PHINALLY- an except from a college writing assignment in 2010
I’m sitting on top of a blue mini-van outside of the Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia. To my left is Chris Burlo, a 23-year-old college grad, whose flowing blond hair and irreplaceable grin are not an uncommon sight here. On the hood sits two “wookie loves,” as Chris refers to them: Amanda Kurtain, a 20-year-old drop-out with thick blond dreadlocks and orange flowers permanently falling down her back, and a kind, welcoming, 27-year-old, who says, “You can just call me Fluffhead,” as Amanda giggles and receives a kiss on the forehead.
Hampton is a small, quiet town whose biggest income is from the flow of people traveling from Richmond to Virginia Beach, and those who swarm the Coliseum for its impressive performances. The venue is on the water, looking like an island unto itself, rounded, with V-shaped columns of light that make the center look almost holy. And tonight, March 6th, 2009, it might have been. The town was paraded with new age hippies, frat “bros”, wookies and wookettes, merry pranksters, people of all shapes and sizes congregated together to see the first of many (though they don’t it yet) reunion shows for the jam band, Phish.
Phish is a four-person group from Burlington, Vermont, home to Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, the University of Vermont, the Harry Hood Packaging Plant, and that’s about it.
“They came from pretty much nowhere and nothing,” Chris told me before the concert that night. “But any phan- now that’s with a ph- will tell you that these boys can overcome just about anything. They were meant to be huge.”
Phish’s reunion weekend was so monumental because the mass of “phans” that Phish had established were not sure in 2004 whether their idols would be returning to the stage together again. Since their national debut in 1989, the band has been traveling across the country, putting more effort into the live shows than recorded material, and always aiming to thank their phans with festivals and multi-night runs. But phans felt abandoned; a child left by his parents, as one critic describes their last performance in 2004. Though lead singer and guitarist, Trey Anastasio, was battling serious drug addiction, keyboardist Page McConnell was starting a family, bassist Mike Gordon was reveling in his fame, and drummer Jon Fishman was working with his side project, Pork Tornado, the four not-in-college-anymore men found time to overcome differences and practice their beloved material during the questionable time off. I can only say that they came back with a bang.
Amanda doesn’t remember when they broke up; she told me she felt like she was missing a part of her life having not grieved over their break-up, but wasn’t into the band or the scene until recently. Hampton is her first show, which Chris and Fluffhead are particularly excited about.
“It’s always great to have a phirgin,” said Fluffhead before the concert. “That look of wonderment and amazement will be priceless.”
I met up with this trio of willing participants many hours before the show started. I suggested that we meet at a diner, someplace quite to talk and give me an understanding of this cultural phenomenon that is so under the radar. Chris, the only one with a cell phone, laughed into my ear and said, “Just meet us at the venue, you will understand then.” And I did. The show was set to start at 8pm, so I arrived around 3pm to get a good parking spot. Well, I was about two days too late for that, so I brought my car back to the hotel and had a cab drive me back to the Coliseum.
“Going to see Phish, are ya?” said the cab driver.
“Yessir, I am. This will be my first concert,” I said with an air of pride.
“Well you sure don’t look like one of them,” he said, “one of them hippies comin’ in here and makin’ a mockery of this town.”
“It can’t be that bad for only three days.”
“Stay a while after the kids all leave,” he said. The rest of the ride was in silence, though he did tell me to have a good time when I left him with an ostentatiously large tip.
As I walk through the parking lot looking for the multicolored, fish-shaped flag that is to indicate where my phriendly phans are, I see the beginnings of this culture that so clearly defines these three, and so many more, people. There are groups of older phans, probably in their 30s, around an open trunk drinking beers and listening to the Grateful Dead. There are groups of adults, families, some with happy looking children in patchwork clothes, selling jewelry or food. People are selling original tee shirts, patches, stickers, and more. There are people walking throughout the lot scene, as it is known, looking for “miracles”- free tickets, or trying to sell their extras, but most people have come to Hampton fully prepared. There are rows and rows and rows of cars, trucks, busses, and phans. The energy and excitement is obvious, you can practically see it in the air: people smiling and hugging, longhaired girls dancing slowly and tossing hula-hoops around their bodies to psychedelic sounds. I hear snip-its of conversation as I scan the many flags and other indicators of location looking for my group:
“I hope they bring it in with something epic, like a Harry Hood or a Fluffhead.”
