Seven years after their last show in Vermont, the band returns for a purpose.
In early September, Phish was wrapping up their tour in Denver, Colorado, as news broke that hundred-year-old bridges, entire towns, and highways in the Northeast were washing away in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. Particularly hard-hit was the state of Vermont, where Phish formed back in 1983 while attending the University of Vermont.
Vermont wasn’t far from their minds as Phish opened their three-night Labor Day run on September 3rd, with an entire show of “S”-titled songs. Crafting the set list that night, the band was already deep in talks with Vermont’s Governor Peter Shumlin, friends at home, and their own production crew about the possibility of holding a benefit. Phish decided on the Essex Fairgrounds in Champlain Valley, and if you go back and listen carefully to that ssssspecial show you can hear some hints forming…that a show in Esssssssex was about to take place.
The last time the band played their home state was in 2004, at a pre-break up farewell show in Coventry. It turned out to be a sloppy mud fest with the grounds saturated from summer rains and tens of thousands of fans were turned away, including this writer, who walked 14-plus miles in.
Now, ironically, many Phish fans found themselves back in Vermont because of rain. Even bassist Mike Gordon commented on the peculiar happenstance: “First of all, there’s a strange karmic connection, because our last Vermont concert was Coventry, with more flooding than they had in 50 years, and 20,000 cars or however many couldn’t park, and then to come back and try to do something about water damage – it’s just very appropriate.”
Tickets for the Recovery Benefit quickly sold out, and Phish fans flew in from every corner of the country to help support those devastated by the hurricane – and, of course, to catch what promised to be a really memorable show. Having Phish and their fans come to your town is no small event, and in true communal fashion, everyone pulls together. The day-of-show vibe had an electric current running through it – fans who gathered on the grounds and in beer tents before the show were beyond excited to be in town, and get together for one last summer show.
For one Vermont fan from Dover, it was particularly meaningful that Phish held a benefit concert. Jennifer Langdon, general manager for lodging at the ski resort Mount Snow, wore a sign to the show that read “Wilmington Vermont Thanks You.” Many downtown businesses and homes in Wilmington suffered extensive water damage and one Mount Snow lodge became an evacuation center for displaced families. Langdon said how she was proud of Phish and their message. “They care so much about Vermont and Vermonters. It’s so important for our town. They got out the message that we were really in dire need.”
Before the evening’s two-set show kicked off with the tune “Chalk Dust Torture” – from the album Picture of Nectar (Nectar’s being the local Burlington bar that helped the band get their start) – there would be not one, but two introductions. The first was a rare occasion for Mike Gordon, who addressed the crowd by saying that he would forgo trying out his “fourteen new jokes,” and instead genuinely expressed how “pumped” the band was. He ended by bringing out Vermont’s Governor Peter Shumlin, who individually name checked “Mike, Page, Trey and Jon” for helping their fellow Vermonters.
As the band took the stage against a beautiful sunset, with a hero’s welcome home, a few questions about the show’s song choices were answered: There would be no special water-themed set (as speculated) with a Phish original like “Water in the Sky,” Dylan’s “Hurricane,” The Who’s “Drowned” or Led Zep’s “When the Levee Breaks.” Instead, the tightly played show focused on Phish’s ability to rock out with “Down With Disease” and “Character Zero”; stretch and jam with “Carini” and “Slave to the Traffic Light”; and play a favorite tune or two like “Suzy Greenberg” or “Wolfman’s Brother” for the casual fan or hardcore Phish head. Indeed, a huge highlight was the first set closer as they jazzed up the usually swing-driven “Julius.” It’s a must- hear from the show, highlighting Phish’s success in executing focused jams.
In the end, Phish raised $1.2 million for the Green Mountain state. Governor Shumlin said it best: “If you’ve been to Vermont, you know it’s a special place. We are a small state that values community, and have a thriving arts and music scene. Vermonters are proud of Phish and the national attention they have gained over the years, but we also see them as we see all other fellow Vermonters – as friends, neighbors, and members of our community.”