081504 Phish, Coventry, VT

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Sunday August 15th, 2004 was supposed to be it for Phish.  It was the final day of their final festival, bandleader Trey Anastasio had been in an debilitating drug tailspin for some time and everything and everybody involved with the band was suffering for it.  His musicianship was deteriorating before our very eyes and his self-sabotage was wreaking sadness amongst his fans, bandmates, and crew.  Phish had decided to call it quits and Coventry was intended to be their last hurrah, as witnessed both in-person and via pay-per-view in theatres across the continent.

And all the phrases that I’m thinking of to describe how the two-day fest came off have swear words in them, so I will instead go into detail:

The festival took place in Coventry, Vermont and I pulled my car into a dead-stopped lineup on the I-91 on Friday night at around 11:30pm, about four miles north of the festival entrance highway exit.  My two travelling companions and I found friends and partied on the side of the highway until about 5:30am when I moved the car ahead about 30 feet, only because somebody got the idea that squeezing all the cars together would be a good idea.  Nobody was going anywhere but nobody seemed to care.  I finally fell asleep in the driver’s seat with my friends curled up in the backseat around 6:00am and tossed and turned until around 9:30am when I heard a hubbub outside.

Phish’s weekend-long popup festival radio station The Bunny had just started repeating the following announcement, as read by bass player Mike Gordon:  ”If you’re parked on the I-91 right now you are not getting into the show.  We’re very sorry and will reimburse your ticket money.  There is no walking into the venue, and if you leave your car on the side of the highway it will be towed.  We’re very sorry, have a safe trip back home.”

Really?  Really.  The problem was a week of heavy rain that had waterlogged the ground and degraded the concert site so much it was no longer fit for so many people and cars.  Or so we were being told.

My lack of sleep allowed me only numbness while all around I saw anger, confusion, bewilderment, and scheming.  Our first thought was to go north one exit, park the car in someone’s yard for some hypothetical fee and somehow hike into the venue.  But of course the police will have thought of that and shut down the exits to local traffic only…  

All around us people were abandoning their cars and walking.  I saw three people head straight into the forest, aimed vaguely in the direction they assumed the venue would be.  I bet they’re still wandering the woods to this day.  Gradually the unending lineup of cars alongside the highway were all pulling away or being deserted; we knew we had to make a decision but we were loath to admit the likelihood that logic would force us to bail on the weekend.

Despondent and on the very verge of driving back to Canada, a local walked by and handed me a slip of paper containing a hand-drawn map.  He told me that they were indeed letting us walk into the venue and added that we could park at his place for a small, no-longer-hypothetical fee.  Here was our potential way out, by which I mean “way in”, and it was certainly worth a try.

We followed the little map and were pleasantly surprised to find several friends from back home had gotten the same memo and all of us were parked within a dozen cars of each other on the Comeau property.  Young Bo in the yellow t-shirt was taking $40 per car in a very disorganized manner, with a claim that there would soon be a shuttle to bring us all as close to the venue as was possible.  My companions and I repacked, fast, abandoning our camp stove and our food, most of our clothes and a tent – we could all share mine.  I found the yellow t-shirt kid.

“Hey, uh, where’s this shuttle, my man?”

“Oh, well,” he said, looking around and scratching his head.  “I’m gonna be driving people over in my mom’s Saab, it’s right over there.”

My eyes scan his freshly mowed backyard that now has about forty vehicles parked on it, with room for plenty more.  There was already a hundred people or more milling about in need of shuttling.

“So, when’s the shuttle happening Bo?”

“Oh, I dunno,” he shrugs, “I guess I should start soon.”

My heart racing I try to walk fast yet casual back to my party.  “Guys, grab the stuff and let’s go wait over there next to that Saab,” I stage-whisper, barely moving my lips.  Two backpacks, a tent, sleeping mattress, cooler, snacks, eighteen bottles of water, forty cans of beer, much wine, two bags of ice, and the three of us ran unnoticed to the Saab.  There were two others doing the same thing and somehow the six of us (counting Bo) and all of our gear got into that car for its first run and we drove eight miles or so to the corner of Highway 5 and Airport Road.  My friend got Bo’s number and we waved goodbye, half thinking that we’d never see that kid again.

Things were looking up!

