We had been sitting on Route 1 for hours, but it was still daylight and I was sure we would be in soon. Despite the protest of the jocks on 96.1 FM (The Bunny), everyone was out of their cars and mingling as only Phisheads can. I noticed a local standing on the edge of his lawn just taking in the scene. One of the many wandering Heads struck up a conversation him, and tried to apologize for the commotion going on right in front of the guy's home. Finally, the Head just shrugged at the guy and said, "Hey man, it's six sets!" Welcome to Limestone, Maine. This is IT, and you can come in tomorrow!
I sat in the rented Montero I shared with family and friends from 11:30 AM Friday until 4:30 AM Saturday morning. That's 17 hours sitting in traffic. I had heard horror stories of Big Cypress, so I was as mentally prepared as possible. A little while after midnight the band played an hour sound check that was carried live on The Bunny. A loose jam with Mike singing something in the middle, the check was a thoroughly enjoyable way to begin the festival and a mere taste of what was to come over the weekend.
For those who have no idea, IT was part rock festival, part interactive art project, an outdoor shopping bazaar, a mudfest and the second largest city in Maine for the weekend. It was also a religious experience for the faithful. This was my first Phish festival, and the scope and size alone was enough to make my head spin. There was so much to discover, but I knew I had to get some sleep. At 6:30 AM I finally crashed in my tent, sleeping out of necessity rather then want.
Up at 9:30 AM. The excitement of finally being at IT would not allow me to sleep. All the travel hassles and months of waiting were now behind me. I had arrived! After a quick search for food, coffee and glass (all easily obtained from lot merchants), a mellow Saturday morning was had by all around me in Lot F. Shortly after noon, a decision was made to head towards the heart of the campgrounds, and I started out with my campmates for the concert field.
As luck would have it Lot F was only a 15 minute walk from the center of everything. With each step the excitement built. "Look. The house of Live Phish!" "They have Pizza and Chinese food down here!" Everywhere there was something interesting waiting to be seen. The carnival rides, Dry Goods tent and misting walkway all got the once over, and it was unfortunate that I had to constantly stare at the ground to avoid losing a shoe in the mud.
The long stretch between the first entrance to the concert field and the actual gates was one large mud patch. Some relief could be found on the very sides, but getting in was rough. Of course, I had been stupid enough to bring my lawn chair, a forbidden item at the concert field. After walking back to camp and then back to the concert field, I was pretty close to collapse. IT had been pretty cool since we arrived, but now, as I lay on a blanket, the sun was beating straight down upon me and I could not sleep. There I waited"...for three hours. Arriving extremely early was pretty absurd in retrospect. A clear case of showing up at an event early to make the wait seem shorter. This never works.
Finally, around 6:00 PM and after many false alarms, the band appeared on the giant video screens walking from backstage to their instruments. A few random notes from Trey, and IT was underway and rocking to "AC/DC Bag". After heartily getting down to the nitty gritty, "Ya Mar" provided IT's first musical highlight. Running over 17 minutes, "Ya Mar" stretched in ways I had not heard before, and I could sense that Phish was really going to push it this weekend. Trey seemed especially excited, his smile beaming down at us throughout the show.
"Ya Mar" jammed straight into "Runaway Jim", which succeeded in both pleasing the crowd and advertising Sunday's 1st Annual Runaway Jim 5K. A stellar "Reba" followed "Jim". Before the whistling, Trey went around like he was asking the other band members what to play next. When he returned to the microphone, it seemed like he was about to start a new song. When he went into the whistling instead of a new song the crowd erupted with cheers. That tricky Trey.
After "Reba", a jammed out "Birds of a Feather" continued building an inspired communion between the audience and the band. After "Birds", the crowd demanded "Meatstick" and when Trey announced the granting of our request, excitement swept the concert field. IT had reached a frenzy of joy and it was only Set I! "Two Versions of Me" calmed things down a bit, and was the first of a sizable amount of new material performed at IT. "Vultures" kept the cool vibe going, but "Limb by Limb" rebuilt the energy for a nice set-closing "Cavern". Set I was in the books, and I was thirsty for more.
Set break was long and we entertained ourselves watching the rippling moon and other psychedelic images on the screens. Just before 9:00 PM, the band re-emerged. "Down With Disease" opened up Set II and showcased a more aggressive Mike then in the first set. A nice segue from "Disease" into "NICU" followed, the latter featuring both "Play it again, Leo!" and "Play it Cactus!" calls. The single most electrifying moment of Set II followed as "NICU" segued into "Brother" and Mike completely took over, throwing out a bass line of pure pogo stick funk. Trey responded with a ripping solo, and we needed "Lawn Boy" and "Discern" to calm the insanity.
"Waves" "David Bowie" arrived to close out Set II in style. I must admit to sitting at the beginning of "Wave"s. This was more out of exhaustion then any kind of dislike of the song, but by the midway point I had to stand back up. The band had wound the song down into the most ambient jam of the weekend to that point, and upon standing I was greeted by a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The band was deep into replicating machine noise, and Kuroda's lights provided a mothership transporting us to another dimension. Fishman begin his "Maze"/"Bowie" intro, and after a suitable build, "Bowie" emerged to close out Set II. Relaxing during set break, I wondered what the band could possibly do in Set III to match the first two sets.
Set III turned out to be my second favorite set of the festival. More like one giant song then a series of songs, it opened with an extended "Rock and Roll". The band seemed to be gaining steam through the jam and "Seven Below" emerged straight out of "Rock and Roll". My favorite song off of Round Room, this version did not disappoint! Jam heaven had arrived, and I was a prisoner of the groove. From "Seven Below", the band moved into two new songs, "Scents and Subtle Sounds" and then "Spread It Round". A lot has been written about "Scents and Subtle Sounds" being the best of the new crop of songs. This was a very good, if not superb, version. "Spread It Round" contained an admittedly corny lyric about spreading love around. My ironically detached side bristles at the sentiment. Of course, the jam out of the song and back into "Seven Below" was supremely intense and made my ironic detachment seem small-minded at best. By the time "Bug" arrived riding Mike's reverberating bass my mind had been blown. The band's collective mind must have been blown as well, since upon reemerging for the encore they did not know what to play. After some funny banter from Trey, "Dog Log" "Mango Song" put day one to bed.
After leaving the show, I managed to get lost on the way back to lot F. All the tents do look alike after a while. I finally got back to the campsite and was able to relax for a few minutes. Everyone was rehashing the show we had just seen as the post show buzz lingered into the evening. At about 2:00 AM the strangest alarm-like sound began emanating from every radio tuned to The Bunny. The sound was coming from everywhere. Something was going on, and I wandered back out to the runway to have a look. In the distance I could see the most amazing air traffic control tower conceived of by man. Bathed in purple light, with rotating red lights on top, it served as a kaleidoscopic night light for the camp. I quickly realized I would never get over to the tower before the music ended, so I settled into a sleeping bag and listened to Phish play the most amazing hour of music of the festival. Day one was closed out in grand fashion. Day two was almost at hand.