Coventry marks end of Phish

By Richard Magda
September 16, 2004

Paul Nasella

From Camden Waterfront Amphitheater, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio threw a boomerang of feedback across the Delaware River towards Philadelphia. The stage lights dimmed to darkness. The band delivered sharp silence as the crowd echoed the return of the high-pitched cry with energy and anticipation.

The lazy cadence of “Wilson,” like the calm before a storm, cued thousands to chant the song’s title, “Wilson! Wilson!” The final Phish show in the Philadelphia area was underway.

One day earlier, Ryan Aten, a senior at York College of Pennsylvania, and Josh Klingerman, a senior at East Stroudsburg University, embarked on a journey from Bloomsburg, Pa. to Coventry, Vt. They left a day earlier than originally planned to avoid traffic. In Vermont, the band’s home state, the stage was still being set to host the finale of a virtual 20-year tour for Phish. The four-day festival, set on a 600-acre field in the Northeast Kingdom, was expected to draw 80,000 fans. Phish promised six sets of music, three on Saturday, August 14, and three on Sunday, August 15.

Packed in a two-door Honda Accord, Aten and Klingerman drove north with dark clouds grinding overhead.

For Aten, it would be his second Phish show. For Klingerman, it would be his first. It would be their first festival hosted by Phish, and the last for anyone.

“We beat the rush, and drove right into the place,” Aten said. “We were there early enough to be put in a holding lot. But we got stuck in there. The parking lot was full of mud. People were happy to be there, but they didn’t know what we were getting in to. With the rain and the mud, that’s how it started.”

Aten and Klingerman endured an eight hour wait in an onsite holding lot, passing a few hours with intermittent naps. They watched as Coventry staff members attempted to tow people into the venue with trucks and chains. Shortly after, Klingerman failed to maneuver the car through mud to a parking area. Klingerman and a staff member rigged chains to his car, and a truck pulled him back into the holding pit.

“We were stuck in a cow field with mud up to our ankles,” Klingerman said. “The tires were spinning, the car was fishtailing. People were cheering us on. My attempt not to get my shoes muddy was shot. Forget it. Those shoes belong to Coventry.”

Klingerman insisted to a staff member that he would only get stuck again. His persistence convinced the parking attendant to tow him to the parking area. Aten estimates that the favor saved them about three hours.

Once parked, the two made numerous trips from the car to the campground, moving gear to a muddy weekend plot. “It was very tough to set up with the rain falling like it was,” Aten said, “and I needed to sleep.” They fell asleep to rain drops tattering on the tent top.

Meanwhile, a fine mist fell softly onto the Camden crowd just as the final curtain would fall onto the Coventry crowd in three days. There would be more rain, too.

“You Enjoy Myself,” a fan-favorite song with an epic jam, picked up after a driving “Wilson.” As the structure of the song’s composition loosened to a jam, Anastasio and bassist Mike Gordon bounced on two small trampolines, as if to muse at the Philadelphia skyline over an ocean of fans rising in front of them. Turning in synchronization, Anastasio and Gordon riffed over the steady beat of keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer John Fishman. The fine mist that had been coating the Camden crowd for most of the night thickened to a drizzle. The first set pushed on with clean playing and experimental jams.

Aten and Klingerman awoke to thuds of heavier rain and cheers for Phish, whose Camden show was being broadcast live over Coventry’s onsite radio station, 92.1 FM, The Bunny.

“I woke up to The Bunny, and the Camden show was on. It was the end of the first set. I hopped out of the tent and parked myself in front, had a beer, and listened,” Aten said. “The show sounded great. I kept imagining what the last two shows would be like.”

“At the set break of the Philly show, the DJs were talking about how amazing the first set was,” Klingerman said. “And about how Phish and Philly go hand-in-hand.”

Back in Camden, Phish was ushered onto stage by cheers from a crowd illuminated by the glow of lighters in the thousands. The drizzle thinned to a mist.

The instrumental second set opener, “Piper,” was highlighted by a spectacular glow-stick war among fans. In the second set, the band mixed cover songs with classic originals that culminated with “Scents and Subtle Sounds,” a composed piece from Phish’s latest album, “Undermind.”

The mission was clear, and the end was near. Again the crowd patted pockets to find lighters that might inspire an encore grand enough to cap a show so fine. Anastasio led the band on stage. He was raised in Princeton, NJ, and has stated an attachment to the Philadelphia area. Flyers fans might recall when Phish played the “National Anthem,” before a 1997 playoff game and again versus the Buffalo Sabers on Dec. 1, 1997. When Phish plays the anthem, the Flyers are 0-1-1, according to The mood was bittersweet as the Camden crowd lifted the entire scene upon its cheers, awaiting the inevitable end.

