jam where the quartet probed Brian Eno-inspired soundscapes on the main stage, surrounded by nearly a thousand candles painted by fans in the crafts area. (The Eno influence would surface again in lulling, whimsical tunes "Brian and Robert" (as in Eno and Robert Fripp), "Relax" and "Wading in the Velvet Sea," all slated for the October studio album The Story of the Ghost and generated from improvised sessions like the Lemonwheel space jam.)
But Lemonwheel's peaks came in robust jam vehicles like "David Bowie," an afternoon "Possum" (with Miles Davis guitar quotes) and "Down With Disease," which segued into the accelerating trance of "Piper." Those songs found Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, drummer Jon Fishman and keyboardist Page McConnell locked in shifting, telepathic grooves that retained a muscular as well as a cerebral focus, driven home by a monster sound system and light show to rival the Maine sky. Also welcome were the playful intricacies of art-rocking rarities "The Divided Sky" (played the first day after the sun came out) and "Fluffhead," as well as the goofy "Sanity," where the band sang "Lost my mind just a couple of times ...."
Then, of course, there were the covers. Fishman took center stage in his tattered housedress to croon Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," and add a "sounds of love" solo on his vacuum cleaner, which he played like an inverse kazoo. And Phish opened its final set by nailing the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" with edgy garage-punk glee, and later followed with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," revived from Phish's performance of the Beatles' entire White Album as a Halloween stunt in 1994, but rarely played in recent years.
However, the strangest cover -- and moment -- of Lemonwheel came at the end, when band members lit an onstage fuse that worked its way to a giant elephant sculpture off to the edge of the crowd. Fireworks exploded in the sky as the elephant raised its trunk and blew mist (while Fishman provided a soundtrack on trombone), then rolled toward the campgrounds while Phish loped through Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk."
Lemonwheel was quite a trek for Phish's road-tripping fans, and drew about 5,000 fewer people than the Great Went or Clifford Ball. Of course, it was still a big crowd (the band should have kept the video screens of the past two years), especially compared to the few thousand folks that showed up for Phish's free '91 show on a farm in Auburn, Maine. Yet, in its artistic scope and carnival-like unpredictability (the campground was a trip unto itself), Lemonwheel offered an unparalleled escape from the outside world, and a detour from today's cookie-cutter concert venues.