Thousands of devoted Phish fans abandoned their cars along Vermont’s Interstate 91 and hiked upwards of fifteen miles to reach the Coventry festival, the twenty-year-old jam band’s final performances.
Record precipitation resulted in a badly muddied 600-acre concert site. With parked cars beginning to sink in the mire, many — even those with tickets — were asked to turn away. State police shut down I-91 nearly twenty miles from the festival grounds.
“We never imagined in a million years that we would experience this kind of saturation,” said festival co-producer Dave Werlin of Great Northeast Productions. “This is only the second or third time in nearly 100 years.”
The announcement to turn back came early Saturday morning, spread by The Bunny, the festival’s on-site FM station. “There’s just no way it’s gonna clear up in three days,” bassist Mike Gordon apologized, broadcasting to the tens of thousands of fans stuck in traffic on I-91. Promoters promised that a yet-undecided olive branch would be offered to those who complied.
However, though they were discouraged from doing so, many parked their cars on the side of the road, strapped on their backpacks and traversed the green hills to the concert site. By showtime on Saturday, nearly 65,000 of the 70,000 ticket buyers made it inside the festival grounds.
“I sat through thirty-six hours of traffic and walked fifteen miles all to see one band,” said Nick Rocha, 25, who left Kansas City early Tuesday morning. “I’m not gonna get towed. Where are they gonna take all the cars?”
Phish, founded in Vermont in 1983, built a unique audience with bizarre stage antics, intricate composition that deftly hopped between genres, long improvisations, and a notion of fan-friendly progression that endeared them to bootleg collecting obsessives with a predilection for following their heroes to the ends of the earth. After a two-year hiatus, from 2000 to 2002, the band returned to the road, though found themselves less than inspired.
In May, guitarist and leader Trey Anastasio posted to the group’s Web site, announcing that Phish would be disbanding following the June release of their final album, Undermind, and the subsequent tours. He insisted that he did not wish for the band to “drag on beyond the point of vibrancy and health” becoming “caricatures of ourselves, or worse yet, a nostalgia act.”
The already-announced Coventry became final edition of the off-the-beaten-path campouts for which Phish was renowned. Beginning with 1996’s Clifford Ball, Phish’s festivals were revered among fans for their surreal touches by Vermont installation artists Lars Fisk and Russ Bennett, late night surprises, and generous helpings of Phish music.
This year, local farmers offered fresh produce at low prices, while Nectar’s (a Burlington bar where Phish gigged in their formative years) sold their infamous gravy fries from a tent in the Commons food court. In addition to broadcasting Phish’s performances and traffic updates, The Bunny blasted avant-garde weirdness well into the wee hours.
Though a triumph for the many who slogged through hell to get there, Phish’s three-set performance on Saturday underscored why they are breaking up. Punctuated by several deliciously winding jams on “Stash,” “AC/DC Bag” and “Twist,” the band — especially guitarist Trey Anastasio — seemed to only half-remember much of their complex material.
The band’s final sets on Sunday were an extraordinarily human “goodbye” mostly unknown in rock & roll. Early on, Anastasio confessed his nervousness to the crowd. Later, both he and keyboardist Page McConnell broke out in tears, the latter during an emotional rendition of “Wading in the Velvet Sea.” Though still uneven, fans were more than forgiving of the band, which — under the double pressures of disastrous conditions and its final shows — sparkled with extended improvisations on “Seven Below” and “Down With Disease.”
Throughout the evening, Anastasio let the audience in decades-old inside jokes, explaining long-cryptic song lyrics and stories of the band’s Vermont origins. For Phish’s final encore, they chose the obscure “The Curtain With,” a song composed by Anastasio when he lived for a summer in a cabin nearby Coventry. “Please me have no regrets,” Anastasio sang, and thousands sang along.