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Some Thoughts on Camp Oswego

By Brian L. Knight

Right from the beginning, we knew Phish’s three-day extravaganza in upstate New York was going to be a little different. After two years of making the epic journey northward and calling Limestone, Maine our home away from home, thousands of Phish fans were only required to make the considerably shorter trip to the Lake Ontario region. Besides the geographic relocation, the most obvious change was the nature of the event itself. For the previous three year-end bonanzas, the Clifford Ball, the Great Went and the Lemonwheel, the emphasis was on creating an end of the summer blowout. This time around, the big event was relegated to a three-day stopover in the middle of the band’s Summer Tour. On the night before the festival, Phish was playing Bruce Springsteen’s "Born to Run" in New Jersey and within 48 hours of the closing notes of Sunday night’s "Harry Hood", the band was across the border playing to often deprived Canadian fans.

The sense of a slightly more reserved festival was felt immediately when fans received their newsletter and tickets. In previous year’s festivals, the fans knew where they were going. There was always a name associated with the event: "The Clifford Ball"; "The Great Went" and "The Lemonwheel." This year, there was an uncertainty. Were we making the trip to Volney? Or was it Oswego? Or was it Fulton County?" For all the entrepreneuring merchandisers, they didn’t know what to do. Were the bumper stickers going to say "Off We Go to Oswego!" or were the T-shirts to say "Phun in Phulton"? It wasn’t until my perusal of the band’s official merchandising booths that I discovered that we had arrived at "Camp Oswego". As soon as I was informed by a local that I was actually in O"swig"o and not O"sweeeg"o, I knew that me and my suitcase of Budweiser cans had found our home for the weekend.

In addition to issue of semantics, the road to Oswego was also absent of the familial greeting that the people of Northern Maine provided in the previous two years. Due the remote location of both the "the Great Went" and "The Lemonwheel" and the economic boom provided by the fans, the people of Maine from Bangor northward welcomed the Phisheads with encouraging zeal. While approaching Oswego, the open armed reception was not felt until we were within a few miles of the concert site. The discrepancy was felt the most in the commercial areas along the way to Oswego. In the rest areas along the New York State portion of I-90, the Roy Roger’s cashiers dumbfoundly wondered who all the freaks were. In contrast, every merchant Down East knew who we were and catered to our needs.

Once people figured out where they were going, the fans were also treated to a few changes upon their arrival in Oswego. The biggest difference was the relocation of the "village" to outside of the actual concert grounds. Instead of waiting for the concert area to open, the fans could enjoy the village’s fun and games throughout the morning, afternoon and evening. In comparison to the world architecture of the Lemonwheel’s Tiki Huts, Pagodas and Buddhist spiritual arches, there was a rustic/campfire theme to the village this year. The village, which was officially known as "The Green", was littered with numerous homemade cabins, overturned rowboats and teepees made of fir trees. On each corner of the area, there were birch tree arches that served as a gateway to the playground. In past years, a large clothesline or duck pond provided the grandiose element to the weekend. This time around, the grounds were littered with 20-foot high "marshmallows on a stick" which contributed tremendously to the campfire feel. Amidst "The Green" was also a flagpole, which flew the colors of Camp Oswego – a triangular flag with an arrow piercing the open end of a "C" on a green background. Another welcome feature from the Lemonwheel was the Ferris wheel, which provided fans with rides all day long.

The biggest highlight of "The Green" was the addition of the second stage known as "Echo Lodge". Encased in birch tress, Echo Lodge was the home to many talented bands over the course of three days. There was the jazz-fusion of Rhode Island’s the Slip and Seattle’s Living Daylights, the hip hop-Latin-funk of Los Angeles’ Ozomatli, the bluegrass of the Del McCoury Band; the spiritual jazz of Boston’s Bob Moses and Mozamba; the eclectic swinging hot jazz of Texas’ 81/2 Souvenirs; and the country sounds of Manhattan’s Hank Williams Lonesome Cheatin’ Hears Club Band. Over the last few years, fans have been introduced to the sounds of the Miracle Orchestra, Seth Yacovone and the Gordon Stone Trio and this year was no exception. In the previous years, the additional bands were pleasant surprises that could be found while walking around in the concert grounds. This time, the bands were made a showcase.

With the emphasis moving from the concert grounds to the "The Green", the actual concert area was reduced in size. For the first time in four years, I actually felt restricted and crowded as movement from A to B was typified by shoulder rubbing and congestion. As always, respite was found in less crowded beer garden. For those who could brave the crowds, they could find a huge piece of blue Astroturf laid out by veteran fans which offered an equally enjoyable sanctuary.

