Story by Steve Bloom
Photos by Kevin Dohner
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Thousands of hippies landed on the former Loring Airforce Base in Limestone, Maine for Phish’s two-day IT festival on August 2 and 3. Though the base is now defunct, flying is an apt description for the psychological state of the 70,000 phans who pitched tents on grassy stretches of runway. They came from all over the United States, packed in cars with camping supplies and pharmaceutical necessities.
After driving hundreds of miles and then dealing with a brutal traffic jam to enter the site, phans were ready to party. We’d hot-tailed it out of New York on Friday, August 1, driving through the night only to arrive in Caribou (10 miles from the base) at 5 am. Traffic snarled to a stop and then moved ever so slowly for the next seven hours. Only a VIP parking pass saved us several more hours of stressful delays. We settled into our camp area at noon, set up tents, ate lunch, puffed some Strawberry, and readied for first set at 5:30 pm.
I’d been to Limestone once before for The Great Went in 1997. (I missed Phish’s Lemonwheel phest there in ’98.) As a Phish phest veteran, I knew to expect three sets a day, a special unannounced late-night set somewhere on the site, and a general phrenzy. If you’re a phan already, this is ground zero; if not, prepare to be turned on. I was a phan already in ’97, but The Great Went cemented my relationship with the band and its notorious phans.
Limestone is about 650 miles northeast of New York City. It’s literally a few miles from New Brunswick, Canada. People up there say "eh" a lot, as if they’re Canadian. There are moose signs on the road and blueberry pancakes in restaurants (we didn’t see any moose or eat any blueberry pancakes, however). It’s sort of the top of the world, as far as America goes; only northern Washington state has a higher latitude.
It rained quite a bit the day before, leaving a muddy concert field and campground to contend with. The site included the usual glut of food vendors (wraps, pizza, stir-fry, Ben & Jerry’s, etc.), glass and craft booths (Sundance Solar was my personal favorite). Out on the runway, a huge Shakedown Street sprouted. To the right of the stage, the festival organizers built an art installation called Sunk City. The local radio station, 96.1, in nearby Presque Isle, converted to a Phish phormat known as "The Bunny" – cool alternative rock, jazz and funk – and performers in rabbit outfits and other costumes filtered through the crowd.
Who is the Phish phan? Late teens and twentysomethings with an outlaw mentality. They may dig the Dead, but they love Phish. Like Deadheads, they enjoy their herb, but unlike Deadheads they prefer the happier high of Ecstasy to the cathartic rush of acid. "Molly" – for the Ecstasy molecule – is the choice of Phish phans. It’s comes in powder form and is inhaled for a quicker response time. "Where’s my Molly?" was a typical refrain on the Shakedown runway.
Still tired from the overnight drive, I took it easy the first day. I smoked plenty of bowls and drank my share of Magic Hat #9 – a fruity beer that was one of two offerings at the concession stands and VIP tent (our advantage was a price break – $2 rather than $4 – and not having to wait on long Beer Garden lines). The first set on August 2 began with "AC/DC Bag" and ran through favorites like "Ya Mar," "Reba," and "Birds of a Feather." This set clocked in at nearly two hours, the longest of the weekend. After a break for supper, Phish returned with "Down with Disease," a lounge lizardy "Lawn Boy" delivered by keyboardist Page McConnell, and a set-closing "David Bowie." The third set included several new songs, such as "Scents and Subtle Sounds," and concluded with "The Mango Song" encore. People seemed happy with the band’s choices, though it was clear that Phish had yet to fully jell on stage. At times, their jams were impenetrable, the four-part harmonies buried in the mix.
For the next 90 minutes, phans headed back to their tents for much needed sleep or just rolled along the runway, searching for the forbidden nitrous dealers. Then, at 2 am, smoke and lights steered our attention to the six-story inactive control tower structure, where the band would soon commence their fourth set of the night, this one albeit more abstract than anything we heard earlier in the evening. For more, see David Bienenstock’s account of Phish’s "towerful performance."
It rained overnight, but thankfully the festival staff hauled in hay and gravel to cover the muddy spots. It was still mucky, as phans roamed the grounds barefoot. After touring Shakedown and hanging out with various vendors, it was time for the first set on August 3. Well rested, I decided to join the hordes and ingest a tab of E. Perhaps it was my own psychoactive reaction, but the three sets on this second day were much more high-spirited and enjoyable than the band’s more deliberate approach the day before. This was IT – no holds barred, the band was prepared to cook like chefs in a lovely Vermont cafÃ©.
The phun began with "Punch You in the Eye," followed by a mammoth "Chalkdust Torture," the shortest known version ever of "Wilson" (according to lead singer and band force Trey Anastasio), and then "Mike’s Song" (sung by bassist Mike Gordon) into "I am Hydrogen" into a reeling "Weekapaug Groove."
By sunset, the band returned for a doozy of a second set. During "Ghost," a full-fledged glow-stick war broke out and raged until things slowed down with Round Room’s "Pebbles and Marbles." After a lengthy "You Enjoy Myself," Phish broke into "Chariots of Fire." There was a rhyme and reason for this departure: the winners of "The 100th Running of the First Annual Runaway Jim Memorial 5K," which took place earlier in the day, were brought on stage to receive their medals, Olympics style. The second-place finisher among the women was Lindsay Parker-Waters, a neighbor of Anastasio’s in Vermont. After the ceremony, she returned to the VIP platform (where I took in the show) and received congratulations all around. The set ended with "Loving Cup."
It didn’t take long before Phish hit the stage for their final performance of the weekend. The raucous "46 Days" opener lasted about 46 minutes, but it was the bluesy jaunt of "Julius" that catapulted me; suddenly, I was dancing effortlessly, bouncing up and down with everyone else on the VIP platform. It took nearly two days, but finally I’d merged with the delirious phan mass and communally embraced the music as if it was my own creation. It was a downhill coast from there into set closer, "Run Like an Antelope," and Led Zep encore, "Good Times, Bad Times."
Wide awake with nowhere to go until the next morning, we cruised Shakedown, where the sssssssssshhhhhh sound of a nitrous tank drew us into the zone. With balloons in hand, we sat down on the tarmac and inhaled deeply. After 84 hours on the road and in the venue, with dirty shoes on and Phish songs reverberating in our brains, we deserved it.