COVENTRY, VT. -- The parallels between Phish's Coventry and the first Woodstock weren't planned, but were unmistakable. Coventry was held on the 35th anniversary weekend of Woodstock. Both were on remote dairy farms -- Woodstock on Max Yasgur's land in Bethel, N.Y. Coventry on Maxwell's Neighborhood Farm.
And both were weather-driven events victimized by mud but redeemed by crowds that didn't know the meaning of failure.
"I'm amazed by how dedicated these fans are," Coventry producer Dave Werlin of Great Northeast Productions said yesterday. "How many bands have fans that would put up with what they've put up with this weekend?"
The producers spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said, to bring in extra gravel and wood chips to cover the mud so the show could go on. Coventry was almost canceled Friday night before the producers persuaded the police to let it happen, even though 50 percent of the parking lots were unusable. Up to 2,500 cars were abandoned on Route 91, police said, with countless fans walking in four hours from there.
This survival of the Phish-est crowd heard singer Trey Anastasio admit last night, "I've never been nervous going on stage at a Phish concert before, but tonight I am." Supportive applause echoed from the estimated 65,000 fans plucky enough to slog through the mire to get to the 600-acre site.
It was an extremely emotional night. Anastasio broke into tears when discussing how much Phish's friendship had meant to him during the group's 21-year career (and many in the audience cried as well). Pianist Page McConnell was too choked up to talk, but bassist Mike Gordon said it had "been a real wild ride" and drummer Jon Fishman said, "Thanks from the bottom of my heart for coming here."
Phish's first set last night was a turbo-charged roar that picked right up from Saturday's late-night set that had featured stellar versions of "Stash," "Free," a double-time-spiced "Guyute," and encore of "Harry Hood."
Last night the band expelled tensions with a take-charge "Weekapaug Groove" (with Anastasio riffing like a man possessed), a celestial "Reba" (with McConnell at his intricate best), the bluesy, Led Zeppelin-like "Carini," and a hyperkinetic "Possum."
The set included a bittersweet "Satellite" and a happy moment where Anastasio's mom and bassist Mike Gordon's mom were brought out on stage, where their sons danced with them. Anastasio had introduced the band's dads the night before, calling them "The Coalition of Dads." It was nice to see this become a family affair and it further lightened the mood. The band's lyricist, Tom Marshall, was also introduced on Saturday, then band manager John Paluska yesterday, making this feel like a completed circle.
The weather turned sunny during the weekend and all systems were go, including Phish's closed-circuit broadcast to 50 cinemas across the country. "It went well except for a ten-minute power outage in Atlanta," Phish spokesman Jason Colton said.
Deadline pressure forced me to miss the very end of the last set, but Phish launched it with a pensive, Pink Floyd-evoking "Fast Enough for You," leading to "Seven Below," "Simple," and a wholly energized "Piper." That was followed with a climax of a giant fireworks display and "The Curtain," with the verse "please, we have no regrets." Only the second set on Saturday was mildly subpar and even that had some peaks with "Ya Mar" and an exhilarating "David Bowie."
Otherwise, this was Phish at its most unleashed, building on Gordon's backstage hopes on Saturday that "I think we need to get unhinged. This is what all these years of our bonding and chemistry have led us to. I hope we really open up."
His wish was granted -- the band's jamming was uncannily rich and intuitive -- and now Phish can join a very select group of bands that has gone out on top. One thinks of the Police in the '80s and also of the Woodstock-era the Band, whose final show was filmed for "The Last Waltz."
"How can you not be here? This is a band that build its entire following without the help of radio," said Chris Mann, who drove up from Philadelphia. Added his friend, Brad Karpinecz, "If anybody is going to put on a show in two feet of mud, it's Phish." Hopefully someday the music will be remembered more than the mud, but thankfully, Phish has given us much more to remember than just one crazy weekend in the Vermont countryside.