If your preference was Beer Garden, the blue Astroturf or lying on your back on the hill, the main reason for surviving the heat, the crowds and lines arrived with the opening notes of "Tube" on Saturday evening. A relatively rare tune in the grand scheme of the Phish repertoire, "Tube" was also joined by fellow old friends like "Boogie On Reggae Woman", "Reba", "Wilson", "Punch You In The Eye", "Sneakin Sally Through the Alley" and "Fluffhead." It wasn’t just old timer’s night either as the band also displayed the newer sides of their sound with "This is a Farmhouse", "Birds of a Feather", "Guyute", "The Moma Dance", "Roggae", and "Water in the Sky".

Two of the performers who played at Echo Lodge during the day and also made it to the main Phish Stage were blues guitarist Son Seals and the Del McCoury Band. Son Seals joined Phish for "Funky Bitch" and "On My Knees". The former tune, which has been a staple of a Phish set since the band’s earliest days, was penned by the great Chicago guitar player and the performance of the two songs was a great example of bridging the generations and Phish paying respect to their influences. The Del McCoury Band joined Phish for "Get Back on the Train", "If You Need a Fool", "I'm Blue I'm Lonesome", and "Beauty of My Dreams". As we learned in the Vermont Review’s latest issue, Phish’s tenure with the banjoist Reverend Jeff Mosier has had a lasting affect. Since 1994, when Mosier played with Phish, the band has continuously tinkered with bluegrass and these four tunes with the Del McCoury Band was another fine installment in Phish’s bluegrass legacy. The tune, "Get Back on the Train", which made a solo acoustic appearances throughout Trey Anastasio’s recent solo tour, is one of finest new songs to appear in the steady Phish repertoire.

This past Spring marked the release of Phish’s latest album, The Siket Disc, which signifies the band’s continuing development towards total musical cooperation. Over the last year and a half, a typical Phish concert has been characterized by loose collective improvisation a.k.a. "Ambient Jams." The music from The Siket Disc are these once unknown jams that have finally been provided titles. Named after the engineer who crafted the session, The Siket Disc, should be called the "The Story of the Ghost Jams". Recorded during the same time as 1997’s The Story of the Ghost, this release features entirely collective improvisation pieces. Many of the tunes such as "Whats the Use" and "My Left Toe" have developed beyond random improvisation, as they have become relatively stable parts of the band’s repertoire. Despite this new album (which is only available through Phish Dry Goods), there was limited representation at Oswego from The Siket Disc although the free spirited improvisation was carried on throughout the weekend.

Despite the band’s drive for musical collectivism on the stage and in the studio, the weekend in Oswego put lead guitarist Trey Anastasio in the spotlight. Anastasio assumed control of the audience through his stage antics that propelled him above the rest of the band. Such examples was his playing of his guitar behind his back and with his teeth during a superb "Llama", his lengthy oral diatribe during ‘Icculus" as well as his standard rockers such as "Character Zero", "Chalkdust Torture" and "Axilla". The remaining three members also had their chances to shine as Mike Gordon dominated "You Enjoy Myself"; Jon Fishman drove "Down With Disease" to new levels and Page McConnell’s keys and vocals were felt throughout the two days. Despite the focussed limelight, the four members played solidly throughout the weekend with fantastic jams arising from songs such as "Piper", "Tweezer", "Wolfman’s Brother", "Timber Ho" and "Bathtub Gin."

If there was one song that dominated the weekend, it had to be "Meatstick", which was first introduced by the band during their 1997 European tour, and was the climatic event of the weekend. During their July 4th concert in Atlanta, Georgia and subsequent others, the band reintroduced the song to their fans. Coinciding with the song was an accompanying dance (which finds is closest relative to a both country and disco music’s line dance) that was taught to the crowds by the band, some select fans, the band’s crew and family members. On the Thursday before the show, Phish announced to their fans in New Jersey, that they were going to attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Record’s mark for the most people doing a single dance - 50,000 Macarena fans in New York held the existing record. Since the seemingly arbitrary number of 70,000 fans has been used over the last four years, the record appeared to be an easy task (By the way, my arm bracelet was in the 85,000 range and I arrived at Oswego on Friday evening. An accurate count for the fans at Oswego would have to be in the 90,000 range). Phish’s fascination/obsession with establishing World Records first came around during 1997’s The Great Went, in which the world record for the picture of the most people naked in a photograph was set.