Throughout the night, the music was intense and the sound shifted between funky rock and roll and ambient jams. Phish did not slow down the pace once, as if to avoid a quiet, intimate moment that might pull a drapery of emotion over the venue.

A crossfire of feedback loops shot out over the crowd, the stage turned from black to red, and McConnell played the soft, familiar opening notes of “Lawnboy,” a mellow, refreshing song. The crowd sang along and swayed, avoiding obstacles that might take their eyes astray. McConnell took a bow, and the crowd embraced his performance not of the night, but of the last 20 years. This was the end.

Then, a flash of yellow, brighter than any lights shone the entire night. The opening notes of “Frankenstein,” an Edgar Winter song adopted by Phish, and familiar to pop culture as a song in Buick commercials. Intensity soared, lights flashed, and Phish had thousands of fans once again dancing on its lawn.

The song pinnacled and came to an explosive finish. Anastasio thanked the crowd, and alerted fans headed to Coventry to wait a day because of heavy rain that had recently fallen. Stadium lights flickered, and then beamed as a satisfied, appreciative Camden crowd shuffled out.

Aten and Klingerman did not miss a moment of the Camden show’s second set, and they certainly did not miss the rain mentioned by Anastasio. A canopy over their lot kept them dry, but the Coventry ground had absorbed all the water it could take. They slept well that night, settled and ready for the shows.

Friday brought more rain, and large farm trucks loaded to capacity with hay. Vermont farmers provided solid ground and cashed in, selling bails for $10 each. Klingerman bought two bails, and Aten helped him to fill a muddy mote that had formed around the tent.

They spent the afternoon under the canopy, absorbing what of the scene came their way. As it was Klingerman’s first Phish show, he was nervous about how people would accept him, but neighboring fans made him feel comfortable. A man walked up to their lot and asked if he could have a beer. Klingerman obliged, and the man sat down to tell him and Aten about previous Phish festivals, like The Clifford Ball in 1996, The Great Went in ’97, Lemonwheel in ’98, and IT in 2003.

“True Phish fans know their stuff. They talk about versions of songs from specific shows, or about how it’s their hundredth-something show,” he said. “I didn’t know what they’d say when I said it was my first, but they told me to enjoy it, and that I’d love it.”

Aten and Klingerman spent Friday night consuming copious amounts of Red Bull and vodka as cool rain poured down. They mingled with people from neighboring lots, sharing in the groove.

Listening to The Bunny, traffic reports confirmed rumors of a 15-mile traffic jam on Interstate 91 North, the road to Coventry.

“After we heard that, we spent the rest of the night talking about how many things could have gone wrong,” Klingerman said. “If we hadn’t left a day early, we would have been out there in traffic. We figured out that we spent about 50 hours in my car over the weekend as it was.”

Saturday began with eggs and bacon, and like Friday, with rain. Nearby Burlington was nearly 300 percent above normal rainfall for the month of August, according to a report by Phish manager John Paluska.

Aten and Klingerman spent the early part of Saturday afternoon in similar fashion to Friday, keeping dry as possible and in high spirits. Wind was blowing rain under the canopy when music came from the stage area.

“We were among the closest people to the stage. We were gearing up, getting ready, and then we heard the sound check coming over a grove of trees,” Aten said. “I remember being miserable in the mud and rain, waiting for two days for the real stuff, and it was about to begin.”

They joined the caravan to a natural amphitheatre where they inched toward the stage. Klingerman brought a light aluminum fishing chair that held bottled water, Gatorade, Red Bull, and six peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“We pushed our way into the crowd and found our spot. We were up on a hill, about 50 yards from the stage,” Klingerman said.

On the muddy slope, they waited with 70,000 fans for Phish to begin. Among them, about ten feet away, was Danny DeVito.

“Danny was hilarious. He was there with younger people, maybe his son and friends,” Klingerman said. “Everyone was all, ‘Danny!’ After that, he was part of the crowd. I saw Danny DeVito eat a gooball and give a thumbs-up to the guy who tossed it his way. He was hilarious.”

Later, Klingerman shouted, “Hey, Danny! Strike a pose!” DeVito turned to him, leaned forward, smiled widely, and stuck out his arms, posing for the friendly paparazzi.

