070111 Phish, Watkins Glen, NY

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Happy Canada Day, America.

Such was the dichotomy of gusto and subdued disappointment (not to mention misplaced nationalism, literally) as I emerged from my tent on July 1st, 2011 on the outskirts of the Watkins Glen Speedway just south of New York’s Finger Lakes Region*.  Of course it was a Phish festival (Superball IX) and of course I was with m’lady, for it takes exactly this sort of confluence to extract me from my home city on my favourite annual holiday**.  We had a quartet of great friends along for the ride – we had rented one of those Thule roof racks to make the one-car squeeze possible – so I suppose I had brought a nice little chunk of home along with me, but still…Canada Day in America?  Ah well, no better place to make the best of it than at a Phish fest.

As we had all come to expect, the band and the fans alike had gone the extra mile to make the weekend as fun as possible.  There were installations all over the place; mock buildings, balloon sculptures, some nifty pinball-related chunks of art, and was this the year they had a bunch of scientists wandering around with clipboards?  Then there was the ubiquitous Ferris wheel***, the fun concession stands (Beers of the World was so, so wasted on pre-IPA me), and my buddy BDunn with his life-sized cutout of Mr. T.  

And after a rollicking great day bouncing from one of these wonders to another we still had a whole music festival to enjoy!  Down at the concert pitch the band started off the weekend with Possum, a silly-singy-dancy fan-favourite that had been penned by the band’s only former member (Jeff Holdsworth.  I wonder if he was there in the crowd somewhere?  If so he would have been easily invisible among the 70,000 in attendance; I don’t think even the deepest Phish fan knows what he looks like.  Heck, if we had room he could have ridden down with us…apparently Holdsworth has been living in Ottawa for years).  Next up was a big favourite of mine, Frank Zappa’s Peaches en Regalia.  To be honest, I don’t think Phish even comes close to doing the song justice but I sure do love that they have the chutzpah to try.  I sure do remember them launching into the song on this day but then, I’ve only seen Phish play it a handful of times so every performance remains precious.  Despite the fact that – like I say – they don’t really do the song justice.

It’s curious now that I’m looking at the setlist online…looking at the rest of this set I’d almost have to agree with snarky Billy Joel’s assessment of Phish as “a glorified cover band”.  After Peaches was Moma Dance, then Torn and Frayed by The Stones, then NICU and Bathtub Gin followed by David Bowie’s Life On Mars?, then another pair of originals (My Friend and Wolfman’s) then Ween’s Roses Are Free, another original (Funky Bitch) and then a final cover song, Bob Dylan’s Quinn the Eskimo.  That’s five covers songs out of a twelve-song setlist (it’s a stretch to consider Possum a cover song but if you do, then it’s half and half).  They started off the second set by jamming into a Talking Heads tune, but after that it was all Phish.

Curiously, my biggest memory from the evening (if it was indeed this first night of music) was returning to our campsite after the encore.  For some reason I had arrived alone, but our campsite next-door neighbour was there (a super-nice guy from…was it New Jersey? who tried his level best to keep in touch with me afterwards but I let it slide and now I don’t even remember his name), and he was grilling up some sausages.  They were special sausages, he made them himself I think, or he bought them from a special butcher or some such thing; one of those “…best sausages in all of Joysie…” sort of things.  Anyway, he was talking them up hard and asked me if I wanted one.  “Sure!” I answered.  When he handed me the bunned delight he held up a squeeze-bottle of mustard.  “You just can’t eat it without mustard!” he declared.  

Now, I am so very anti-mustard you’d be excused for thinking that eliminating the condiment’s existence from the face of the planet was my life’s work, but somehow…some way I was inspired to just say “yes”.  And (if you can believe it; I can’t) I stood there and ate the whole thing, mustard and all.  I didn’t gag, I didn’t puke, I didn’t die.  I didn’t like it either.  But I ate it, and with a big old drunky Canada Day-sized smile on my face too.  M’lady came back in time to watch me finish it off, which she did with wide-eyed consternation.  It’s a feat I have not attempted since. 

*For the record, there are eleven “finger” lakes, but really, the whole area around the lakes is rife with weird names.  A quick glance: Canadice, Hemlock, Conesus, Penn Yan, Romulus, Stanley, Adrian, Spencer, Howard, Wallace, Tyrone, Willard, Italy, Naples, Genoa, Geneva, Atlanta…

I would find it odd to spend my life saying “I live in Howard” or “I come from Romulus” or, even worse, “Actually, it’s Atlanta, New York.”

**I must say, my nationalistic pride has taken a bit of a wallop over the years as it had gradually been replaced by knowledge, solemnity, and a deep desire for reconciliation.  For me July 1st was always a joyous drinking holiday wrapped up in a red maple leaf.  Now it is a day of reflection and celebration of the culture and people that were unceremoniously buried beneath that flag. 

***Did you know that George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. rode on William Somers’ “Somers wheel” (which was patented as a “Roundabout”) a full year before he patented his own “Ferris wheel” (which was popularly known as a “Chicago wheel” at the time)?  More importantly: Do you care?

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