During the second evening of Oswego, Phish finally broke out into "Meatstick", which, with all associated dances put aside, is very catchy and enjoyable tune. Towards the end of the song, Page McConnell and Jon Fishman assumed the tune’s musical duties while Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon and McConnell’s extremely pregnant wife showed the crowd the easy moves to "the Meatstick Dance". After a few practice rounds, the band and audience took a shot at the World Record with the Guinness Book of World Records crews filming the attempt. At this present time, the setting of the record is uncertain, and depending on how much a stickler for details the Guinness people may be, the record may stay with the Macarena. The plain and simple truth of the matter is that not everybody did the dance. Some were too tired after two days of heat and partying while others were wedged tightly into the smaller sized concert area (The Meatstick Dance required a 45 degree jump and turn that was simply too hard to negotiate in the tight confines). Ultimately, I don’t think enough people knew the moves well enough. The band made an earnest attempt to teaching the dance at three of their concerts leading up to the event, but it was simply not enough.

Although a great weekend of fun, people and music; there were also some downsides to the Oswego event. Besides the inevitable six hour lines to gain entry to the parking lots, the disgusting port-a-lets or the long lines at the phones/ATM/ice vendors, the heat seemed to be the weekend’s greatest hurdle. The 90-100 degree heat, coupled by the fact that there were 70,000 people camped on a shade-less runway who were not watching their beer to water ratios, could have made for a potentially disastrous day. As is stands, the crowd survived the weather. The one thing that I learned while working for the United States Air Force one summer is that airports do not have trees, because with trees come birds which fly into engines which crash planes. As a result, Phish’s choice of air force bases/airports may be ideal for crowd control and circulation patterns but far from ideal in terms of sun protection. To combat the glaring sun, fans were constructing make shift shelters and the mist tents became the most popular sites around. Although the cool refreshment of Lake Ontario was less than half an hour, it might as well have been thirty days away for the fans.

The real problem arose from the countless people who either brought their children and animals to the event. In a three day weekend, where the media may have shown the event as great example of collective responsibility and peaceful coexistence, there is nothing more depressing or disheartening than seeing a dirty, unwashed, parched child being submitted to the relentless heat just because their equally dirty parents didn’t want to miss the party of the summer. Hearing about lost or dehydrated dogs had an equally demoralizing affect. Please people, as a representative of the "intelligent" fans who love Phish, try to live up to your reputation.

As the weekend wound down in Oswego, there were two things that could not escape my mind. For one, just as the weekend was a celebration for the fans it was also for a time for the band to relax, spend time with their friends and family and enjoy the fruits of their own success. Over the years, these events have been a characteristic of Phish. From the late 1980s parties in Hebron, New York to the two day 1991 gig at Amy’s Farm in Maine to the last four years of festivals, the band has always wanted to make their concerts a party for all to enjoy. While we party away and dance to the music, we cannot forget that it is the same opportunity for the band members to have fun and relax as well. It is the populist feel that is what makes these events so great. After my return to home, I read some negative comments about the weekend on www.phish.net in which many fans felt that the band neglected to "turn it up a notch" or they have "heard sicker versions" of a given tune. Unfortunately, many fans set a standard against a band that is typified by non-conformity and risk taking. With this definition in mind, the only standard that Phish needs to uphold is innovation. This characteristic was far from absence during these two days of music. This is an important factor forgotten by Phish fans old and new. Many fans want these festivals to be the "sickest jam-a-thon" ever. What is neglected is the real essence of these festivals – an opportunity for the band to host a concert on their own terms. It is an equivalent of Phish holding a slumber party barbecue and we can never take advantage of that important point.

Secondly, we cannot overlook the time and effort that was put into the production. While people were reveling the day and night away, there was a 24 hour operation that kept the bands going on the second stages; assisted kids with heat exhaustion; kept the water tanks full and emptied out the port-a-lets. While thousands of people had fun, there was a core group of Phish Management folks who were nothing short of being stressed to death. The Oswego event, just like the years before, was an incredible display of organization, cooperation and coordination and the folks at Dionysian Productions should be applauded for making this happen. Coupled with the fact that the Oswego event occurred in the middle of a Phish tour and that the Millenium Concerts are less than six months away, the actual occurrence of the event is even more impressive. We also cannot forget that a year ago, there wasn’t going to be a summer festival as the band was going to prepare the New Year’s bash. The fact that the Oswego served as some sort of compensation for their traditional end of the Summer festival is staggering. While some elements from previous year’s events were missing such as Phish Radio, the large concert area and the extra sets of music, we cannot ignore the experiences that made the weekend memorable: the numerous acts at Echo Lodge; the best fireworks display ever witnessed and of course, the finest gift that a band could ever give its fans – three days of hassle free music, good times and long lasting camaraderie.