Along the half-mile walkway that connects the Hampton Coliseum to the motels and chain restaurants just beyond the venue's parking lot, a makeshift bazaar is stuffed with merchandise that you'll never find at Wal-Mart.
Thousands of glazed and grinning shoppers are packed into this illicit little mall on Saturday evening, shuffling past dozens of vendors. One is selling Rice Krispies ganja treats -- hello, Snap, Crackle and Pot -- for $3, or two for a fiver. Another peddles brownies baked with hallucinogenic mushrooms, while a young man with blond dreadlocks skips the culinary pretense entirely and pushes "super funky nuggets," which apparently translates roughly to "really strong weed."
"Who wants to help a chubby kid get high?" yells one shopper.
Just about everyone, dude. But the hottest item here isn't a drug, or the fresh veggie burritos or the grilled-cheese sandwiches, all cooked with impromptu kitchenware plugged into portable batteries. And it's not the $25 queen-size tapestries or dozens of brightly colored glass pipes laid out in suitcases. Nothing is as coveted tonight as a lime-green 2-inch-by-7-inch slip of paper, also known as a ticket, to the concert by Phish, the most popular jam band since the Grateful Dead expired.
"My soul for your extra," shouts one fan.
"Fruit of my loins for your extra," barks another.
Thousands are milling around, each holding up an index finger, the universal "need one" semaphore. Others are carrying around hand-lettered signs, which reflect either deep desperation or really poor planning. "Cash or my guitar for your extra," reads one. "Travelled from New Zealand. Need extra," reads another. And one that you can only hope is a lie: "Just married. Need 2 tix for honeymoon."
"I remember one woman standing naked in the freezing cold with her finger in the air," says Camille Pickett, who is selling jewelry and pipes and who, like nearly all of the vendors here, is a Phish fanatic. "The point is to say, 'I want in this badly.' "
A Curious Lure Shunned by both radio and MTV, Phish has been subverting just about every rule in the industry's handbook to superstardom since forming in Vermont in 1983. Three of the band's members -- guitarist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell and bass player Mike Gordon -- dress like off-duty teachers at a Montessori school. In concert, the fourth, drummer Jon Fishman, wears a dress with orange circles on it. They charge a pittance for tickets, for years around $20, and encourage fans to tape their concerts and trade them over the Internet.
Through the '80s and '90s, while grunge and alt-metal bands raged against the machine, Phish just ignored the machine and spread the love one three-hour concert at a time, building what looks less like an audience than a tribe with its own language, customs and manners. It's an anti-club, low on irony, often high on drugs, defined against the mainstream, glorying in a collective secret and relishing a sense of community.
"We say there are no strangers here," says a 25-year-old who identifies herself as Flute Girl. She is carrying a flute case and wearing a set of angel wings glued to her back. "Just friends you haven't met."
Appearances to the contrary, these neo-hippies aren't all Woodstock-craving naifs. Many are professionals. And they're among the most Net-savvy fans in pop, designing hundreds of Web sites with the kind of dedication that usually leads to restraining orders. The Phish.net is an underground city of band history, set lists, reviews, chat boards, rumors and links to other sites, one of which is devoted to the band's lighting director. Another dices statistics about Phish's live performance history by days of the week (there have been 121 shows on Sundays), by years (133 shows in 2000) and states (29 shows in Texas).
It's been a brutal 27 months for Phishheads. In October 2000, the band decided to call a halt to pursue other projects, and there was little said about whether the four would ever play again. They were getting stale, they explained and, now in their late thirties, were family men uninterested in months-long tours.
But several months ago they reunited and jammed with the idea that they'd record a concert album at Madison Square Garden on New Year's Eve. They were tickled enough by their collaboration and new material that they decided to release a studio album, "Round Room," named for the barn where it was made. Another part of this mini-comeback was three nights of shows in Hampton, which has long been one of their favorite venues. Saturday night was the last of these performances.
Dates have now been added in February, and it seems like Phish might do a series of concerts once a year. For fans, any wait will be difficult. Among the T-shirts for sale in Hampton was one that read "I Survived the Hiatus." A lot of Phishheads, accustomed to trailing the group around the country, didn't really know what to do with themselves during their time off.
"I signed a lease, which is something most of us are pretty reluctant to do, because then you have to be there and that's not something we're good at," says Pickett. "I was sitting around selling jewelry for most of the time in Chapel Hill."
The Phish template was derived from the Dead: hundreds of improvised live shows and plenty of Ben & Jerry's-style capitalism. On the band's Web site (phish.com), you'll find not merely the standard logoed T-shirts and baseball caps, but winter jackets, cooler bags, a wide variety of "stash tins," a navy fleece blanket, a 550-piece jigsaw puzzle of an album cover, a variety of hats, DVDs, stickers, patches and a collection of all of Phish's live releases plus a ShowCase CD organizer, which at $339 is "a savings of $135 off the suggested retail price." Spin once described Phish as the preeminent band of the new economy. And like the Dead, Phish takes a tenderly avuncular interest in the well-being of its fans. Before each concert, the band sends a thick manual to promoters demanding, among other things, a laissez-faire approach to police and security. That might explain why there wasn't a uniformed cop in sight during the pre-show saleathon in Hampton.