“I just hope they sound better than they did, I hope they have been practicing ‘cause its over if they have a repeat of Coventry (the band’s infamously bad final festival from 2004).”
“I wonder if Fishman will break out the vacuum cleaner like back in the day, that would be priceless.”
“Molly? Molly? Anybody seen my molly?”
“I can’t wait for Koruda’s lights, man. Haven’t seen anything like ‘em in all these years.”
“I wanna see what new stuff they’ve got. Undermind was terrible, but I dunno, looks like things may be changing.”
I walked throughout the lot for about two hours, hearing a lot of the same talk, a lot of predictions about what songs would be played, a lot of reminiscing about what has been termed Phish 2.0. I spotted Amanda, Chris, and Fluffhead (who’s real name is would never find out) under their flag, passing around a joint. I stopped and stood for a moment too long.
“Want in?” Chris offered.
“Oh, no, thank you. I’m the one interning with Rolling Stone, and-“
“Oh yeah, of course, come on man, take a seat. Join us. How’d you like the lot?”
We talked for a long time sitting on that van, about shows Chris and Fluffhead had seen, about what they hoped the band would play tonight, about why Amanda loved Phish without ever having seen them, which some people deem necessary to phandom.
“The music is open and free and fluent all at the same time. It’s like they could go anywhere with anything they do, and somehow they always get it perfect. They also play like a billion different types of music, like jazz and bluegrass and tronic-y and psychedelic and soft and sweet. It’s amazing what they do. It’s really beautiful.”
Other phans were constantly walking past, some saying hello, some trying to sell us paraphernalia or drugs or what have you. We passed them all along, in the phriendliest manner. When it was getting dark out, Amanda and Fluffhead each took two drops of LSD and shortly thereafter, Chris took one small blue ecstasy pill with a P stamped in the middle.
“Specially made for this weekend,” he told me.
“Why aren’t you doing what they’re doing?” I asked in response.
“I’m the lookout tonight. Gotta make sure everything goes right.”
On our casual walk into the venue, we stopped several times to look at various products and get burritos or water or beer. When we finally made it to the line, we moved even slower, and I started to notice that a lot of people around me were acting similarly to Amanda and Fluffhead; it wasn’t scary or too strange, just spacey and out of it, but still totally in it (Amanda’s words). Certainly not all people were behaving like this, many were spun off the excitement and thrill of the moment. As we inched closer and closer to the pat-down and to making a run for our seats, Chris preps me for what will be “the best experience of my life.”
“It’s everything man. The lights coordinated with the music, and the intensity in the there and everyone dancing. You just gotta see it, and the glow stick wars, man. Color explosions. Just picture it. You won’t have to for long. Here we go.”
My head feels like it’s floating above me as the crowd is herded back to the lot. My ears are ringing and pounding and buzzing, my brain still keeping the frantic beat of their final encore, a cover of Rolling Stone’s “Loving Cup.” Chris is jumping up and down and practically running as I, Amanda and Fluff (as I came to call him),try to keep up with him. He wants to get back to the car to write the sets down before he forgets anything. Naturally, though, we get lost and finding the car becomes an adventure in itself.
An hour and a half, and a few joints, later and the crew were ready for bed. We had spent the time on top of Chris’s van talking about the night and the details of each song, the highlights, and the minimal slip ups. They invited me back for the next two nights, both of which I had passes to, and I accepted, thankful to have found such a welcoming group of phriends with whom I could share a new passion. I told them this, and Chris said, “Hey man, of course it’s no problem. Any phriend of Phish is a phriend of mine!”