Phish's festival in Coventry, Vermont, took place seven years ago. The shows were billed as Phish's final shows. They were enormously emotional for a host of reasons, particularly because many fans were turned away, and others had to hike miles upon miles simply to reach the grievously muddy grounds. Several years ago, during the "breakup," and a few years after Coventry, I wrote an essay about the positive aspects of the shows at Coventry. I did so because I felt I owed it both to Phish, and to myself, to find a way to view Coventry in a positive light. If you care to read part of what I wrote back then, and perhaps to rethink Coventry yourself ...
THOUSANDS of fans had abandoned their cars and hiked with their crap to the venue. Many did it out of loyalty to the band and their music. Some did it because, well, their friends were doing it, and it was sure to be an adventure, and a party. Whatever their reasons were for trekking to the venue on foot, I was in absolute awe of them. The band had yet to play a single note and Coventry had already become an unforgettably moving experience for me.
And after all was said and done, to me, Coventry wasn’t about the music. I had not expected this and was stunned. The profound love exhibited by the fans for the band, and vice versa, was easily the highlight of the weekend for me. In spite of all of the challenges of the weekend -- not the least of which was the wall of rocks in front of the stage that had created an unprecedented and (I’m sure) bizarrely alienating barrier between the band and the fans -- the band nevertheless managed to convey and project a profound intimacy with tens of thousands of fans. That the music of the weekend often reflected the emotional turmoil of the scene, the good and the bad, the “warts and all,” was not only appropriate, but also, in a way, indicative of the close bond Phish has always had with its fans. We were all at one hell of a wake.
I’ve spent countless hours analyzing Phish’s music. But for many months after Coventry I had little interest in even hearing the shows again, much less comparing the performances to previous ones. The Coventry experience had been so moving to me that the music, ironically, wasn’t all that important. It was over, after all. Now that I’ve had a chance to listen to the Coventry shows again, years later, they are as much “mixed bags” now as they were then. It's not fair, though, to compare the music of these shows to others -- even to other festival shows. Coventry – like Cypress – is “beyond compare.” If the music at Coventry had been “best ever,” in spite of all of the challenges the band and fans both faced, it would have been miraculous.
I've never been an "It's all Hood" type of fan, but I don't see any point in reflecting on the negatives about Coventry’s music. Arguably, there’s never any point to discussing the negatives of musical performances. While there’s certainly some truth to that, criticism that strives to be fair and informative can certainly be beneficial to some. It can drive musicians and artists to challenge themselves in new ways, for example, or lead people to powerful, even transcendent, art, which they may never have found. Whatever.
Here are some of the things that helped make Coventry remarkable, if not also unforgettable, to me:
* Trey’s melodic, even soulful, soloing in "Jibboo" around the 8-10 min point;
* Page’s and Mike’s playing in the so-called “nirvana” section of "YEM" (within the first few mins), and Trey’s hinting at "Manteca" during the jam segment at about 13:15 or so;
* Tom Marshall’s “Rye rye rocco. Marco esquandolas. Been you to have any spliff man.” during the "Antelope," which (like it or not) had been one of the more chaordic versions on record;
* the soupy, cacophonous, blazing haze in "Fire," shortly before they returned to the theme and closed the version and the set strongly – an unusual version of "Fire" for sure;
* the mesmerizingly mellifluous groove in the "‘Bag" which, though short, nevertheless helped bring IT, also illustrating the fascinating evolution of this tune’s jam segment over the preceding decades;
* Trey’s words before (and during?) the "Bowie" about writing it many years earlier in an adjacent town;
* the awesome Trey and Mike duet in the "Free;"
* the jamming during the "Drowned" around the 21-23 min point, which is why I still love and listen to this band;
* the vigorous playing in – and brevity of -- the "Weekapaug Groove," which made me think about early 1990s versions;
* Trey’s mom and Mike’s mom on stage during "Wolfman’s" doing “the bump” with Trey and Mike, Trey’s yelling “MOMS!!!” as they leave the stage and, of course, the “double team” by Trey and Mike of Phish’s long-time manager, John Paluska; how many rock stars would do this!?
* Fishman’s singing during the "Taste;"
* the soulful "DWD" jam around the 13 min point, which reminded me of the days when Phish’s improvisations almost routinely “clicked,” sounding composed or nearly so, when they were all focused intensely on their playing as one and IT was being brought; you know, the amazing sht that makes Phish one of the best rock bands ever;
* Page during the "Velvet Sea" – I will always hear this song differently than before;
* the band thanking us, and Fish’s remark that those who walked to the show had paid the band “the greatest compliment that we could ever have” (damn straight!);
* the spacey psychedelic haze during the "SOAM," around the 24 min point or so;
* the novelty of a set-opening "FEFY," and its fragility;
* Page's grand accompaniment in the final minute or so of "Simple;"
* the ferocity of "Piper," and Page’s prominent soloing before “the Bruno Song”;
* Trey’s thanking of Scotland, Hipsley, and Bruno (their monitor engineer, a calling that requires Jedi-like skill and discipline);
* the loose and soulful "Slave;" and, of course,
* "The Curtain With," which had helped turn me into a fan many years ago.
What do you think? If you haven’t heard Coventry, you should, because in my opinion, they are as MUST HEAR as any other shows that you’ve been encouraged to hear. I can’t thank Trey, Mike, Jon and Page enough for Coventry and for all of the other experiences and friendships their music has created for me over the last 18 years. I'm more in awe now of Phish's accomplishments than I ever was while they were playing. I hope to be there if, when, Phish plays again. two cents, charlie
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