I was never much of a Phish fan before my girlfriend. My only real exposure to the band was through South Park's depiction and the stoner cooks from my old job playing an occasional song. But the music never really really did it for me.
But time went on, and I began listening to Phish more and more. My girlfriend showed me everything from their popular, easily digestible songs, to their 20-minute jams from live shows. Their failure to conform and fit into any genre in particular combined with their incredible improvisation intrigued me.
Every year Phish makes a stop in Saratoga Springs, New York to play three nights in a row, essentially turning the whole town and surrounding area into a new age hippie Mecca. Given a three-day weekend, I decided to make the trek to upstate New York.
We viewed the concert as an all day event, arriving to the park surrounding the venue around 3 for a show not set to start until 8. After walking around on the trails, casually smoking bowls and taking pulls from a plastic bottle of mid level tequila my girlfriend had an idea of what to do next.
“I have to show you Shakedown Street,” she said to her friend and I, with an excited and captivating smirk, as if she were leading us to some kind of treasure in which we were previously unaware.
My girlfriend had formerly told me tales of Shakedown Street and what she witnessed in her excursion there for a Dead and company show a few weeks prior. But none of what she said prepared me at all for what I was adventuring into.
Shakedown Street, for those of you who are unaware, is essentially an open-air supermarket for drugs, single cigarettes and beers, clothing, food, jewelry, posters and anything else a concert goer may want. The term comes from the Grateful Dead album by the same name and the practice of Deadheads following the band around the country, starting sometime in the 70’s.
For Phish, it was essentially contained to a parking lot roughly half the size of a football field. People traversed up and down the rows of vendors while police patrolled the perimeter on horseback, seemingly only keeping an eye out for violence, which I saw none of, or the occasional wasted person, which I saw plenty of.
There were old women with dreadlocks down to their knees selling “healing candles”, girls walking around barefoot whispering “doses for 10”, stands selling grilled cheese in which they claimed had bacon “in every mother fucking bite”, and more weed paraphernalia than I have ever seen in my life. Every once in a while you’d hear a shriek over the music, of someone filling up balloons with nitrous for whip its. Smoke from barbecues, cigarettes, spliffs and campfires created a low hanging haze over the pop up superstore. Music that blurred into one long continuous jam and the hum of the masses conversing and swapping goods in front of a backdrop of the sun ducking behind pine trees, created an ambiance that despite all of its chaos, carried a certain level of comfort. Even though there was so much going on, you still felt like you were exactly where you were supposed to be with the people who you were supposed to be with. It’s hard putting the feeling into words. As cliché as it sounds, you just had to be there to understand. It was a high beyond the pot and tequila, a warming feeling that you felt both mentally and physically.
Now I’m far from a stranger to ecstasy, mushrooms, and beyond, but I wasn’t even close to being mentally prepared to engage in such behavior in an environment that already was nearing sensory overload. Not to mention I was already feeling so amazing that it would have been too risky throwing another variable like LSD or MDMA into the mix. Luckily Shakedown Street is far from short on any vice of your choosing, something for every taste and fix. Thus, my girlfriend and I decided to indulge ourselves in hash oil hard candy sold to us by a man resembling a pirate who only wore grateful dead t shirts. We promptly popped the candies into our mouths and began navigating through the crowd of Phish heads, beatniks and free spirits.
After we had our fill of Shakedown Street – admittedly we were too stoned to keep walking – we ventured across the street towards the venue.
Our group contained about a dozen people by this point and was becoming harder and harder to keep together. At one point we passed a gigantic bus labeled “The Peace Maker” surrounded by very plain dressed, wide-eyed people that all looked roughly the same age as my parents (50’s). They were in the middle of some type of ritualistic dance accompanied by what I’m pretty sure was a lyre and an ensemble of various sized tambourine players. Being too stoned to handle sending a text, let alone getting talked into joining a potential cult, I grabbed my girlfriend’s hand and pressed on with half of the group.
After about 100 feet, we looked back to see the other half of our group speaking with a man straight out of the Charles Manson family while walking onto the bus. I reluctantly followed them inside.
The bus was a trip in itself. It belonged to a cult-like group who began following around the Grateful Dead, offering medical services and snacks to Deadheads. They even gave us a pamphlet detailing how their group was inspired by the Dead’s lyrics and how they were truly free from the restraints of society.
High off my ass and slightly uncomfortable, I tried conversing with the woman across from me. I asked her what brought them here and her response, which I’m sure she said in hopes of comforting me, terrified me.
“We came to see you,” she said while offering me a blue colored drink that she insisted was tea.
It probably was, but I bitched out.
After almost being sucked into a cult, we decided that it was time to head into the show.
Inside we saw much of the same type of crowd as Shakedown Street, plus families with young kids decked out in glow sticks, older men pounding beers, and plenty of people my age passing around weed.
When Phish came on, the energy of the whole venue erupted. The music was fuel to the entire environment. Glow sticks began to rain down from the sky by the thousands. That sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s far from it. You couldn’t go more than a minute without a glow stick hitting you. With each song, everybody broke out into his or her own awkward, yet groovy form on dancing. There was no judgment. Nobody seemed to mind if you had to push your way forward. If you bumped into someone and apologized you were met with a dazed “You’re good man” accompanied by a stony laugh. Everyone was full of bliss in every sense of the word. You felt the energy coursing through your body, at times maybe even seeing it. I felt as though everyone I saw and spoke with may have been one of the nicest people that I had ever met.
Each song was dragged out and broken down for about 10-15 minutes. It was so easy to get lost in the music. It was unlike any live performance I had ever witnessed. Each and every member was totally in sync and the band as a whole was in sync with the rest of the crowd. The entire atmosphere was truly a 3 ½ hour work of art.
After the show, we decided to camp out alongside a few hundred other people. While the campsite was dark, some kind soul illuminated each path and campground with glow sticks, making for an absolutely surreal sight. After watching a cover band play for a few minutes and smoking into delirium, we decided to call it a night. However, the rest of the campers, fueled by drugs and the stored up energy from seeing such a performance, kept going long into the night.
To this day I still laugh about it and get overwhelmed with happiness remembering the rest of the night and how dreamlike the entire experience was.
I was fortunate enough to see them perform again the next night.
The entire experience was so beautiful that I can’t say I blame Phish heads for following the band around for weeks at a time. The whole vibe and overall atmosphere of their shows is unparalleled. It’s a subculture that I wholeheartedly believe makes the world a better place and I hope that you too get a chance to experience it one day.