Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Missing Coventry

My Buddy Jeff's Personal Coventry Experience
(or how I missed the epoch)

I have been seeing Phish at various venues in the Northeast since 1996. I'll have to count my shows at some point, since many folks seem to have that number ingrained in their heads. I was waffling about going to Coventry when I heard it announced, honestly. I had been to IT last year and while it was great I was thinking that I wanted to see another festival, maybe one with multiple bands for my 1 festival-per-summer allotment from my great wife (thanks O;). But then the announcement came that Coventry was to be the last show. Well of course that's a no-brainer. We must go. A lot of my friends waited too long and missed out on tix, but I ordered right after I heard the announcement and was rewarded with a ticket stub in my hand! I also got to see a great show at Mansfield ("Tweezer Center") on 8/11.

Anyway, on Friday 8/13, about three hours after I left my house in Massachusetts, I arrived in Orleans County, to standstill traffic at about 4pm. Par for the course, I thought. My estimate was that I was about 15-20 miles away from the venue, somewhere between exits 24 and 25 of Rt. 91N. My friend Shep had bagged out on me that morning and gave me his ticket to sell or "miracle" as I saw fit. He saw the "mud reports" on phish.com and was too scared to bring his luxurious airstream camper into this volatile situation. I don't blame him of course. So I was solo, having to downgrade my accommodations to my measly tent, and take my chances of finding a dry patch of ground upon which to lay it.

So, from 4pm to about 10pm on Friday, me and my thousand newfound buddies inched our way northward. After 10pm, there was no inching, no movement, and rain had set in. Not promising. Not unexpected. I have to say that most phish fans are uncanny in their patience and willingness to be a community that respects each other, and respect the outside community that needed to use the highway for, go figure, reasons other than getting to a phish concert. That is to say, most of us listened to the authorities and stayed in the 2 right lanes and left the left lane open for actual *traffic*. Those logging trucks and Canadians don't know how lucky they are that it was phish playing and not some other band. While there were definitely many "heady" looking vehicles abusing the left lane and vying for an end run, the vast majority were respectful of the road rules. I doubt if that respect would have occurred had it been any other band's fans. Unfortunately there was abit less respect for the environment of the Vermont roadside. Piles and piles of junk, mostly beer bottles and cans were left for Mother Earth to digest. Hopefully being cleaned up as I write this on Tuesday morning. Honestly I am embarrassed about the majority of phish fans' consumption tendencies and environmental disregard. I really wish I could be up there right now helping to clean up, but I am out of vacation days.... Most memorable quote from this experience: "don't jersey vermont". LOL!

So, around 7am on Sat., after a very light nappy, the cars start inching along again, probably just because of the few that could not take it anymore and jumped into the left lane. Then around 9am comes the "Announcement". Mike Gordon gets on the Bunny (local radio for the fest) and says that the festival campgrounds are unfit for any more vehicles due to mud, and asked for us to all turn around and go home. (paraphrasing) "Very sorry, but we can't fit you into the festival and in the spirit of public safety, you need to turn around and go home. We will make it up to you with a refund if you want but you will not be able to make it in. We are so sorry......".

Well that certainly woke us up. Suddenly anarchy breaks out! People start into the forbidden *left lane*. I was just south of a turnaround road so I was privy to seeing many of the disgusted folks just get out and head south. My first inclination was to do the same, having had no sleep and feeling rather alone and hurt at the moment. So I turn left onto the little road that so many others were taking. And before I turned left again to 91S I pulled over and parked. I got out and walked about the traffic for a bit, all confused, frustrated, and basically resigned to going home. But as I walked and talked to people, a funny thing happened. That frustration turned to hope then elation as most of the people I encountered reminded me of that prankster spirit that brought the Grateful Dead, and later Phish, into existence. Everyone began reassuring each other that it was all going to be OK, and we are all going to make it in. Why can't we just "leave our cars here"! They can't tow us all. And you know, if they do, so what! After all these are just mortal trappings that have bound us, we don't have to listen to our materialistic side. This is about so much more than that. This is spiritual, this is an ultimate quest, this is, dare I say, Biblical.

Yes, the positivity and outpouring of good vibes was overwhelming and so I got into my car, backed out onto the highway (into the left lane!!), and proceeded to drive northward in the left lane. Everything was alive and abuzz. All lanes now moving, but in a very "shakedown street" kind of way if you get my meaning. I picked up and dropped off a few folks until I settled into a breakdown lane parking spot a couple of miles north of exit 25 (exit 26 was the concert exit and was blocked, they said, so I wanted to make sure my car was stashed before then). Little did I know that I was still 12 to 15 miles away from the venue and as my usual luck would have, I saw several prime parking spots on my walk. Flatbeds and pickups filled to capacity with happy campers and their gear, thousands traveling on foot, thumbs extended, cars littered on both sides of the highway, as the pilgrimage to holy Mecca swung into full gear!

