For me, watching a Phish festival on the same field that hosts Coachella each year's like introducing your college friends to your high school friends for the first time: you love them both equally, but there's always something kind of…off about that first introduction. Though they seem similar on the surface, any music fan'll tell you the two events are very different monsters; however, unlike most people, both types of fests have been major parts of my music-obsessive life.
I've been to two of Phish's past multi-day extravaganzas (2004's “last show ever” Coventry in Vermont, and 1998's Lemonwheel, in Maine) and, between Coachella and Stagecoach extravaganzas in the last decade, I have probably spent a good two weeks of my life at the Empire Polo Club, running from stage to stage in hopes of catching the next big thing.
That's where the differences begin: instead of five stages spread over the monstrous expanse, at a Phish festival there's only one attraction. For evening number one of the three night engagement, the band opted to use the slightly smaller “Outdoor Theater” space as their home base, leaving the rest of the field open to interactive art. A brightly-lit ferris wheel stands at the main entrance, where campers (far more than Coachella, and, using a completely unscientific sample, many more travelers) can get a view of their expansive tent city.
In the center of the field's constructed “The Coil” an interweaving, 22 foot structure shaped like a serpent, with the Lucent Dossier theater troupe performing in some of its many rooms, which also house odd performance art: a couple, for instance, explaining the economy and how it relates to tooth decay, and “The Infinite Predator,” which is actually a faux fossil and has nothing to do with Schwartzenegger's term.
Because there's no main stage, the field feels far more expansive. It helps that the area which during Coachella is used as the VIP space this weekend is an all-fans-welcome Bloody Mary bar and food stand neighborhood. It's a good place to get a good look at all the totally-bizarre Halloween costumes. There's just more room to roam. And, with attendance expected to be in the 40,000 range, even while the Vermont four-piece were meandering through the multi-layered “Punch You In The Eye” sometime around 11pm, it never felt claustrophobic; no matter how close to the stage you got, there was plenty of room to spin around in circles and pump your fists without worrying about it turning into a rare incident of hippie-on-hippie violence.
In a way, though, the music is what made the most sense: despite Phish's reputation for noodly jamming, the fact of the matter is that their songs have more of a kinship with artists who've graced that field than non-fans may care to admit. “Poor Heart” is a bluegrassy bouncer that could (and should) be covered by Stagecoach alums Nickel Creek; “Down With Disease” boasts a funky bassline that'd impress former Coachella emperor Flea, and even Roger Waters (who unleashed a giant flying pig over the Coachella field two years ago) would have been impressed with last night's Coup De Gras: during the reggae-ish “Harry Hood,” a gargantuan ballon covered in other, smaller white balloons began flying over the field, with each sphere acting as an LED for a massive, moving light display.
By the end, as “Character Zero” came to a close, it was clear that the melding of moments wasn't so awkward as it'd initially seemed – though maybe that's because, like many a meetup between two not-quite-compatible groups of friends, it took 'til about midnight for the beer to kick in.
Check back tomorrow. I'll be writing about all three shows.
UPDATE: Phish are performing the entirety of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street tonight with Sharon Jones on vocals.