(Host) After enduring massive traffic jams, torrential rain and mud that led organizers to turn ticket holders away, an estimated 65,000 fans of the Vermont band Phish enjoyed good weather for the band’s final concerts.
VPR’s Steve Zind reports from Coventry.
(Background audio) “Okay. Now we’re all going to walk down nice and slow to the chutes. Everybody will get in, everybody will have fun, nobody will get hurt.”
(Zind) At 3:00 Saturday afternoon, the gates to the show were opened and a wave of thousands of galloping fans swept onto the concert field. The entrance was covered with a thick mat of bark mulch that cushioned their steps, but beyond in every direction stretched acres of mud.
It sucked at the boots of those who came prepared, while others simple left their shoes and sandals where they came off and went on barefoot.
An ankle deep soup surrounded the food vendors in the area known as the Commons.
In the farm fields being used for campgrounds and parking areas, the mud mired cars, campers and RV’s in sticky ruts that only the big tractors from nearby farms could get them out of .
(Background audio) “I’ll probably have to go forward and back in, then you can pull me in. Pull me into the mud.”
(Zind) The rain began early Thursday afternoon and fell all day Friday as cars backed up nearly 30 miles south on Interstate 91. Police estimated 40,000 people were caught in the tie up.
Then, Saturday morning after another night of rain, concert promoter Dave Werlin announced that with fields inundated, there was no more room. He announced the gates would be closed and ticket holders would be turned back and refunded their money.
(Werlin) “The decision was reached that rather than cancel the show altogether, it was deemed in the best interest of the fans and the safety of the area residents that the roads be cleared and the show go forward for those fans who had already arrived.”
(Zind) But for those who had driven days to get to Coventry it was too much to ask.
(Phish fan walking to concert) “My car is, like, 30 miles away right now. My back hurts, I’m tired, I’m hungry, and I can’t wait to get in. I have clothes but I’m kind of bummin right now cause I didn’t bring my tent or my sleeping bag.”
(Zind) As many as 2,500 cars were abandoned on the Interstate. Police decided to tow only those that were a hazard and to leave the others until their owners returned. An estimated 6,000 people abandoned their vehicles and made their way to the concert site on foot. Many caught rides with enterprising locals who had gone into the taxi business.
At the concert site a steady succession of tractor trailers delivered loads of bark mulch and gravel to the concert site, trying to stem the rising tide of mud. Wood intended for bonfires was chipped and used for mulch instead. Fans seemed to take the traffic, mud and rain in stride, aware that they had come to celebrate the end of an era.
(Phish fan) “You know for me, I’ve been doing this for the past ten years, so the last show is coming at the right time. You grow up, and you gotta move on.”
(Zind) There were a few serious mishaps. A car accident took the lives of three people on their way to the concert and a tanker truck used to supply the site with water slipped off the soft shoulder of a highway and into a ravine, injuring the driver and a passenger.
Police reported a number of drug busts and arrests for minor infractions. A man was taken to jail after he pulled a knife on a vendor and made off with a slice of pizza.
Authorities say overall there were few problems with fans. State Police had scheduled nightly meetings at the Coventry Elementary School for local residents to air their grievances. Thursday night two people turned out to express approval with the way the event was going. No local residents attended Friday’s meeting.
(Background audio) “We’re listening to the local radio station here and they’re saying Kid Rock, Dave Mathews – who else – Ricky Martin! And Ricky Martin is already here.”
(Zind) For several days, Coventry became Vermont’s largest city – but in some respects it was like a small town where rumors – often fantastic rumors – spread quickly. One rumor that the band had arranged for a giant tarp to descend over the crowd when the music began proved untrue. Anyway, by concert time it was unnecessary.
(Zind) On Saturday, skies cleared and the mud seemed less ravenous. For three hours after the gates opened, fans streamed onto the field dubbed the Back 40, past a Ferris wheel that turned slowly, its spokes lit by flashing colored lights. The concert field formed a natural sloping amphitheatre with a huge stage at the bottom. Odd creations were scattered around the grounds, a hallmark of Phish’s annual outdoor concerts. Most striking were the “Coventrees”, a cluster of upside down trees with roots for crowns.
(Zind) At 6:00 Saturday, Phish took the stage.
(Zind) As the sky turned rose colored in the setting sun, tethered hot air balloons rose behind the crowd while the music played.
From his home just across the road from the concert, Francis Beaumier watched as fans streamed past. Beaumier says he’s enjoyed the fans and the spectacle but he says if another concert of this magnitude came to Coventry…
(Beaumier) “Then I would try to sell my house and run away.”
(Zind) The final performance on Sunday was an emotional one for the band and its fans.
Band members were clearly moved as they thanked the audience for enduring the hardships of this year’s concert and for their longtime support. In a lighter moment the mothers of members danced on stage with their sons.
As the band played its final set, the crowd swayed and danced and hundreds of light sticks arched through the air.
A fireworks display preceded the band’s final song, called The Curtain, from the beginning of its career. When the song ended, the four members of Phish took a long bow and slowly left the stage for the last time.
The crowd waited a long few minutes hoping the band would return. Finally people began to file out.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Coventry.
(Host) VPR’s coverage of the Coventry concert was co-produced by Patti Daniels.