Phish Returns to Feed Its Hungry Fan
HAMPTON, Va. — Every crowd makes its own tune. Massed sports fans burst to celebration and shrink to groans in a rhythm punctuated by a certain detachment. Political rallies mix earnest approval with dutiful laughs inspired by jibes and cynical self-deprecation.
And then there was the noise, the great rising roar that swelled from 13,800 throats here at 7:59 on Friday evening: the unfettered, triumphant cascade of joy heard only at a major rock concert. As the house lights dimmed at the Hampton Coliseum, the four members of Phish officially took the stage for the first time since August 2004. And as the opening passage of the anthem “Fluffhead” enveloped the room, the eruption of exultation was not merely for the band itself but also for the millions in the Phish diaspora who make up perhaps the most fervent fandom in pop music.
“It’s like our family hasn’t been able to be together for four and a half years,” Lauren Knyper, 33, a teacher from Babylon, N.Y., said near the front of the admission line that snaked hundreds of yards behind her before Friday’s show. Ms. Knyper wore a black T-shirt that read “This is my 100th show,” then pointed to her pregnant midsection, “and his first.” Ms. Knyper’s husband, who declined to give his name “because I’m not supposed to be here,” said it was his 217th Phish concert.
“We’re here with at least 20-some-odd friends,” Ms. Knyper said. “For the last four years we’ve been missing that connection because this really is a family, and this is our community. It’s been years since we could be together, so it just has this incredible emotional meaning. My mother died just last month, and this is like my music therapy. ”
When Phish announced in September that it would reunite and play three concerts here, the news instantly rekindled the Internet-fueled Phish fan network. Within days of the announcement, even before tickets went on sale, every hotel within at least 20 miles was booked solid.
Local officials estimated that as many as 75,000 people might have descended on the area for the shows, according to The Associated Press. In the parking lots were license plates from just about every state east of the Mississippi and quite a few west of it. At Kelly’s Tavern just down the street, Nora Brendel, 59, a waitress, heralded the bumper business on Saturday afternoon. “Last night they told us, ‘Get on your roller skates, girls,’ ” she said. “ ‘Better get some good sleep tonight.’ ”
It appeared that almost no one at the shows over the weekend paid the face price of $49.50 for each night’s tickets, and that most fans had ended up paying at least several hundred dollars each. In the parking lot, amid the more whimsical offers of snowboards and mud from the band’s 2004 “farewell” festival in Coventry, Vt., cash offers of $500 for one night’s ticket were being routinely ignored by sellers on Friday. By Saturday, the going rate seemed to be around $1,000.
“You could offer me $20,000, and I wouldn’t walk away from these shows,” Olen Green, a 38-year-old truck driver from Pittsburgh, said as he sat in the first row of the balcony on Friday night. Mr. Green said he had paid $1,265 for his three nights’ tickets. “People say, ‘Oh, why are you going to all three shows?’ But it’s really just like one event.”
And those prices weren’t for luxury box seats. No such thing here. In an era of high-tech stadiums and fancy amenities, Hampton Coliseum is among the great old-school rock arenas. One of the few halls of its size still to offer full general-admission seating with an open floor, Hampton is known to rock fans as crowded, sweaty, stinky, smoky, loud and in every respect intense. Leave your seat without a friend to watch it? It’s gone.
Next to Mr. Green, Dave Yanaitis, 32, manager of a service station down the road in Virginia Beach, Va., was jostling for position at the front edge of the balcony.
“Hey this is Hampton,” Mr. Yanaitis said. “There is no way this crowd can be stopped. I wouldn’t call it violent or rough, but it is very energetic, especially with the rush tonight of being the first shows back. It can be a little aggressive just because the energy is so high. People aren’t going to just take your space, but if you’re not here to hold it …” He shrugged, grinned and gestured at the teeming crowd stretching out before him. “Look at this sea of people.”
During its shows the band engages in almost none of the between-song banter common to other acts. As the musicians progress through intricately scripted passages and wide-ranging improvisations, the audience generally maintains an intense, attentive, swaying silence.
The sound quality at Hampton is renowned, and the room has long inspired major rock bands to some of their finest concerts. By opening its comeback with “Fluffhead,” a beloved song that the band had not played since 2000, Phish inspired comparisons among the cognoscenti to a legendary Hampton performance by the Grateful Dead on Oct. 9, 1989, when that band performed “Dark Star” for the first time in five years.
With its devoted fans and improvisational ambition, Phish has long been bound in the popular imagination with the Grateful Dead, and there is no question that the two bands and their fans share a musical and cultural lineage. Yet Phish fans are generally of a distinctly younger generation. Though there were very few people who appeared to be over 40 at the shows here, there was a huge bubble of fans in their late 30s, which makes perfect sense, given that Phish (formed at the University of Vermont) first came to prominence on the college and prep school campuses of the Northeast in the late 1980s.
“I would go to Dead shows, and there would be all these 50-year-olds there, which was fine, but I was like 17, 18 at the time,” said Brett Fairbrother, 37, a fan who works at the Portsmouth Brewery in Kittery, Me. “Then I saw Phish, and it was all of these people my own age, so that was where I was meant to be.”
There also weren’t many fans under 25, probably because of the cost, but there were a few young fans lucky enough to make the Hampton shows their first.
“I was 5 years old when Jerry Garcia died, and 13 when Coventry happened, so I’ve been waiting all my life to come to a show like this,” Ben Cooper, 18, a high school senior from Knoxville, Tenn., said on Saturday night. Mr. Cooper said his family had pooled $900 to buy him tickets as a combined graduation and birthday present.
Among the fans interviewed, the Hampton shows won rave reviews, with the near-universal opinion that Phish now is far tighter and more energetic than the band that toured five or six years ago. The group played for about 3.5 hours each night, and all of the sets are available as free downloads at livephish.com.
An hour after the last concert ended early on Monday morning, with the final notes of “Tweezer Reprise,” hundreds of fans lingered in the atrium bar of a nearby hotel, holding onto the weekend as if it were the last night of camp, when no one wants to go home.
“They exceeded my expectations from the very first song of the very first show,” said Erik Rankin, 27, an ad salesman from Great Neck, N.Y. “The first night was like a recital. The second night was more ambient, darker. And then tonight they just brought the funk. Phish is back.”