It’s impossible to sum up all of my thoughts and feelings about Festival 8 in a way that would do any justice to my memory of it. I know that to be true, but I’m going to try anyway, because it seems foolish to let this high fade over time, and I want to remember how I feel so next time a festival comes around, I’ll know why I want to go.
I was a little nervous about this one for a number of reasons, because I didn’t want to go on an adventure like this without my wife; I didn’t want to miss my two year old’s first trick-or-treating adventure; I didn’t want to go cross country alone. But a big one was that I didn’t want to go and be alone the whole time. Sure, there were JAM listers who were going to be there, but sometimes you meet people in real life and it’s awkward, and you realize it was more natural when you were just talking to a screen.
I was lucky enough to have found a hotel where two of my new friends were staying, Scott and Elayne. Elayne and I had arranged to carpool to the event. I had softly pre-planned to meet a few people, so I figured I’d bum a ride the first day and then go my own way so as not to be a leech.
I got to the hotel around 5:30 or so, completely mentally drained and exhausted, and Elayne texted me that they were about to go on “an adventure” and “did I want to come?” I knew blowing off the excursion was exactly the opposite of what I wanted the trip to be, so I threw my stuff in my room and headed out with Elayne, George, and their friend Jess. Jess was working on site, so we stopped by to drop her off. While waiting for her pass, I turned to George and whispered, “Hey, isn’t that Brad Sands?” “I don’t think Brad Sands works for them anymore,” he answered, at full volume. Elayne shot him a dirty look and loudly whispered – “That IS Brad Sands!” He was about 5 feet from us. I imagine it was more awkward for him than us, since we were just excited to be there.
We lightly scoped the festival grounds and inadvertantly learned our way around Indio. I was starting to fade from lack of food, so we found an authentic Mexican restaurant. It’s hard to sum up how grea the meal was largely because I don’t know how good it actually was: at the time, it was incredible. The best guacamole I’ve ever had combined with an array of homemade goods: crunky taco shells that were imperfectly crafted from freshly-fried hand-made corn tortillas, strechy and rich queso, thick and hearty chips… it was all perfect. We followed the meal with a stop off at some of E & G’s friends’, where I finally got to meet ZZYZX. Afew hours later, day one was done and all that remained was the festival itself.
An easy morning of lounging around laid the base. We stopped at Wal-Mart for some essentials. We tried to go to a burger joint called “Burgers and Beer” for lunch, but both of the locations on Google Maps were out of business, so we settled on Cactus Jack’s. It was the perfect lunch, the “California Chicken” sandwich: a grilled chicken breast with swiss, bacon, and avacado on a bun. Not too heavy, not too light, just right for a pre-concert meal. No one wants to be carrying a lump of food in their stomach during a Phish show.
We got to the site around 1 anticipating traffic, but, much to our surprise, they waved us right in. There was absolutely no back up due to, I’m sure, a combination of excellent planning and a venue that had so many ins-and-outs that there was nary a bottleneck. On the way in, the promise of chocolate chip pancakes, corn dogs, veggie burritos, and much more suggested that there would be an array of foods and goods to make the event sustainable over several hours.
Security was relatively easy: no explanation necessary for my bag full of clothes that also had phone batteries, sealed water, Tylenol, and a pharmacy full of just-in-case stomach medications. Entering the venue from the grounds was almost overwhelming. There was a giant ferris wheel, a pizza stand, a small general store and a water stand. For $10, you could buy a Nalgene bottle that would be freely refillable for the duration of the festival. I bought one right as I entered. It was hard to take it all in – there was so much to do and so much to see. They were serving Sierra Nevada’s custom “Foam” beer. There were bloody marys. There was food – tons of it. I mean tons. Pizza, cheesesteak, chicken fingers, lemonade, ice cream, turkey wraps, burritos, nachos, hamburgers, garlic fries, coffee, gyros, hot waffles and ice cream, chocolate dipped cheesecake on a stick, fire-roasted artichokes… there was enough that you never needed more than 5 minutes in any line for anything you could envision.
