Remembering Phish’s Coventry 10 Years Later
Today marks a full decade since Coventry, Phish’s ill-fated farewell festival. The years since and the subsequent return of the band we love has lessened the sting of their departure, but for many, the mere mention of the festival conjures up harrowing memories of traffic, mud and substandard music not befitting for the swansong of one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time. This reminiscence was originally published a few years ago on Lifetime of Laughter, my ongoing attempt to chronicle my entire live music history.
I had only seen Phish once at this point, but when I heard they were calling it quits, I knew I had to make the trek to northern Vermont for their final performances. The festival would become notorious in subsequent years as a guidebook on how not to go out in style, and Murphy’s Law was in full effect. It all started when we hit the road later than planned and I was forced to drive my newly acquired Chevy Blazer. This was a slightly better option than jamming four guys plus gear into a Toyota Corolla. After a trip to the beer depot and dry ice factory, we were on our merry way. It was a six hour drive and we arrived early Friday morning. Then we sat in veritable, standstill traffic for the next 24 hours or so. That’s a day straight in traffic. It went downhill from there.
While in line, we managed to make a bit of a profit selling burgers and dogs off my tailgate. We decided to cut sales short to save food for ourselves, a decision that would prove asinine. I wandered into the woods alongside the road and pictured the mystical land of Gamehendge. The crew I rolled with were neither my best friends, nor especially well-versed in the lore of Phish, and being cramped up in the car for a day straight was not fun. My mp3 player died a few hours into the traffic jam, which didn’t improve the matter. Then night fell and the rains came. Spirits, already low, plummeted. But the sun rose, highway wiffleball games abounded, frisbees soared and for a brief moment, all was well. Then, Phish’s bassist Mike Gordon took to the airwaves of the festival’s very own radio station and made the fateful announcement that the festival gates were closed. The farm, victimized by an unseasonable deluge of rain, could simply not accomodate any more vehicles. And the collective heart of a miles long line of vehicles from across the world sank like a stone.
Silence. Disbelief. Bemusement. We weren’t about to give up though. We parked our vehicles on dividers and we began to walk, taking all we could carry, only the essentials. And onward we pressed, by foot, hundreds and hundreds strong, down the highway to the great divide. It was a 15 mile hike through rural Vermont in all its cow funk glory and it reminded me of film footage I’ve seen of the road to Woodstock. We finally arrived at the grounds with an hour or two to spare before showtime. There were puddles of mud at every turn. Just a couple months removed from the muddiness of Bonnaroo, I embraced it with barefoot aplomb. I departed the thin strip of dry land and trounced across a small shallow pond, ever closer to the looming jams. Unfortunately, my friends did not make the same choice and when I reached the other side, I turned around and they were nowhere to be seen. There I was, all alone in a sea of unbridled wookery. Wearily, I trudged ahead towards the entrance to the concert fields and I reached the gate. However, having bypassed the vehicle entrance on foot, I neglected to exchange my ticket for a bracelet and was forced to navigate the circumference of the grounds to seek the elusive bracelet booth.
Finally, just before Phish hit the stage, I found myself a spot, set up a mini camp and prepared to rage. I was down to lukewarm Sammy Smiths and my morale was low, but I mustered up what little energy I had left and got down to some decidedly subpar tunes. After a performance early in the first set of one of their most popular tunes, “You Enjoy Myself,” which incorporates synchronized trampoline jumping, Trey and Mike passed their mini-tramps to the audience, a symbol of the symbiotic nature of the fans’ relationship with the band, as well as a stark reminder that things were coming to a somber close. I do recall thinking towards the end of the set that Trey should cover more Hendrix, as he had the chops to do so. Then they ripped into a set closing “Fire.” Sometime during the second set, I ran into a casual acquaintance. He had weed and I had a bowl. All was well. I was even able to stash my gear with him between sets while I took a Port-o-Potty break. But then I couldn’t find my way back. During the encore, Trey and Mike made their way down to the rocks in front of the stage to be closer to the fans. After the third set, when the crowd had dispersed, I finally stumbled upon my belongings and made my way to a rare dry spot to make my bed. Pavement never felt so soft.
In the morning, I stumbled into the adjacent campsite proper and purchased some weed with storage space for my stuff tossed in free of charge. Then I made my way down Shakedown. I ran into my acquaintance from the night before and I retrieved my bowl. While sitting at his campsite, my crew walked by. They had set up a camp site almost directly adjacent to the stage area. On grass! Furthermore, one of my friends had purchased an eighth of an ounce of psychedelic mushrooms and he wanted to share them with me. We decided to take them at set break so we would be peaking at the start of the second set. We ventured into the vendor area for some food and drink. I grabbed a beer and, being the only one of age, asked my friends to meet me outside the enclosed beer area. That didn’t work out and I was once again alone.
I made some new friends during the first set, friends with Jägermeister. I tried in vain to locate my buddies. I missed out on the mushrooms and the opener of the second set was perfect for the height of a trip. “Down With Disease” replete with the largest glowstick war I have seen to this day is one of the few musical moments I remember from this legendarily awful career capping concert. Then came an emotional “Wading in the Velvet Sea” causing Page to choke up on the vocals. I can’t hear the song without recalling that teary-eyed rendition. The next song, “Glide,” is still cited as the epitome of what an absolute trainwreck the band had become, as well as a shorthand for the fanbase’s overall disgust with the abject failure of the farewell festivities. The third set included tributes to members of the crew and then an encore break. For months, fans had wondered what song would close out the Phish, but not many saw this one coming. According to Trey, “The Curtain With” was one the first Phish songs written (in a nearby cabin) and it contains the appropriate line, “Please me, have no regrets.” Then they played it in the right key. As the band exited the stage, Trey quietly laid his guitar down, and just like that, a tumultuous 20+ year musical journey came to a somber end. The masses ambled off the grounds in a quiet stupor. Only the distant hiss of nitrous tanks filled the air.
I wanted to get some sleep, but my friends insisted we make our way home. We had to take an ATV and a pick-up truck at a cost of approximately $20 each to get back to my car. Cruising down Interstate 91, all my friends shortly fell asleep. I remember thinking to myself that I had better pull off and get a cup of coffee. The next thing I knew, I was woken by the jolt of my car hitting the divider. I swerved across the thankfully empty lanes to right myself and pulled over to regain my composure. Luckily, I was in a small SUV with the windows just above the top of the divider. I managed to scratch up the driver side pretty badly and take out a tail light, but all in all, it could have ended drastically worse. After that, a friend took over the driving. We stopped for coffee and the battery died. We tried jumping it, but to no avail. We resigned to waiting a few hours for the garage to open. Then we figured we might as well try another jump, which miraculously worked. I fell into a tranquil and motionless sleep for the remainder of the drive. As soon as I got back to my hometown, I stopped by my friend’s place to decompress, smoke a bit and tell my tale. Despite all the negativity, it was not horrible. I doubt I’d do it again though. Standing in my driveway at the end of the trek, I finished unloading my things and closed the tailgate window, which immediately shattered. It was a fitting end to a harrowing adventure.