10 Years Later | The End Of An Era - Phish At Coventry

We're pleased to welcome Boston.com online columnist and blogger Eric Wilbur to share his memories from Phish's Coventry Festival, which began ten years ago today.

There was something perfectly cathartic about the drive to Jay Peak that morning five years ago, up Route 93 from my Boston-area home, through New Hampshire and into Vermont, all with the previous night's triumphant return fresh from its download in the wee hours of the day's lingering darkness providing a soundtrack once thought never to come. I had stopped reading the texts from my best friend in Hampton, VA. with this precisely in mind; a 4 1/2-hour drive with a clean slate of expectation, from the emotional, first tones of "Fluffhead" to the beautiful buzz of "Loving Cup," I was indeed so caught up in Phish's re-birth that I had hardly even realized the road I was about to take.

[Photos by Tony Stack]

Interstate 91 North. Route 5. That would mean...

At the mid-point of its 10-year anniversary of hosting one of the biggest concert blunders known to our generation, Coventry, VT was just another farm town on the way to somewhere else, which is to say it was unrecognizable from the last time I had escaped it. Instead of hundreds of cars lining Route 5, I was the lone soul on the road. There were no hikers, besides a cow or two, eschewing Mike Gordon’s radio plea to go home. Local kids selling lemonade and snacks at each corner were either still in bed or enjoying a morning bowl of whatever it was that one boy tried to sell me as I stared at his offerings with hollow, sleepless eyes of desperation.

In its natural state, I couldn't hate this place any longer. I re-played the most recent "YEM," all of eight hours old, in my CD player a little bit louder on my pass through town as sort of a peace offering to the sleepy Vermont town. The Coventry disaster will always be a memory, but thank living Christ that it is no longer the last one that we have.

Coventry was a lot of things to Phish fans, a farewell, a pilgrimage, a quest against oppressive forces, all among the reasons why we pushed on through a three-day traffic jam, mud up to our knees, and six sets of music played sloppier than the all-of-a-sudden useless sneakers used to trudge to a an otherwise lovely outdoors venue. It reminded me somewhat of a Civil War battlefield, the open area where Phish finally came out on stage, thanked the thousands who had walked miles upon miles to be there, and delivered them a half-assed rendition of “Walls of the Cave” to kick things off for the physically and emotionally-exhausted crowd. Some time by “Axilla," I already found myself in the beer tent, talking about some local hopeful for the U.S. Ski Team with her coach. Hey, it was more compelling than watching Trey Anastasio try to recall how to play “Harry Hood.”

That’s what ruined Coventry. Despite everything that had transpired, the complete and epic disaster that Phish had announced would be their final weekend together - the endless backup desperately trying to get onto Route 5, and ultimately into a mud field that couldn’t possibly handle the amount of cars it had originally promised - there was the chance that everything would be worth it once the band played. There were six sets between then and the end of Phish as we knew it. It had to be worth it.

Halfway through the first set, it became clear that expecting the music – which, in retrospect, compared to the ugliness we’d witnessed at our last encounter with the band at Great Woods a few nights earlier, wasn’t half bad – to save everything was a fool’s errand.

Up until the shows actually started, the journey was a hell waiting for salvation. In absence of a savior, we were instead left with frustration, sadness, and mostly what defined everybody who attended that weekend, will.

I imagine that I’ll never again be awoken by the sound of a tractor trailer barreling past my window as I sit behind the steering wheel, parked at the edge of a major highway (sometimes I’ll still wake up in the middle of the night, sweating and screaming, “Keep the left lane open!”).

I’ll hardly ever admit defeat in the way that I did late-night on Aug. 13, after 30 hours- plus of sitting in my Mitsubishi, not moving more than a half-mile, when we made the decision to head to Burlington for a game of darts at Ake’s Place, maybe a fresh change of linens somewhere, and hope for a fresh start with the hope we’d lost somewhere along the way in the morning.

I’ll be forever grateful to the local woman who greeted our car at the convenience stop in Newport, where we had stopped for directions for the quickest route across the state, only to leave with an altered set of plans when she politely informed us, “There’s another way in.”

I’ll probably never again brush my teeth in the middle of a Vermont country back road to the astonishing hue of the sunrise that next morning, a beauty I took as a sign during the depths of our travails that promise was around the corner.

And the frustration as we turned onto Route 5 from the back road during Gordon’s radio plea to turn around, quickly turned to elation after the police officer informed everyone within shouting distance that our car, and the one behind it, were the cutting-off point for admittance into Newport State Airport. We were getting in. Somehow, in quitting, we had made it.

And things sort of went downhill from there.

When it came time for Sunday’s shows, we made sure to park our car right in front of the chain-linked fence that had become our blockade in order for quick escape, fearing the worst. The first set gave us what we thought would be the final “Reba,” my favorite Phish song, and one I hadn’t seen live since Rosemont in 2000. After it was over, my friend turned to me and asked, “Was that any good?”

I really didn’t know anymore.

We thankfully didn’t stay for the tears of “Wading in the Velvet Sea,” the Marty McFly- losing-his-hand rendition of “Glide,” or the complete failure that was trying to go out on a high note with a haphazard “Curtain With.” We opened that gate ourselves and took off, leaving the emotional end for thousands of others. As we drove down I-91, it resembled a scene from an apocalyptic movie, with thousands of abandoned cars left by those who had refused to let Phish go out like that and had walked.

Five years later, covered in snow, the stain of Coventry had been lifted. A decade later, the wound is fully-healed, and Phish, fresh off what was arguably their most cohesive tour in 14 years, is rejuvenated, healthy, and more creative now that they’ve been together again for five years.

In the end, Coventry didn’t beat anybody.

“Ironic that I’m here today, huh?” I texted my friend, still sleeping in a Hampton-area hotel many miles away, with a picture of a road sign displaying a left-hand turn toward Coventry. Soon, it was in my rear-view mirror. I was off along the vacant roadway with the slopes of Jay awaiting in the distance.

And I pushed "play" again.

Written By: Eric Wilbur

[Published on: 8/14/14]

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