A few miles up I encountered a group of opportunistic locals who, parking on a cross street under the highway, called up to us pilgrims to provide assistance. God bless America - capitalism isn't so bad. For a mere $10 apiece, a nice Vermont lady and her daughter gave me and 6 other folks a ride in the back of her pickup truck. We took the scenic tour of Orleans County. Dirt roads, rolling fields of corn, junkyard, swamp, and opportunistic makeshift "camp-n-rides". Since the main road in was blocked, she had taken us around the other side to the VIP entrance. Sweet! It was still a good 2 miles from the venue but I figure that ride took about 10 miles off my trek. So we get out and hit the first ticket checkpoint. That's when I realized that I still had an extra ticket! So very luckily, I just called out once and someone behind me was able to take it off my hands. Wow - that person was really chancing it, coming this far and not even sure about getting a ticket! Anyway, the guy was profusely thankful for the face charge, and I was happy to give it. A few hours earlier, and an opportunistic person could probably have raked in $500 for a ticket. Although I couldn't live with myself to do that to a beautiful phish fan. My brethren.

As the pilgrimage continues, spirits are high. The weather is amazing. Partly cloudy and 70's. I helped some lovely Virginians (possibly virgins;) carry their cooler. These ladies needed help, really, and even though my arms and shoulders were in pain, I did have an extra hand and I put it to use where it was needed. (I didn't plan on needing a backpack and my duffle strap was cutting into my shoulder at this point. And I left so many comforts back in the car....oh well...)
OK, I had better get going here. All this writing and not a note played yet. Anyway, to cut to the short, we eventually got into the venue (thanks to that lady in the FedEx truck for the last few hundred feet). First thing I saw inside was a group of folks helping push a car out of the mud. A nice security girl helped me out with directions. Then I immediately sunk into a muddy patch and got my new sandals completely muddy. You know, the kind where there's mud in between your toes, in between your foot and wherever the shoe usually touches it. Yuck. I guess they were right. It was pretty darn muddy. I walked for only about 10 minutes more to find a not-too-muddy site to pitch camp. Wet ground was inescapable. No matter - we're in - around 3pm on Sat - plenty of time before the first set! Woo hoooo!!!
I must say, I felt really really sorry for all those who heeded the request to turn around. It almost was a test to see who was prankster enough, and determined enough, to get in. If they had only thought about it for a minute before starting back. If only they had shaken off the sleep, gotten out of the car, and talked to other folks they would have seen what I saw and realized that the only real choice was to continue. For us lucky ones were able to experience The Rapture, and those who left and those who didn't come at all but wanted to were Left Behind. Biblical. Millennial. I was halfway expecting Armageddon.
But I digress. So, here I am, pre-show. Being alone, I don't have the baggage of friends who don't seem to like the close quarters close to the stage. I make my way into the concert venue and sidle up to a nice spot next to the TV camera stand, about 50 yards back from the stage. 90% of the crowd behind me. Not that close, but there is a dry place to put my fannypack and shoes in the fenced in area of the camera stand. Also I could actually see people on the stage! Unfortunately where I am standing is about 6" deep in the soup. From here, I could just make out some boulders in the security pit between audience and stage. I start to wonder, is that going to tie into a 'hendge theme later??? Hmmmm??? (of course that was not to be...)

First song: Walls of the Cave. And we're off. I'm not going to go into a deep musical revue here. I'll leave that to others who are more qualified. But I have tons of highlights, and I'll try to put down what I remember and what I felt. From the beginning, there was definitely a weird vibe. I couldn't put my finger on it. The band was pretty sloppy, moreso than usual I thought. I'm sure they were incredibly nervous and anxious. First of all, the rain and mud catastrophe, and having to make the crushing decision to turn away fans. And now here they are playing their last 6 sets. You could tell that they were doing all they could to hold on. And I felt for them. I am sure the burdens of their position were weighing like concrete. How can they let this many people down?

They make it through OK versions of Runaway Jim, Jibboo, and proceed into YEM. We get to see the tramps for the last time, and, after that, Trey brings down the tramps down to the security pit, upon which they are handed back into the audience, slowly decomposing into the crowd. I eventually saw one way behind me, touched by many hands in this symbolic gesture of YEM for the *last time*. Then they do a few ditties - Trey is trying with great effort to keep the energy high. Sample, Axilla, Poor Heart, then into the meatier Antelope. Tom Marshall is brought out after the main jam to personally utter his improvised lyrics "marco esquandolas....". Lots of great tidbits here and there. It seems like Trey feels the need to explain things because he may not have a chance to do so ever again. (Maybe he forgot that he can still give interviews or write something himself;). A loose Fire Hendrix cover and we're out of Set 1.