On Interstate 91, 10,000 more fans were being told to head home. The field had become so muddy that there was no longer enough suitable ground to park vehicles. Fox News reported that an estimated 6,000 of the stranded fans opted to leave about 2,000 vehicles in the breakdown lane of the highway and walk 12 miles to the show.

Phish took the stage at 6 p.m., opening with a seamless trio of songs and jams, playing “Walls of the Cave,” “Runaway Jim,” and “Gotta Jibboo.” As fans marched on the wet highway, “You Enjoy Myself” loosened to a jam while Anastasio and Gordon bounced once again. Between songs, the two small trampolines that had entertained the Camden crowd, and many before, were given to fans by Anastasio.

Fishman, the drummer, addressed the crowd in the middle of set two. According to Klingerman, “He said, ‘To all those people that walked 10 miles to get here and left your cars on 91,’ and then he took a deep breath, ‘that is the most amazing compliment we could ever achieve. Thank you.'”

It was the first that Aten and Klingerman had heard of the approaching mob. They looked at each other knowing it could have been them.

A man offered Klingerman $40 for his fishing chair, but it was too valuable to sell. “People were carrying rocks and grabbing anything they could so they weren’t ankle-deep in mud,” he said.

Glow sticks battled raindrops in flight as the crowd’s own lightshow erupted. The jam peaked when Anastasio and Gordon moved closer to the audience with guitar and bass to play in front of the stage on two large boulders.

After the show, Aten and Klingerman waded in a sea of humans and mire. Aten was tired and frustrated with a headache. Klingerman followed his lead, and they settled into the tent for the last time.

They awoke on Sunday and began packing the car in an attempt to avoid traffic after the show.

“We figured that if we had to, we’d just sleep in the car. Ryan and I decided to suck it up and deal with it,” Klingerman said. “We ate as much as we could, and loaded up everything.”

When the car was packed, it was show time. Klingerman and Aten headed in the direction of their Saturday spot. They nudged through the crowd, limb by limb, trampling on slippery ground that had been covered in a knotted net of tarpaulins.

Phish stormed the stage at 5:42 p.m., opening with “Mike’s Song,” which jammed into “I am Hydrogen” and “Weekapaug Groove.”

“The energy was amazing from the first song to the end,” Klingerman said. “I’ve never experienced anything like that, 75,000 people dealing with horrible weather to hear music.”

Rays of light seeped through clouds onto the crowd. The sun began to set behind lingering puffs of cumulus. Phish ended the first set with “Wolfman’s Brother.” During the jam, the band announced that Fishman is the wolfman’s brother, and Anastasio and Gordon called out their mothers to do the “sexy bump dance” with them.

“Down with Disease” began set two, and another glow stick war ensued. Near the end of the song, a glow stick found the stage and Anastasio used it to play guitar.

Midway through the second set, Phish reminded fans that they are, “Glad, glad, glad that you’re alive,” with the lyrics of “Glide.”

Set three increased in pace as it progressed. “Fast Enough for You,” a Phish ballad, allowed the crowd and the band to rest awhile. “Seven Below” followed with a mild jam that showered Coventry with emotion. The band improvised two new songs, “Bruno” and “Dickie Scotland,” dedicating them to monitor engineers Mark Bradley and Richard Glasgow.

The band paused as the stage faded to black. Rhythmic thuds of bass and drum urged the crowd to do its part, “Wilson! Wilson!” The lazy cadence that began the Camden show hit Coventry like the brunt of a storm.

Klingerman nudged Aten and said, “This is the last time this song will be played.”

“Slave to the Traffic Light” finished set three.

“Everyone there was having a blast,” Klingerman said. “The magnitude was immense; the people, the music, the history.”

The band took a short break before a long-awaited encore. had published a poll allowing fans to predict which song would resonate as Phish’s last. Forty-seven songs had been played at Coventry, leaving hundreds for the band to choose from its catalogue.

The crowd had not stopped cheering since the end of set three. Seventy-five thousand people were pleading for more. Phish took the stage for the last time.

“The Curtain With” dropped onto the eardrums of the Coventry crowd, and the band left the stage with Anastasio’s guitar launching loops that embraced the fans.

“People stayed there, cheering and yelling, for at least fifteen minutes,” Klingerman said. “To me, it was unbelievable. Everyone was excited to have been a part of that night, but for the people who have followed Phish for years and have made it their life to follow this music, it was sad. That was the end, and I saw it in their faces.”

Posted to the web by Paul Nasella

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Richard Magda

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