To the Dead blueprint, Phish added a subversive sense of humor and an impish try-anything approach to concerts. In 1995 the band played a sort of slow-motion chess against its audience, allowing one move for each side at each show. At intermission, fans would gather at the Greenpeace tent and confer on what to do next, then elect someone to walk onstage and move a game piece on a giant eight-foot chessboard. Two games were played over the course of the tour. Phish won one, the audience the other.
Every Halloween for a few years, the band would take a break from its own material and, in effect, put on a costume by performing live an entire album by another group. One year it was the Who's "Quadrophenia," all 17 songs of it. Another year it was the Talking Heads' "Remain in Light."
And Phish isn't above a good hoax. On New Year's Eve, as images from the movie "Cast Away" were shown on a screen and Tom Hanks's name was announced, a man who looked a lot like the Oscar-winning actor strolled briefly onstage. It was Page McConnell's brother. Before Hanks's press agent could announce that her client wasn't even on the East Coast, the New York Times and the Associated Press had been hoodwinked.
Though the band has long resisted the comparison, Phish's sound owes plenty to the Dead, too: flowing hybrids and 15-minute jams of rock, bluegrass, funk, folk and country, though with a greater emphasis on jazz. About what you'd imagine if Jerry Garcia had listened to more Dizzy Gillespie and less Bill Monroe. To this Phish added a willingness to experiment that veers toward the reckless, an element that has become a defining trait for the dozen or so jam bands that have quietly cropped up in the last decade. In 1990, Phish took barbershop-quartet lessons and introduced a cappella songs to its repertoire.
"The jam band scene is defined by eclecticism," says Dean Budnick, editor of jambands.com. "Its hallmark, aside from improvisation, is bridging traditional musical boundaries. Plus they carry a loose, self-effacing spirit to their instrumental forays. Phish is willing to fall on its face."
Swimming Upstream On Saturday night, the band didn't even stumble. But during more than 2 1/2 hours of music and 18 songs, its members did prove that you're either with them or not, totally on board or thoroughly baffled. This is the sort of band that nobody sort of likes. Either you find Anastasio's 12-minute solos mesmerizing -- which everyone else in this transfixed crowd clearly did -- or you're wondering when he'll wrap it up, for the love of God.
I'm in the wrap-it-up category. You can marvel at Phish's willingness to wing it, sense its regular-guy approachability and still wonder why anyone would want to sit through more than one concert. If this band is engaged in a musical conversation, as every fan will tell you, it sure seems like Anastasio is hogging the dialogue. For most of the night, he had the floor, which he used for tireless and versatile noodling that only occasionally felt like more than complicated digressions.
On "Saw It Again" he added wah-wah fuzz to a four-note heavy-metalish riff that gave his instrument, and the song, a Hendrix tone. For "Split Open and Melt" he started off with funky chords, then switched to jazz, then back to funk again until the strands of the song seemed to fray.
Throughout, there was a faint anything-could-happen sense of possibility. Because the band has stockpiled hundreds of songs, and because it never plays a song the same way, no concert is like any other. Phish doesn't use a set list, either, so none of the musicians has a clear idea of what will be played. Anastasio says he doesn't even settle on the concert opener until he gauges the mood of the hall when the spotlight goes up.
If this sounds like an invitation to chaos, Phish only fleetingly seems in less than complete control. The four have an uncanny way of splintering apart for long stretches, then snapping together just before they seem totally unglued, like a marching band that scatters for seven minutes then suddenly forms a cloverleaf. On "Maze" the band changed tempos, rhythms and styles and built a slow crescendo reminiscent of the symphonic cacophony that ends the Beatles' "A Day in the Life." Except Phish's crescendo went on for far longer -- or seemed to -- and once that was over, the song caromed in different directions and just kept caroming.
More conventional songs, like the harmony-rich "Bouncing Around the Room," seemed to bore the Phishheads. Noisier reactions greeted a couple of lengthy covers: of Stevie Wonder's "Boogie On, Reggae Woman," which gave McConnell a chance to shine soulfully on his keyboards, and of the Velvet Underground's "Rock & Roll," which would probably infuriate Lou Reed, who co-wrote the tune and never had anything nice to say about hippies.
Throughout, fans cast their eyes at their shoes and danced, slowly waving their hands at hip level, as though conducting an orchestra of ants. There's been some anxiety in the Phish community lately that their world will be overrun by newcomers lured by all the publicity surrounding their heroes' return. They shouldn't sweat it. Though fragrant with a patchouli-and-peace vibe that apparently will never go out of style, Phish shows aren't really secrets in need of keeping. They're more like epic sagas that will probably puzzle anyone without "super funky nuggets."