It was hot – really hot. But we shuffled through and made our way through the campground. We found Scott, then Herschel. We wandered through the field until we found Jack and Kat. Then Phillip. Then Charlie. Slowly, the people with whom I’ve been working so closely for the last several months started to become real. Before the event began, the first buzzkill of the weekend emerged: a guy dropped like a rock about 5 feet from us and had a wild and violent seizure. It was so crowded that everyone had a “what should we do?” look. Perplexed, we wondered: do we go for help and miss the set after everything? I wish I could even tell you what happened to the guy, because the band took the stage and I tuned out. It got cold fast, set 1 began with jackets on. A fun set from Party Time through Time Turns Elastic, even though the latter was pretty sloppy. Clearly a “warm up” set, we all agreed, but there were some highlights – I specifically remember liking the Page song “Beauty of a Broken Heart”. After some shirtless, drunk d-bag trampled Elayne and landed on ZZYZX’s feet (how fun to watch him man-up and scream at the guy “Get the fuck out of here… you fucking asshole!”), we used to setbreak to relocate to right behind the delay speaker stacks, which afforded us both more space and, frankly, better crisper sound. The screens were such crispy HD signal that it was like watching a DVD, so much so that I probably spent only a small fraction of time scruntinizing the boys on stage. Most of the time, it was either Kuroda’s majesty or the side screens pulling my eyes, so the location was great. So great that we made it our home for the next 6 sets and much of the time in between.
Set 2 was more of the same: standard setlist, “clearly out the back catalog,” many said, but there were some clear highlights for sure. Piper, Wolfman’s, Down With Disease, and Joy – which means so much mor to me now that I know it’s at least partly about daughters – were highlights. It was pretty cold out at that point, but the music was keeping us warm. Post-set, George and Elayne and I got in line for a post-show slice of pizza, and it was the perfect cap to the night. Traffic out was drop-dead easy: we got in the car and waited a grand total of 45 seconds before exiting onto the main road. We stopped at Wal-Mart for the second time that day on the way home to pick up water and some basic breakfast foods. Got home about 1:30 and to sleep around 2. Great day.
Day two was Halloween, and the most anticipated of the three days for most. We stopped at Wal-Mart yet again for sunscreen and Tylenol for our aching foot muscles. We left around 11 for the grounds because George and Elayne wanted to participate in the horsehoe contest. We got to the grounds and were immediately presented a “Phishbill” revealing the musical costume of 2009: the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. I had combed over many of the remaining albums and was really hoping for Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, but once eliminated, I was pulling for Thriller or the elusive “100th album.” So Exile was a disappointment for me, at first. I was, however, happy to see Halloween in Miami announced.
Knowing that there were 100 options for food at the event, I split off for my own adventure. I went to a “tweet up” to meet several folks I know from Twitter. It was really cool to meet some of the people I’d spoken with so many times, a theme for the weekend, it seemed. After the tweet-up, I met up with Herschel and Scott and we got some lunch. It was ridiculously hot outside. Despite the heat, there was much to do. But it seemed that one of the most fun things to do was to meet at our central location – a large blanket that G&E had decorated like basketball court for part of their group Halloween costume – and just hang out with the many cool people around. It was a blast to spend some time with new and exciting people like Erik Janus and David & Mel Steinberg, some of whom I knew before via email, some of whom I only met at the event.
AT&T coverage seemed to stretch everywhere except the concert field, where even Edge coverage was spotty. While in GPRS territory, from time to time, my phone would catch a signal and deliver a chunk of pending email. It was a very odd experience to receive a message from people tagging my Facebook photos telling me to have a good time, only to find out that they were the friends of the very people I was sitting with. Watching the “phamily” unfold was really something that can’t be explained to non-Phishheads. George and Elayne rejoined us having secured a spot in the semi-finals.
Set 1 began not much later than expected, and it was a lot of fun. Looking back at the setlist, I have to say that nothing really stands out as truly memorable. Divided was great as always. Kill Devil Falls, my absolute least favorite song off of Joy, was actually really well done and I appreciated it at the time. I remember liking Gin and Coil, and Antelope was as rockin’ as it usually is. But nothing from Set 1 ranks among the top of the weekend. Either way, the atmosphere made it taste like an appetizer.
It got dark and cold, but not nearly as cold as the night before. The band took the stage after a 5 minute tribute video to their costume also-rans. Busting in to Rocks Off was so much fun. It’s one of my favorites off the album, so it was very welcome. The band was joined by Sharon Jones and Shaundra Williams on vocals and The Dap Kings on horns. And then Phish did what they normally do to me: they changed my mind. They made me enjoy Exile. A few days out, I say what I didn’t then: after hearing Phish perform Exile, I’m learning to love it. Is it just wacky psychology? Maybe. But either way, you must hear their take. Torn and Frayed is genius. Shake Your Hips, Let It Loose, Casino Boogie, all great. Loving Cup? Probably the best ever. The entire adventure was fun.
We did nothing between sets except hang out. There was one dude, Z-Dogg – 16 years old and stoned out of his skull – who was just crashing all over everything and everyone’s stuff. It was funny to watch this numbskull mope around looking for weed he could bum off of anyone. And, strangely, I think his mother and father were with him constantly smoking him up. Very weird.
