Phish concerts are known for their carnivallike atmosphere, but on Thursday — four days before the jam band’s final performance — the event showed little of that hallmark festiveness.
Driving rains the night before turned the concert site and adjoining farmland into a soggy, muddy mess and left the air thick as soup. Fans, many of whom had spent the night driving cross-country to see the show, found themselves stuck in or waiting for the gates to open in a holding area about a half-mile from the venue at the Newport State Airport.
Phish devotees consoled themselves by thinking of the happier times that would hopefully lie in store during the two-day festival this weekend.
“People will start waking up,” said Jeff Goodman, who left his home in Patchouge, N.Y., Wednesday to pick up his girlfriend in Syracuse and then hightail it to Coventry, a town of about 1,000 just a few miles shy of the Canadian border in northeastern Vermont.
The effort paid off: Arriving in Coventry around midnight Thursday, the couple was shepherded into the holding area about 2:30 a.m., where they sat and waited for the gates to open, tired and a little worn — but among the first in line.
At least 70,000 people are expected to attend the festival, which officially gets under way when Phish takes the stage early Saturday evening. Organizers say the Vermont-based jam band will play three sets a day, and it’s that promise that keeps most fans happy even when the clouds threaten to open at any minute.
Not far from a row of portable toilets, Michael Mustin of Anderson, Ind., sat on the hood of his car and played lead guitar on an acoustic rendition of Bob Marley’s reggae song “Stir It Up.” He, too, had driven all night, stopping only in Erie, Pa., to fix a flat tire and for food in Burlington, 90 miles to the south.
Phish, a band loved for its improvisational skills and intelligent lyrics, can count numerous musicians among its legions of fans. That quickly became evident as Mustin and another guitarist were joined by a third guitar player and a woman who sang backup. The group strummed and harmonized their way through an impromptu jam session, introducing themselves to each other just before the set ended.
Mustin said playing music was a good way to pass the time before he could set up camp for the weekend.
“What else are you going to do?” he said.
People found other ways to keep themselves entertained. Rounds of cards were played; a group of men and women hit bongos in a drum circle stationed around the trunk of someone’s car. Some fans slept; others just walked around, hopping now and again to avoid the muddy tire ruts.
Shortly before 11 a.m. organizers opened the gates. Security guards vetted the incoming fleet of cars, campers and trucks as hordes of fans slowly transformed the state airport into what temporarily will be Vermont’s largest city for Phish’s farewell concert.