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Mother-Tested, Kid-Approved Psychedelia

The little cult phenomenon that could: Phish

In Thin Air Radio's trailer studio, Pistol Stamen and Mr. Sparkle are scampering back and forth, pulling records to spin and readying fresh batches of vocal samples from an adjoining computer. The two then flip through a bulging stack of index cards submitted by fans from across the campgrounds. They pass over some bad poetry, musical suggestions, messages to the band, and one loopy request: "I am shooting a 16mm film about Phish. Can I come backstage and get some footage ... and do you have a 16mm camera I can borrow?" Mr. Sparkle stops at one card that offers some Everglades safety tips for novice campers, turning on his microphone to read it over the air. "When being chased by an alligator, zigzag," he announces in a deadpan. "Alligators can run real fast in a straight line, but they can't zigzag. With the wild boars, though, you're on your own."

After cutting back into a record, Pistol Stamen discusses the spirit behind the station and its proudly unorthodox playlist. Originally conceived for Phish's earlier end-of-tour multiday campouts, the station was intended merely as an informational tool, an efficient way to transmit information to 80,000 people. It soon developed a life of its own, however, now with a full-time staff that traveled down from Vermont just to man the station around the clock. "Phish is all about improv," Stamen says, "which means if you're a fan, you're open-minded. I hope we're turning people on to new sounds, showing them where a lot of Phish's music comes from."

Thin Air Radio originally had planned to broadcast Phish's sets live, but squalling feedback between the station's transmitter and the band's onstage amplifiers has nixed that idea. While Phish plays, 91.7 FM goes off the air. To the vast majority of the assembled crowd, it's a nonissue. In the taping section, though, as word of the decision hits about an hour before showtime, there is a flurry of activity. Here in this gathering of about 100 behind the soundboard out in the concert field, Phish's music is distilled into an easily identified property: notes to be captured on tape. Accordingly this officially sanctioned patch of grass contains a forest of microphone stands, and a meticulous coterie fussing over thousands of dollars' worth of digital taping equipment. For those who were expecting simply to flick on their radios, push record, and then snag a perfect copy of Phish's show, the hunt is on for a sympathetic taper with microphones willing to let them patch their own gear into. The end result is a maze of daisy-chained tape decks. There's a sense of higher mission at work as well; copies of the tapes produced by this small body eventually will circulate out into the hundreds of thousands of Phish fans around the globe.

Tapers labor over capturing the moment
Brett Sokol
Tapers labor over capturing the moment
Heather Desmond, Norah Lycknell, and Bridgette Courtot choose a less stressful option
Brett Sokol
Heather Desmond, Norah Lycknell, and Bridgette Courtot choose a less stressful option

Of course the towering microphone stands also make for an easy landmark in the ever-growing sea of humanity filling the concert field, a fact taken advantage of by three young women splayed out on the grass alongside the taping section. Bridgett Courtot, age 20, and Norah Lycknell, 20 (both students at Northwestern University in Illinois) have hooked up with their high school pal Heather Desmond, 21. Although it's Courtot and Desmond's first Phish concert (Lycknell, with eleven shows under her belt, was the trip's instigator), right now they're more relieved than excited.

"It took us twenty hours to get from Columbus to I-75," recalls Courtot, who then begins shaking her head. "And then another twenty hours just to get across I-75!" At the moment, though, yesterday's traffic jam is a distant memory, and Desmond lays quietly on her back watching news helicopters circle overhead.

As Phish finally takes the stage shortly after 5:00 p.m., there's the obligatory roar and Desmond rouses herself. By the second song, a straightforward cover of Traffic's "Light Up or Leave Me Alone," most of the audience is only too happy to follow instructions and a flurry of pipes appear virtually everywhere. As the sun sets, however, a curious truth emerges. What is shaping up to be the nation's largest New Year's Eve rock and roll show has a decidedly unrock and roll feel to it.

Moving away from the stage, across the sweep of the concert field, reveals a scene that owes more to modern-day raves than secondhand memories of Monterey Pop. The crowd itself is as much a focus of attention as the four musicians performing, and rather than crush in to the front, thousands are happy to dance with one another nearly a half mile away.

At the foot of a brightly lit ferris wheel, Marcie Vogel, age 32, from Greenville, North Carolina, explains that while she's seen Phish more than 100 times over the past decade, the thrill is still there. "The first time was in a little bar in Baltimore with twenty people," Vogel recalls warmly. "The scene's gotten ridiculously large since then, but it's not mass media. It's about taking a friend. I've always dreaded the thought of them playing stadiums, but they've made it so everyone can still have an enjoyable time." Spreading her arms wide, motioning to the sheer expanse of the reservation, she exclaims happily: "I'm not smooshed! I'm going on a ferris wheel!" Overhearing her, Alison Morgan, 24, from Richmond, Virginia, chimes in: "Your world here can be as big or as small as you want it to be."

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