So it was true.  The cops were indeed letting people walk into the venue.  The sun was screaming down on us and we hiked three miles or so with all that stuff – uphill all the way – past countless lucky ones who had already pulled their cars onto Hwy. 5 when the news had hit that morning.  We were being passed by a constant barrage of locals on ATV’s and golf carts who were trucking people to the top of the hill for $20 a head.  We were exhausted, hungry, and sweating our butts off but we weren’t on our way home, so we were happy enough to keep walking. 

Finally the top of the hill emerged before our eyes, and another twenty minutes in line to get our tickets punched and we were in!  We walked about eighty feet, decided we had walked enough and dropped our load.  We cracked a set of icy cold we-were-crazy-enough-to-carry-it-in-so-we’re-gonna-bloody-well-enjoy-it beers, set up our meagre camp on a patch of dry grass and we were set.  We were downright tuckered out but we were in, the sun was shining, and all was very, very good.

After a solid three-hour rest we decided to hit the venue.  We were camped beside a couple of guys from Montreal that we had met on the way up the hill (one of which was a passing acquaintance of mine) and the five of us joined another group of friends and started walking.  Let me say, I don’t begrudge our choice of campsites at all despite the two mile walk from tent to stage, but wow, two miles?!?  Once we got to the common area with the vendors and such there was mud all right, and though it was pretty bad in spots people had put boards down and if you were careful enough it was quite manageable.  I was just in sneakers (all weekend) and my socks never got muddy (all weekend), so it certainly wasn’t apocalyptic as some might tell you.  Along the way our crew got separated and found and separated and found, and eventually five of us dropped a tarp near the back of the concert field and pretty much stayed put for the next seven hours.

Thus did commence the first of the two nights of music which were both quite terrible really, though chock full of emotion.  The elephant in the room was Trey’s drug problem and how it was having such a clear and negative effect on his playing and his relationship with the band.  Just a few songs into night one they attempted to play their adventurous prog-Bach mega-hit You Enjoy Myself, limping through one massive flub after another as Trey’s banana-fingers slid all over the fretboard trying unsuccessfully to find his place.  All weekend long, when it came down to composed parts Trey was completely lost most of the time and trying to keep up the rest of the time.  It was hard to watch.  

The other three guys worked with the muscle memory that remained after years of diligent, undrugged practise and managed to get that elephant up and dancing well enough to cover some of the stench and offer occasional glimpses of hope (mostly during the improvised jammy parts), but truly, the entire weekend was the worst of Phish.

They played Harry Hood and I got emotional, which I’ve told you about elsewhere.  

The second day (the one that I am ostensibly writing about here) mirrored the first though the sets were much more emotional, with the band members saying goodbye to us and each other and getting choked up and the like.  All in all it was another night of Phish sobbing and stumbling through some of their most glorious music, flawed and sad as it all was.  It was all so very bleak.

Monday morning we three woke up around 11am and packed up quick in an attempt to beat the dark looming clouds.  We got ‘er all squared away and set off down the hill, our souls and our load much lighter than when we walked up it.  Halfway down the hill we crossed our fingers and called Bo.  He was having breakfast.  Nobody had called him for a ride yet, and he would meet us at the bottom of the hill in half an hour.

And then the rains came.  The rains we missed by not arriving until late on Friday night, the rains we were told to expect all weekend, the rains that should’ve but didn’t fall on each and every set, the rains that would have made the festival suck even more, if that was even a thing; those rains came.  And you know what?  They were refreshing, baptismal even.  The drops were warm and cleansing, and they had benevolently held off all weekend.  We could not deny such a rain.  Several people offered us free ponchos.  Nay, we said, let the rains come, it’s Over.

Drenched to the bone, we found Bo and true to his word he got us back to our car.  We were the first ones out.  Twenty minutes later we were back in Canada cruising for a Tim Horton’s.

At one point during the weekend my new Quebecois friend had said, “I’m glad I’m here, and I’m glad it’s the last time.”  A lot was said about the band over those highly emotional two nights, but his sentiment summed up my feelings the best.  Frankly, after a weekend like that if they didn’t quit, Phish might have found themselves fired. 

The true bottom line is that Trey got himself back together, and just like a healed bone when Phish got back together they were stronger than ever.  I’m no longer glad that Coventry was the “last time”; as a matter of fact the advantage of retrospect makes that feel like blasphemy.  Nowadays “Coventry” itself feels like a swear word.

Phish could have ended so badly but instead the band continues on, flourishes, and shines.

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