Set 3 may have been the musical highlight of the weekend. It started with an unexpected but triumphant Backwards Down the Number Line, a song that really captures some of Trey’s demons, but in a happy way, if that’s possible. It was well executed and dropped into a well performed and powerful, if relatively standard Fluffhead. Fluffhead morphed into one of the best Ghosts in recent memory. I normally find When the Circus Comes to be a little too slow for most sets. In short, it’s hard to recover the energy after such a slow song. Fear not, after some deliberation, You Enjoy Myself came along and set things right.
For an encore the band re-emerged with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and tore through what most people are calling the best Suzy Greenbery ever. It’s hard to argue it, the horns and the backup vox made this a really special and screaming Suzy, and it’s unlikely to be matched without a similiar lineup – ever.
In post show bliss, we got our post-show pizza and took a trafficless post-show drive to our post-show ritual Wal-Mart stop. An all around great day.
I was thinking that morning about how lucky I was to have met Elayne and George. It could easily have been weird to be carpooling with people I didn’t know: I had figured, before getting there, that I would bum a ride the first day and then “do my thing” the remaining days. But they were very cool and it was very chill with them, so I stuck around. That morning, very casually, George said to me, “One of the coolest things about this festival was meeting you, you’re good people.” I totally felt the same way, and it was true, for me, that having a home base with cool people was elemental in the trip being successful. It was a huge compliment to know that people I was enjoying hanging out with were enjoying hanging out with me too. Especially those two.
We arrived to the only traffic of the weekend, I’m sure everyone was getting there at the same time for once, so we (ab)used Jess’ artist pass to park in a special lot. We trekked in to the first security backup of the weekend, but it wasn’t too bad, they let us in without much fuss. We made it in time for the set, and it was a great set. It was unlike any other Phish set… well, ever. And when they switched from slow and mellow to upbeat via McGrupp and The Curtain, it made my day. Talk was one of the bigger “bust outs” of the weekend, if you can call it that, and though the sun was killer, the experience was unforgettable. When they played an acoustic encore, we spent the following hour debating how to represent the encore to a set in the setlist. I got a chance to meet Ellis and his family, only missing a few Mockingbirders for the weekend.
Hopes were high for sets two and three, and they didn’t disappoint. Set two began with a short and powerful AC/DC Bag dropping right into a clean and energeic Rift. Then came Gotta Jibboo, one of my favorites of the weekend just because it was really well played. Reba was nice, The Wedge and Guelah, two tunes that have been much rarer in recent years, followed. Undermind is, perhaps, going to go down as my favorite song of the festival. The reworked version is the same they played at the soundcheck, but it’s so funky and fun. A standard Sparkle preceded a very welcome Split Open and Melt. All in all, good set. In between, we got to meet Julia, who, believe it or not, actually exists, and is not, as is often claimed, Mike Gordon. [If, however, anyone would go to the trouble of hiring a temporary stand-in just to fool with us.. oh, and also create a Facebook and Twitter page for her, well, that’d be Mike.] Either way, we met a person claiming to be her, unfortunately, she arrived just as the set started, leaving us no time to actually talk to her.
It didn’t get cold for set 3, which was welcome. By this point, everyone was realizing that the weekend was winding down. So we settled in, knowing, as well as one can, that we were in for a Tweezer. And we were, Set 3 opened with Tweezer -> Maze. Then came some very good songs: Free, my first Sugar Shack, a high-energy Limb By Limb, and a heavy Theme From the Bottom. The closing series was Mike’s Song > 2001 > Light > Slave to the Traffic Light, which is very hard to beat. I love Light, this one is being debated on many discussion groups as great vs standard, but I love Light, and given the atmosphere, I call it great. And, as you may know, I’ve already made the case for Slave.
The encore was a slightly different Grind, followed by an unexpected and oddly placed Esther. And then, with the hard-hitting mini-jam of Tweezer Reprise, the weekend was over.
I passed on the pizza on Sunday. Instead, I sat back and took it all in. Festival 8 was over. And it was awesome.
I fell asleep on the drive home (I was Z-dogg’in it, you could say), I said goodbye to G&E and went to sleep.
The next day, I was set to travel home. When I got to the Ontario airport after my maiden voyage to Avocado Burger. In a welcome coincidence, I was on the same flight as Jack and Kat. I got a chance to spend a few minutes chatting up Mockingbird business with him. Good times. The flight from Vegas to Orlando wasn’t bad at all – smooth and generally uneventful, the way I like my flights.
It’s hard to communicate to those who missed it what 8 was like. They can listen to the MP3s, they can look at pictures, they can hear the stories, but they probably can’t appreciate just how amazing the whole vibe was, how free the whole atmosphere was, they way we were welcomed by the city and the venue, how the weather, and the organization, and the hotels, and the restaurants, and the friends blended together into such an event. I suppose all that can be said is “I hope this happens once again!”
See you at 9?