Part of the greatness of Phish tour is that mixed with all the majestic music, there were inevitably absurd episodes and hilarious experiences that live on to this day. Combine the use of psychedelics, massive crowds of people, and the ambitious mission of getting to every show on time, and you had the recipe for some serious shenanigans. Each year on the anniversary of that surreal weekend that was Denver ’97, I am always reminded of one such tale.
The day after the E Center introduced the new concept of the four song second set with “Wolfman’s > Simple, Twist > Slave,” I set out for Denver. The west coasters I did the first two shows with were headed home, and I was driving to Boulder to stay with a good friend I knew from growing up. My friend- let’s call him “Leaguer”- was at school in Boulder and decided to come to the shows with me having never seen Phish. Leaguer was the classic high school stoner- think Slater from Dazed and Confused with curly hair- but never got into any facet of “the scene.” A sports fan through and through, live music just wasn’t his thing. But a lover of any good time, it was not hard to convince him to test the waters of the Phish.
In order to fully appreciate this story, you need to fully appreciate Leaguer. Basically, he is a total clown. Someone who makes you laugh consistently with his witty and unique humor, he has even spent a stint as a stand up comedian. He went to school at Boulder more to see the football team than for the mountains. Distinctly an indoorsman, I’m not sure he ever skied in all his years at Boulder. He is someone I knew from junior high and high school and was a second younger brother to me. One of my best friends, the dude is straight comedy, and I was psyched to introduce him to my other world. With him having now progressed into a hip, weight-lifting New York City metrosexual, we always think back on this night and laugh heartily.
We got to the show in time to find him a ticket and chill a bit before going in. Leaguer had dabbled in psychedelics in his high school years, and we both figured that it would be fun to be elevated for his first Phish experience. Not knowing their music at all or what he was in for, Leaguer was game- what the heck- you can’t have a bad time on mushrooms. Or so he thought. We each crafted our one-eighth sandwich and chowed down. Having just come from Vegas and Utah, I was bursting with enthusiastic anticipation to witness what would unfold over the next two nights. And Leaguer was just psyched to join the ride.
Before stubbing him down to the floor, we picked a spot to meet after the set in the random case that he got booted back to his section. As we sat in our seats before the show, those eighths were beginning to overwhelmingly engage our minds. In what seemed like an never-ending flash, the building was full and the lights went down. I knew that Leaguer, having never been to a show, was nervous about not having a floor stub. I told him to take my actual seat, as I was going to rage in the aisles. We both thought that was a perfect plan, since no one would come claim his seat. So Phish comes out and the show begins. “NICU,” “My Soul” and then boom- the second ever drop of “Black-Eyed Katy.” As I was going huge, I glanced over at Leaguer and our plan had worked out and the rest of the row had filled in.
I can never quite understand the next event. As the band chilled out with “Farmhouse,” a mustached security guard came down to clear the aisles on the floor. As I used my Jedi Phish skills to slide over, pretend not to notice him, and reclaim my space in the aisle, I saw him look down Leaguer’s row. Maybe Leaguer really looked like he didn’t belong there, because as we were beginning to trip balls and he was doing absolutely nothing, the security shined his light at him and asked him for his ticket. No one else- just him- like a suspect picked out of a police line up. As Leaguer visibly panicked, I was helpless to fix the situation. Just before the guard escorted Leaguer off the floor, I made eye-contact with him, signifying we’d meet at our chosen point at set break.
After a string of random songs ended the set, including two with a guest banjo player, I thought to myself, “Not the best ‘first set ever’ for Leaguer to see. Apparently I didn’t know the half of it. As I got to the seats in the lower bowl where we meeting, I spotted him and he didn’t look good. Contradictorily, I was euphorically faced and ready for what would certainly be a huge second set. As I approached him, he was clearly bugging- tripping far too hard in a totally foreign, overwhelming environment. While it’s always fun to teeter, its no fun to fall off the the other side. As I tried to calm him down, reminding him we were just at a concert on mushrooms, he was completely inconsolable. I felt bad about the situation at hand, but also knew that he was totally fine in the scheme of things, giving the entire episode a certain comedic aspect. As he sat there rocking back and forth, he peered up at me more than once asking, “Can we go home now?” As I laughed at his propositions, he was too enraptured by his maddening world to hear any reason or logic. The mere fact that it was Leaguer, and he had finally had come to see Phish, just made it the funniest thing to me.
The guys behind us noticed what was happening, and a dreaded hippie reached over and handed him a crystal, saying,”Hold this for a while. It will help you.” Without even knowing it, Leaguer grabbed it and continued rocking back and forth, desperately trying to gain control of an uncontrollable situation. After a few minutes of my attempting to bring him back, he looked at the crystal in his hand with disdain and exclaimed, “What the fuck is this?” and handed it over to me knowing not where it came from.
Obviously staying with him for the second set, I settled in to watch from the seats. Nothing i said could convince Leaguer that what was about to happen was going to change his reality into an Edenic state. As the lights went down, I hopped into the aisle, and Leaguer stayed rocking in his seat as they opened up with “Timber Ho!.” Transcending the song’s darker territory, the band took the music out into a blissfully symphonic place of melody and harmony- but it didn’t pull Leaguer out of his seat. The roar of the crowd as the jam creatively segued into “Simple” caught his attention and he stood up for the first time since I’d seen him. Remaining standing, he leaned over to me in the middle of the “Simple” jam, again asking if we could leave yet. I explained to him that we’d go home when the show was over, and that he should try to focus on the music. Unable to focus on anything at all, he continued on in his discombobulated state.
Meanwhile, the band was creating a magnificent second set that would see a mid-set “Wilson”give way to a powerful, magical and driving twenty-minute “Harry Hood.” As heavenly hallucinations flooded my mind, this set had me hooked, I was in the music and it was paradise. Following the brilliant peak of the Hood jam, the band ended with the set with the screaming Hendrix textures of “Izabella.” I am pretty sure that I saw Leaguer calming down for at least a few seconds during this one.
After the set, he still was out of sorts. Explaining that there was only one more song, he dug in to make it through a huge and rare Bowie encore. About halfway into the extended Bowie jam, Leaguer tapped me on the shoulder, pulling me out of my subconscious state. He looked at me and said, “This is pretty good!” Bursting with laughter, I gave him a nod and he ironically enjoyed and swayed to the second half of the jam.
As we drove the short way back to Boulder, Leaguer reclaimed his former identity and we discussed the events of the evening. Confirming that he missed a really good show and laughing about everything, but mostly his reaction to the crystal, he kept saying that he couldn’t believe the amount of energy there was in the arena. Having been to every sporting event in the book, he said it was incomparable. Unfortunately, he decided to skip the next night, and never made it back to the Phish. As I said before, it just wasn’t his thing. But he will never forget his one Phishy evening in McNichols Arena.
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DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY:
The “other” Denver show, as the next night would become historic- this second set is a dark horse of Fall ’97. It is outstanding. Check it out.
I: NICU, My Soul, Black-Eyed Katy, Farmhouse, The Old Home Place, Billy Breathes, Cars Trucks Buses, Scent of a Mule*, Poor Heart*, Taste, Hello My Baby
II: Timber Ho! > Simple, Wilson > Harry Hood, Izabella
E: David Bowie
*With Pete Wernick, aka “Dr. Banjo” on banjoTags: 1997, Culture