A beautiful sunset precedes Set 2. I move back to a less muddy spot to dance. One noticeable thing about the music is that there are spectacular sections in between the slop. I particularly love the space jams and feedback/loop solos. And when Kurdoa's visual machine is in synchronous action, let me just say, the alien ship has landed!! Take me to your world, baby! Fun set. Mike gets a bass solo in Ya Mar, which the audience does an amazingly *on* clapping participation to. Trey explains David Bowie a little before launching into it. Set ends with Character Zero.

At this point it is about 10pm Sat nite and I am feeling cold. Damp and around 60%, I head out of the venue to go get some warm clothes. After a very muddy and crowded ordeal I finally get to my tent, lay down, and it feels really good. After the shenanigans of the past 36 hours or so, I am totally beat. But I tell myself, get thee to the venue. So, as I put on my jacket, I hear them start up the third set. Oh well, I think. I will just lay here for a song or two then head to the venue.... Luckily my campsite was close to the venue - decent sound. Although sometimes someone's radio sound would waft in, causing a wacky delayed effect since the radio was real-time and the real concert had to carry a good half mile or so. I never made it back that night, needless to say, but heard some great sonics over the Vermont landscape. Hood encore. I nap for awhile, still intending to make it out onto shakedown. I take a barefoot stroll at about 4:20am, and say hello to some toasty folks, dance to some cheesy disco, and see the light come back to the partly cloudy sky. Still have not run into one familiar face! No matter - they are ALL friendly.

Sunday am rolls around. I realize that I should probably think about how I am going to get back to my car. I also realize that, while everyone is friendly, I need my familiar friends. After about 1 mile of shakedown, a nice sausage/egg/cheese sandwich and coffee, and a sage smudge that I bought and lit for the walk, I head over to section H and look for a red crab on a white flag, where Mel told me she was staying. Easy as pie. I see my buds Roman, Ben, and Mel. We hang out the rest of the time and I arrange passage with them to the Rt 91 extension of "the lot". They want to leave right after the encore, as Mel has to work on Monday. I'm in. Before the Sunday sets, they move the car close to the exit. And I break down my tent and bring all my stuff back to the car. Golden!

Sunday show vibe was just as weird if not weirder than Saturday. They were flubbing all over and also having some sweet amazing moments. Trey is forgetting words, and missing timing left and right. Trey and Mike brought their moms out to dance during a long Page/Fish solo in Wolfmans during 1st set. Then they bring out manager John Paluska for a "sandwich" dance.

Second set gives us Disease with glowsticks and a wild Trey solo (gee, really??;) where it looks like he was using a glowstick to do all these slides and pulloffs with the guitar strings. Then comes Velvet Sea where Page gets so choked up that he can't continue singing. The band totally falls apart for what seems like minutes until they finally get to the chorus and can solo out and hide their emotion behind their instruments. This was yet another of many times where my eyes started to well up, as I could feel the love and utter devotion felt between inter-band and band-audience. Incredible - we love you Page. Then Glide. Then Trey must have decided that the emotion was running too high so he starts a little speech, and hands the mike to Page, who couldn't muster it and just said "pass it to Mike". Mike kept fairly cool and was able to extend a short but nice thank you. I mean what can you really say at this point. Fishman say a quick "thanks to those who walked". Then Trey goes on, breaks down, and makes us all realize why we love him so. He is really so human, and even though some may treat him as a god, and wish he was, he is really just another man among us, "playing in the band". He ends his speech with something like "now we need to blow off some fucking steam". They play a long Split Open and Melt into a Ghost with glowsticks. The spaceship definitely lands. A few times. True Phish madness. I am sober and in heaven. Rapture.

Third set unusuals include improvised songs for a couple of their crew. Bruno "do the Bruno!" is their stage monitor sound man, and the other guy was Dickie Scott or something like that. Pretty cool. Then Wilson, a nice Slave, and goodbye Set 3 with fireworks. We start to position ourselves at the concert exit. They come back on for The Curtain as encore and Trey mentions that this song brings them "full circle". We leave the venue via the main road, avoiding shakedown, to hear the last wafts of the Curtain. To the car for an effortless drive out, to the wasteland of Rt 91, to find my car untouched, exactly where it was left (huge relief!). And to say goodbye to good friends and enjoy the quiet memories of my weekend on the Maxwell dairy farm in the solitude of my 3 hour ride back home.

Ol' Brown Shoe
Jeff Larson Band

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