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Becoming lost and found on tour with Phish

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A scene from the stands just before the start of Phish's performance at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, PA, on August 11. A scene from the stands just before the start of Phish's performance at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, PA, on August 11. (Photo courtesy of Race Allen/JEMP Radio)

“If life were easy and not so fast, I wouldn’t think about the past.”

That lyric, from the song “Roggae” by Phish, succinctly sums up a summer vacation road trip that will stay with me for the rest of my life, but not for the reasons you might expect.

My mission was to spend a week on the road with Phish and their fans as a representative of JEMP Radio, an enormously popular web-based radio station dedicated to the jam-band scene with a heavy emphasis on all things Phish. Since the station signed on more than six years ago, I’ve been hosting “The Other Mike’s Corner” each Wednesday at 2:00 p.m.

My traveling companion was Race Allen, JEMP Radio’s founder. This adventure provided an opportunity for much of the station staff, a group scattered around the country, to actually meet in person. It also gave us a chance to personally interact with listeners at two shows in Hershey, Pennsylvania, followed by a three-show run on the beach in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

JEMP Radio became a lifeline for many Phish fans during the pandemic. We know that because they reached out on a daily basis, including some who felt completely alone and were truly struggling just to hang on. Some we still check on to make sure they’re OK.

Phish absolutely killed it on summer tour this year. The 22-show stretch marked their first concerts since February 2020, ending the group’s longest break from the stage in more than 12 years. It would seem that any necessary rust-shaking occurred during tour rehearsals because they sounded locked in and ready to deliver from opening night in Arkansas in late July through the band’s traditional Labor Day weekend residency in Colorado.

Since Covid wiped out last year’s concert schedule for most every performing band and artist, this particular summer tour by Phish seemed to take on greater significance for the fans (and I can only assume for the band as well). The jams were focused and performed with intent, while the oft-challenging composed material was, with few exceptions, executed with patience and precision.

I could be completely off-base here but it would seem that Phish may have approached this tour with the notion that Covid could pull the plug at any moment. As the Delta variant began stirring worry at the trek’s outset, nobody knew with certainty if Phish would make it to the finish line. Everything certainly had the feel of “let’s make every moment count.”

The events of 2020 proved not only how tenuous life can be, but it showed us how so many things we took for granted, like the simple act of attending a concert, can be taken away.

Our five-show adventure began at the tour’s halfway point in Hershey, Pennsylvania, which was already bustling from the regular flow of visitors in and out of Hershey’s Chocolate World theme park. Since we arrived in both Hershey and Atlantic City the day before the first concerts were scheduled, we had the unique perspective of seeing how each municipality was transformed overnight by Phish’s audience.

Both Hershey shows offered exemplary performances, but I give the nod to the second show, from August 11. In reference to the land of chocolate, Phish opened with their fifth-ever performance of Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing,” which provided several callbacks throughout the show. The show also gave me my first live “Wombat,” a rarely-played fun, funky, quirky song about the “cuddly but muscular” marsupial.

The second Hershey show also gave us perhaps the most substantial version of “Halley’s Comet” performed by Phish in decades. An early song written by a college friend to the band, “Halley’s” has a dedicated structure that usually clocks in under six minutes. They took it for a ride in Hershey with a deliriously tasty jam that went beyond 15 minutes. Set two checked all the boxes for me: Extraordinary musicianship, excitingly dynamic jams and seamless segues from one song to the next.

Upon arriving in Atlantic City, NJ, the following day, we scoped out the beach as audio engineers tested the sound system for the next three nights of shows. It was a little shocking to discover how quiet the city appeared one day before Phish’s audience descended. I am truly grateful for that crowd for helping me try to come to terms with a very painful loss.

Back at the hotel for a nap and shower before the show, I took a call from my sister informing me that my dear mother was unresponsive at an assisted living facility in Houlton, where she had resided for the last two years. She seemed fine in the morning, put her head down at noon and was gone an hour later.

I held the phone to my ear as I looked out the hotel window at the sight of thousands of concertgoers streaming toward the beach. At that moment, nothing mattered except the feeling that I needed to be at home with my family in Maine. They convinced me that I should stay, that Mom would have wanted that.

Mom lived to see the age of 96. She might have been ready for her next ride, but I wasn’t prepared. She was the most special human being I will ever know, and I owe everything to her.

Events became a little blurry at that point. My JEMP Radio friends kept me close for most of the weekend, and I am grateful for the kindness of Race, Andy, Russ, Erica and Alex. Somehow, I became separated from them in a swarm of thousands of fans on the boardwalk just before the second Atlantic City show. Because I’m fearful of losing my phone, I rarely take it to concerts. That was a particularly poor decision on my part, but the warmth of strangers got me through the night.

As a collective, Phish’s audience is really like a family in some ways. When a member of the family is having a crisis, the others become protective. I recognize how clichéd that sounds, but I experienced it firsthand.

As showtime drew near, I decided to join the flock filing into the show. As we stepped onto the sand, I struck up a conversation with a New Jersey-based fan named Derrick who invited me to join his group after I told him I was sort of lost.

Derrick said he’d been in attendance at nearly every New Jersey area show Phish has performed. I should mention that Derrick is in a wheelchair; I was about to discover that his group was actually located in the handicapped section at the right of the stage. There were six of us in an enclosed area that could have held 300. I shouldn’t have been there, but Derrick vouched for me several times when a venue staffer questioned my presence. “He’s with me,” I heard him say.

The extra space to think and move was almost as big a blessing as Derrick’s calm presence and empathy.

Following the show, I straggled back to the hotel at around 2:00 a.m. to be greeted at the door by Race. My relieved traveling companion had been calling local police and hospitals trying to discover if had turned up somewhere. We joked about how difficult it would have been for him to call my family if I’d been carved up like an Easter ham on some sketchy Atlantic City side street.

It was surreal to experience such profound loss in an environment usually filled with so much joy but I’m grateful for Phish, and the band’s fans, for helping me through the crucial beginning stage of grief.

Mom knew that I loved to see Phish shows and we actually caught one together during the summer of 2000. OK, it was on TV, but that still counts.

It was a midnight screening on VH-1, and we stayed up talking and laughing; we may even have consumed a glass or two of White Zinfandel as we watched Phish tear it up. I remember her surprised delight when she saw them take to the trampolines during “You Enjoy Myself.”

It was a sweet experience to watch the show with my Mom and listen to her review at the end. “They are good musicians dear,” she said. I won’t pretend she understood Phish, but she was keenly aware of their generally kind and friendly fans.

Mom met fans from all over the country when Phish staged festivals at the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone in 1997, 1998 and 2003. She would often walk her little dog around the circle at Houlton’s tourist information center, where a number of fans stopped for a break before continuing northward. After those meetings, Mom would call to tell me about the people she met, and the states represented by the various license plates she saw.

“They were all so polite dear, and they made a fuss over Missy,” she said, or close to it.

In the end I’m thinking of another lyric, but this one isn’t related to Phish. It’s from Neil Finn’s song “Lullaby Requiem”:

“Don’t think it’s too much to close eyes and leave us, in strange places we come undone. And the building blocks sometimes have to crash, not meant to last like a mother’s love.” 

Last modified on Wednesday, 15 September 2021 08:15


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