[We would like to thank Jonathan Jelen, user @Devious_Jelen, for this piece. -Ed.]
I’ve cried at a handful of Phish shows through the years. Sometimes it’s been the hollowed out feeling created by the heartfelt lyrics of a song like Miss You that makes me think of my Grandpa. Other times, it’s been a beautiful jam peak that swelled up to the point that a little liquid emotion couldn’t help but spill out.
But at my Phish shows last June at Deer Creek – it was different. At those shows, I cried for Mom.
Growing up in the Midwest, Deer Creek was my old stomping grounds. It wasn’t the first place I ever saw Phish - that was UIC Pavilion in Chicago. But Deer Creek was the first place when I really “got” Phish, when it first really clicked. It was my first weekend at Deer Creek back in 1996 and in particular, it was the opening four-song stretch of "Divided Sky," "Tube," "Tela," and "Maze"--- still one of my favorite portions of any first set. Something clicked and this was no longer “just a concert.”
From ’96-’99, I didn’t miss a single Deer Creek show and every two-night run there was a focal point of the summer. Sometimes it launched a touring leg that brought me to the Great Went in ’97 and other times it was the “welcome home” show after driving 6,000 miles on the western leg in ’98. But every time, it was special. Friends came together. We all camped at the same spot each year. Memories were made that we had no way of knowing would last a lifetime.
But after having moved out to the Pacific Northwest, the Gorge has become my new stomping grounds and I hadn’t been back to Noblesville in 23 years. Having created so many formative Phish memories at Deer Creek in the 90s, I always felt the tug to return. To see how it’d changed, to see how it’d stayed the same. To see how I’d changed, to see how I’d stayed the same.
So when the spring tour dates were announced last year and they aligned perfectly with our planned trip back to my hometown of Chicago, it was going to be the year I’d finally get back to the Creek. But they turned out to be very different than what I’d expected – and very different from any Phish shows I’ve ever seen.
You see, five years ago, my Mom was diagnosed with cancer. Throughout those years, the aggressiveness of the disease, the intensity of her treatments, her energy levels, and how normal things felt were all on corresponding rollercoasters – each impacting the other. A few peaks, but also a lot of long, deep valleys.
In the month leading up to last June’s Deer Creek shows, I visited her for Mother’s Day in Nashville. During that trip, her health took a steep and sudden decline – a marked difference from when one of my brothers was there just two weeks prior. It became painfully clear that my brothers and I should start saying our goodbyes. I extended my trip by nearly a week and encouraged my brothers to come visit her again. My brothers and I were all able to get back to see her multiple times. When I returned home to Portland after an extended ten-day visit with her in mid-May, I was absolutely exhausted. But I felt like I had made my peace.
In the final days of May, Mom entered hospice. With the last several months and weeks being a steady dose of heart-wrenching, I found myself in desperate need of a recharge, a reset, a catharsis. Having just seen her a week prior and still not recovered from that trip, I was torn on whether or not to go see the Deer Creek shows that were initially planned to be a cornerstone of the summer.
After endlessly wavering, my partner, who’s not a Phish phan, offered me some powerful advice: “You should go. Definitely. It’ll be the release you need - one of those rare opportunities to poke your head above the clouds and truly examine the human experience. You need this. Go. Dance. Be with your best friends. Laugh. Cry. Find your peace.”
And so I did, with the plan being that we’d pivot from our previously-planned week in Chicago following the shows and go see Mom one last time.
Flying over Mount Hood at sunrise on my way to Indiana was an awakening. The sun coming in sideways, the clouds whisking over and around Oregon’s tallest peak. It felt like being on this exact flight at this exact time in this exact headspace seeing this exact and overpowering beauty was the exact thing I needed --- a nascent step towards healing.
On the second leg of my flights, the soundtrack is my first Deer Creek weekend in ’96. With emotions running high, that "Waste" through "Strange Design" hit hard as the sunshine at the Dallas airport bar illuminated my layover.
