The Festival

Bonnaroo, Rothbury, 10,000 Lakes, Coachella, Outside Lands, Lollapalooza, All Good, Camp Bisco, Gathering of the Vibes, Summer Camp, All Points West, moeDown, Langerado.  So many festivals, so little time.  That quick list ranges from the massive corporate festivals to the more mid-range festivals happening this summer.  JamBase’s festival guide lists 302 music festivals happening this summer!  Obviously, these run the gamut of size and type of festivals, but the jam-indie-rock festival landscape has been greatly altered since the days of The Clifford Ball and Coventry.  The post-Phish festival scene is quite interesting to dissect, and speaks volumes about those carefree days in Limestone and upstate New York.

Radiohead. Widespread Panic. The Dave Matthews Band. My Morning Jacket. Phil and Friends– interchangeable headliners on an ever changing festival poster. These days, promoters put together festivals with as many bands, genres, stages, and gimmicks as possible trying to bring together as many fans from across the country. Bonnaroo drew 80,000 people, Rothbury 40,000, Coachella around 60,000.  While some of these festivals are obviously successful ventures, they are promotional monsters that lack a cohesive vibe to their event. With so many people coming to these gatherings for so many different reasons and to see so many different acts, there is hardly a unity to the masses that gather on seemingly every weekend of the summer.

A Phish festival was so very different.  At a Phish festival you had the feeling that you were in on this little secret with 75,000 other people.  Even though there were often more people in attendance than these new school festivals, everyone knew why each other were there. There was only one reason– Phish.  With 92 (!) bands playing over four days at Rothbury on god-knows how many stages, you have a crowd that is motivated to attend for so many different reasons.  These bands include most all of the aforementioned headliners– the biggest names in the biz, yet none that could draw these numbers on their own.   This dynamic dilutes the genuine unity of a festival that was so prominent when Phish reeled 60-70,000 fans to the tip of America three times, and 85,000 to the Everglades of Florida.   What’s going on here?

Phish could announce a festival in East Podunk, Saskatchewan, and virtually 100,000 people will find a way there.  One band.  One stage.  Two days.  Six sets.  That’s all, nothing else.  That is enough, and anyone who understands Phish, knows it.  That is the difference– the power of the Phish experience, which is magnified under the lens of their festivals where it is all Phish, all the time.  Apparently both the magical and financial power of Phish equals the power of every other band in the scene put together.  That’s simply proven by empirical data.

New-school festivals, while no doubt hosting great talent, lack the ethos of Phish festivals.  Maybe some of the “band-centric” mid-range festivals like Camp Bisco, Summer Camp, or moeDown scratch the surface of this dynamic, but even at these events, there are still double-digit number of other bands and DJs there to, well, to take that united magic away while hopefully bringing in a few more people. Not to say magic doesn’t exist in new-school festivals.  I just came back from a very magical time at Camp Bisco where the Biscuits were the overwhelming draw for the 7,500 in attendance.  The music was transcendent and the crowd, albeit quite young for the most part, were definitely were there to rage Biscuits. I heard that Rothbury, amidst its masses, tapped into something special, yet not because of one particular act.  But the post-Phish festival model, and maybe the pre-Phish model too (think Woodstock, The Horde (w/Phish), Further Festival), lends itself to a greatly different experience.

No one band could pull off what Phish pulled off.  Fact.  If they could, why don’t they?  In all my x-number of Phish shows, some of my greatest all-time memories come from Phish festivals.  Those places were vast Phish playgrounds with absolutely no rules.  The freedom I felt at those festivals were like none other I’ve felt in my life.  The sites were so endless and bliss-laden, with art installations and interactive activities and “projects” for fans to engage their twisted minds.  Almost always tour-ending musical showcases for the band, we all looked forward to the wide open Phishy freedom those weekends provided.

The sky was always a little more blue than usual. The air a bit cleaner.  The clouds a bit more fluffy.  Remember the Great Went night 2 sunset?  Probably the most Crayola colors in one sky ever. Orange, yellow, purple, blue, and every shade in between–  so rich.  The shimmering moon surrounded by the most regal violet.  The natural environment coupled with the massive air-force-base locales created the most carefree and Phish focused atmospheres ever.

Some memories from those hallowed weekends.  The Clifford Ball-  who knew this model was possible?!  Limestone, ME and The Great Went- one of the most spiritual weekends of my life.  Halley’s>Cities.  The return to Limestone– The Lemonwheel, capping the modern day Summer of Love, 1998. The Ambient Set- possibly the best hour of Phish ever. The Tower Set- an hour long exploration with a lens on the darker and dirtier side of things. The Cypress Roses bringing the dark into the light.  The sunrises, the traffic, the parties, the air-strip long shakedowns, post-show lot disco parties, every friend you know in one place.  Oh, the memories.

These memories are about to return.  Mike Gordon, after his set at last weekend’s Mile High Music Festival, made it clear we can expect to see the boys back together “pretty soon.”  Those are his words, not mine.  He is already talking about “leaving room” for solo projects, which can only mean that this whole Phish thing is very much around the corner.  We can only hope that for their first show back, we can can return to the enchanted land of the Phish festival. It is really the only way to comeback.  They tried the MSG thing, and that turned out to be a fiasco, with fans trying to wrestle all the tickets away from scalpers to the tune of $500 a piece.  The only place for Phish to comeback is in the context of their hallowed festivals. Anyone can come. Noone can be turned away because it’s sold out.  How amazing would it be to hear Phish’s first notes back bellowing from the speaker towers of a festival with 75,000+ friends.  Groups of friends sitting in circles during setbreak, passing spliffs and laughing together, trying to figure out what is coming next. That is the way it should be. We can only hope the band feels the same.

Below are some nuggets from festivals past:

Great Went Bathtub Gin Jam

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Clifford Ball Clips

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IT Lizards

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