Mother-Tested, Kid-Approved Psychedelia

The little cult phenomenon that could: Phish

One of the few sour notes is sounded by Taz Courtnoy, 37, of Hammondsport, New York, who arrived with his girlfriend, Kristen Castnor, 22, and little else besides a batch of 50 hand-screened Phish T-shirts. The two had hoped to recoup their travel costs by selling the shirts, but instead found them confiscated as "unlicensed merchandise" by security at the entrance gate. Courtnoy fumes about the "Nazis" who "stole" his shirts for a moment, but then waxes philosophical on the loss. "It might have been hard to actually sell all of them," he muses. Gesturing to the crowd around him, he explains, "There aren't a lot of townies here, coming to check the scene out like on a regular tour stop. These people are the hard-core; they already have plenty of T-shirts." The parking lot, where guerrilla capitalism reigns supreme, bears out Courtnoy's prediction. Clothing, handblown glass pipes, and jewelry are all slow sellers. Instead the demand is for food, with lines snaking back and forth in front of jury-rigged kitchens serving homemade pizza, vegetable stir-fry, sandwiches of every imaginable stripe, and goo balls. Goo balls? Asking a goo ball vendor just what exactly "goo" contains elicits only a smile and the cryptic reply: "What do you think is in the goo?"

Marilyn Manson certainly would not approve, and anyone still clinging to cherished fantasies about the rebellious power of rock would most definitely feel chastened. There, boogying heartily on a suspended platform amid the scaffolding at stage right, are a cluster of crew members, production staff, friends of the band -- and Phish drummer Jon Fishman's fiftysomething parents. Mrs. Fishman gives up the ghost about halfway through the 90-minute third set, but Fishman Senior never flags in his frugging until the encore ends. "All the parents are here," he says, beaming as he exchanges a wave with his son, who's now exiting the stage. "We have special laminates," he adds with a laugh, referring to all-access passes that boldly read "Phish Parent."

Melissa Jones
Brett Sokol
The kids are alright: Phish fans bask in the music
Melissa Jones
The kids are alright: Phish fans bask in the music

"Be sure and get this in your article," quips Phish's Mike Gordon as he picks his way through the near-darkness surrounding the maze of trailers and pitched tents in an area adjoining the stage. "World-famous rock star in search of his wife!" It's 2:00 a.m. postshow; tomorrow is the big one, the midnight-to-dawn set. Right now Gordon just wants to find Priscilla, the missing wife in question, and adjourn to one of the many parties different cliques of crew and staff are throwing back at their RVs. The quest is taking him to concert areas that don't normally catch a glimpse of Phish this close up, and the results are unintentionally comic. After nearly tumbling into a ditch in the inky blackness, Gordon rights himself and then promptly steps on a tent's corner, summoning a surprised groan of pain from within. "Sorry! Sorry!" he mutters, shaking his head. One group of celebrating friends stops him, hands Gordon their camera, and asks him to snap their picture. It's only after he's taken the shot, handed back their camera and turned to move on that they realize just who the kindly cameraman was. Cries of "Great show!" and "It's the world's greatest bass player!" follow a now-increasingly uncomfortable Gordon, and he finally beats a retreat to his own trailer, where Priscilla has also arrived.

"It gets a little embarrassing to be looked at so much, but it's not harmful with our crowd," Gordon says. Still he looks visibly relieved to be inside now. Turning a radio on, he flips the dial to 91.7 FM. As the room fills with a wash of ambient house beats, he settles in on a couch next to Priscilla and reflects on Phish's musical evolution.

"In a jazz band, the bass player is often driving the beat with the drums dancing around. But in rock the bass and the kick drum are what everything sits on top of." He laughs and continues: "For us it took thirteen years to really embrace that concept. It's cool to have done it a different way, but I've always loved the sound of deeply grooving bass and drums. Trey [Anastasio] had the best sense of rhythm when we started. Trey's strumming was often a driving force, so we all got used to listening to him. It's interesting but it's not grounding for an overall sound. So by Trey laying back and not filling that role -- and me taking over more of that role -- it makes for a fuller sound. The top can float rather than be forced to drag the bottom along."

Of course when you spend night after night, year after year, playing largely improvisational music together, change is bound to occur, if only to keep things engaging for the musicians themselves. "There were times when he was touring for nine months straight," recalls Priscilla with a smile. "Then he'd come home and throw off my whole routine!" So is it hard for the couple to continually readjust between "normal" life in Vermont and the bubble world of the road? Both Mike and Priscilla pause and trade a knowing look. Then Mike suggestively arches an eyebrow and replies, "Which one is the bubble world?"

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