After one solo night in downtown Indianapolis and exploring the city for an afternoon, I met up with three of my best friends from home – all three of whom were central characters in all my past Deer Creek experiences and two of whom were with me for my first show before that. They drove from Chicago and eastern Tennessee so that we could all rendezvous here together.
On the way to the show, strip malls had replaced the cornfields in which we’d lost ourselves after the shows and laughed while singing "Rocko William" lyrics in ten-foot high cornstalks. It felt like the reverse of Talking Heads’ "Nothing But Flowers." But approaching the lot……well, approaching the lot immediately felt incredibly familiar. It felt like we were coming home.
We parked just off Shakedown and cracked open a few local beers from Metazoa Brewing (love that they support wildlife and animal causes). I was with my guys, we had beers, and it was good. They of course checked in to see how I was doing and to ask about Mom. And while I was fully expecting the possibility of crying at the show, this marked the first lot tears I’ve shed. But it felt like a necessary part of preparing for the show.
As for the show itself (Deer Creek 6/3/2022), the first set was good. But most importantly, it was easy in a way that I think I needed. A fun set that offered me a chance to connect with the music in a relatively no-strings-attached kind of way. Nothing blew me away, but I wasn’t in a place to let it.
The second set was, well, much, much different. While enjoyable, the relatively brief version of "No Men in No Man’s Land" didn’t strike any chords. But Mike’s opening bass lines of "Down with Disease" instantly struck something deep inside me. Suddenly, this song seemed to be the musical representation of what was swelling up in me. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that song – or any song – in such a literal sense before. “Down with Disease.” Down with Cancer. Shit. Tears welling up. Thinking of Mom.
But the real moment was when Trey sang, “This has all been wonderful, but now I’m on my way….” I just lost it. There in the pavilion, beneath CK5’s amazing light show, and awash in music from this incredible band. In the anonymity I was afforded amidst thousands of people dancing in the pavilion, I cried like I’ve never cried before. It was all coming out. Again.
"This has all been wonderful, but now I’m on my way.”
Each time these words struck deeper. And each time, I cried more. Trey was on stage, but I was hearing Mom sing those lyrics.
A few moments later, with tears streaming down my face, I felt the hands of my best friends on my shoulders. Their touch did not say “It’s going to be ok.” Instead, their actions said, “Let it out, Brother.” And I did --- for the entirety of that beautifully necessary and messy jam.
When I thought this was all the release I needed, the > into "Joy" dropped me into a deeper place.
In truth, "Joy" has made me cry a couple of other times --- just for being the touching, personal song that it is. But this time, it was different.
“….then somebody leaves you and your never the same.”
Damn. The tears rolled on. Even harder and more freely than before. But this moment just seemed built for it. This band, this scene, has always felt so safe, so supportive. There was zero self-consciousness as two of my buddies kept their hands on my shoulders for the entirety of the song that bled me dry.
The transition to "Ruby Waves," while very much on the nose, didn’t bring an escape from thinking of death. It did, however, bring a reframing of it. Upbeat. Almost optimistic. It weirdly turned sadness into comfort. The perfect lifeline to pull me back up and offer some perspective.
When I die I'll turn into a tiny ball of energy And I'll go flippin' and floatin' up into the sky And bounce off the stars like a pinball machine….. If I could touch the stars with my fingertips The doors would open all around me.
Wherever Mom was headed, I knew in that moment that she’d be pain-free and reborn with the possibilities of brand new adventures and awakenings all around her. The famous Alpine Valley "Ruby Waves" is special and deserves its accolades. But for me, Deer Creek 2022 is the most important version. The tears now felt beautiful.
The music, the lights, the moment --- I was just overcome with it all as a smile now joined my tears.
With the emotional release afforded by "Disease" > "Joy" > "Ruby Waves," I was spent and ready to transition back to something that more resembles a fun Phish show. And "Lizards" was the perfect welcome back song.
It’s always a fun one to hear, but it’s especially welcome when you’re with your best friend since fifth grade and it’s the song he’d been chasing for 27+ years!
As a bonus, the silliness of "Fluffhead" is always a welcome addition to any show, especially this one. As the lights came on after the "Contact" / "First Tube" encore, I found myself feeling the seemingly impossible combination of emotionally exhausted and rejuvenated.
As we do after every show, my friends and I hugged tight. I never needed them like this before.
Night Two: Deer Creek 6/4/2022
The following night was the perfect counter to the emotional release of night one. Two of my friends had to return to Chicago, so it was just going to be two of us for the Saturday show. But then, my lifelong friend asked if it’d be ok to bring his family, including his two young daughters. I’d never been to a show with little kids before, but I thought “What the heck? Let’s do it, it’ll be a fun experience.” So we loaded up into the mini-van and off we went.
First off, navigating Shakedown with a five- and seven-year-old is part minefield, part hilarious.
“No, sorry but you can’t have one of those balloons.”
After some grilled cheese for the kiddos and navigating the crowds, we finally made it into the venue as "Turtle in the Clouds" began. We staked our spot straightaway at the top of the lawn. Minutes later, a nearby crew with small kids appeared out of nowhere. They came over to make friends and to share the treasure chest of bubbles and glowsticks they’d brought from a recent little kids’ birthday party. In hindsight, it’s pretty hilarious how seamless party favors for little kids translate to Phish shows.
The lawn was an all-out dance fest with positive energy flowing in every direction. The girls were just incredible balls of energy and excitement, instantly demanding to be atop Crazy Uncle Jonny’s shoulders [my friend had dubbed me “Crazy Uncle Jonny” to his girls and they adorably and exclusively refer to me as such]. I’d never seen a show like this before, but their energy, their smiles, their sheer excitement for the moment made for what felt like one of the purest experiences I’ve ever had – at a Phish show or beyond.
For them, it was a sensory overload experience in just about every possible way.
“Have you ever seen so many people?” I asked.
“No, it looks like the whole world is here!” exclaimed seven-year-old Ani from atop my shoulders.
My buddy and I alternated which girl was on whose shoulders for nearly the entire first set. Strawberry Letter 23 was an extra sweet highlight. We all danced like we’d never danced before. Smiling. Laughing. Being the absolute most silly versions of ourselves.
Once the second set started, the girls were instantly adorned in more homemade glowstick bracelets, necklaces, and headbands than any other human has ever worn. And the "You Enjoy Myself" second set opener was just the kind of whimsy to kick them into yet another stratosphere of silliness. Being surrounded by them and their energy, their love, and their hilarity was just so reinvigorating. A "Wave of Hope" delivered at least a wave of acceptance and maybe even peace, if not hope.
Later, five-year-old Clara is back on my shoulders, referring to me as her horsey and directing me to wherever she wants to go including over to her new friend who’s atop her dad’s shoulders. As he and I exchange nods to acknowledge our new subservient roles to these super cute kids, I hear Clara say to her friend up above:
“This is my Uncle Jonny. He’s crazy!”
The smiles kept getting bigger. The show kept getting better and it became more and more effective as the medicine I needed. A fun, funky "Howling" before the second set closed in what felt like an especially profound way. You see, back at my very first show, I only knew a handful of Phish songs. But as a person who’s long described Led Zeppelin as the foundation of everything musical in my life, the encore of "Good Times Bad Times" caused me to jump into the air and sparked a lifelong passion for this band we call Phish. It was my first big Phish moment.
So when "Good Times Bad Times" closed the second set last year at Deer Creek, it was just what I needed – a full circle return to where it all started and perhaps an existential (if overly simplistic) take on this real thing we call life.
Slow "Maze"?!?! What a weird/cool/funky way to close out this weekend.
After two nights of the yin yang catharsis provided by Deer Creek, I rented a car and drove south to Nashville. Still sad of course, but recharged and thankful. Feeling like from my friends, the music, the kids, and the overall experience, I’d been given that rare chance to stick my head above the clouds and gain some perspective as well as the strength I’d need to face the situation at hand, to provide some support to my aunt and my brothers, and to say goodbye to Mom one last time.
Miss you, Mom.
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