Reflections on 100 Phish Concerts (Part One)

by Sasha Savinov

Most people never see 100 total concerts in their life, let alone 100 shows by the same band. That’s precisely the milestone I achieved on our recent trip to Colorado where I finally caught my 100th Phish concert. It took me 16 years and traveling to 18 American states as well as Mexico. Who knows how many thousands of dollars I’ve spent chasing this band around over the years. After 100 Phish concerts, I’m happy to say it was worth every mile and every cent! Here are some reflections on hitting the century mark with my favorite band, starting back where it all began.

02/20/2003: My First Show

My introduction to Phish came like so many ways I discovered music in high school – chatting with friends on AIM and downloading songs on Napster. I wasn’t the biggest fan at first, but their music grew on me as I started hearing more and more of it. Most of the time, I was hearing Phish in friends’ cars during our hazy lunch breaks…

Before too long, I was more interested in the live stuff than their studio albums. Unfortunately for me, Phish was on their “hiatus” at the time with no tour dates scheduled. I was just starting to get really into the band and was beyond bummed to realize I had no chance to see them for the foreseeable future.

My two Phish ticket stub books. I need a 3rd…

Then one glorious day, phans all rejoiced as we got the news. Phish was coming back after two years off for a New Year’s Even run at Madison Square Garden followed by a winter tour. I did my best to score tickets and convince my folks to let me go to NYC and failed.

My best chance to catch my first show appeared to be the band’s trip to Chicago a few weeks later. My buddy and I scored tickets and planned to drive my van down to Chicago and get a hotel room. We wouldn’t be able to check in on our own, though, as neither of us was 18 yet.

Despite the fact that my mom was less than thrilled about this newfound obsession with a rock band, she offered to drive us. We would go see Phish, and she would take two of my brothers to look at fish in the aquarium. Somehow, we were turning my first Phish show into a mini-family vacation.

My first Shakedown!

Upon pulling into the parking lot for our hotel – which was right next to the arena – we saw a bunch of dread-locked hippies with fingers in the air looking for tickets. Shakedown Street was bustling with activity as people peddled their wares. We checked into the hotel and my family made a quick exit.

My first time on Phish lot was so exciting. People sold me heady beers at 2 for $5 and nobody bothered to ask for an ID. A girl in fairy wings gave me a special homemade chocolate that she promised would enhance the experience. An hour or so later, I almost didn’t make it out of the hotel when I was convinced the pattern on the carpet was attacking me. Whoops…

The first page in my Phish book.

Thankfully I had a friend with my who had his head on straight and guided me into the arena. We had terrible seats in the way back of the arena but we were pumped to finally be seeing Phish. It may not have been the best show ever, but the “Gotta Jibboo” in the first set is one of the best jams I’ve ever seen.

I won’t get into the nitty gritty details of all 100 shows, because that would take way too long. Instead, I’m going to focus on the experiences I had surrounding them. As Phish sings in AC/DC Bag – “let’s get this show on the road!”

Deer Creek 2003

As soon as I got home from Chicago, I was ready to start planning the next Phish run. Summer tour dates dropped the next month and I set my sights on their 3-night run at Deer Creek outside of Indianapolis.

The plan was for my buddy and I to drive down there in my van and camp out for the three nights. We bought tickets, reserved our campground, bought gear, and waited patiently for summer to roll around.

As it would do many times over the years, my old minivan broke down the week before the run. There was no way it could get fixed in time. There was absolutely no way in hell that my mom was driving to another Phish run, especially not a 3-night camp out in the corn fields of Indiana.

Deer Creek ’03

Not ready to give up hope and sell our tickets, we looked into alternative options. We settled on taking the Greyhound into Indianapolis and trying to hitch a ride to Noblesville. With some pre-mixed rum & cokes, we got on the bus bound for Indiana.

I had no luck lining up a ride on Phish message boards before the trip, but we held out hope. After about an hour of wandering around the bus station looking for hippies, we caved in and paid a bunch of money for a cab.

Dead Creek Campground

It must have been a hilarious sight for our neighbors at the campground when us 17 year old newbs rocked up in a cab with our very meager set-up. Thankfully Phish fans are an awesome bunch, and they took us under their wings. One guy offered us a ride into town to buy supplies and even grabbed a case of beer for us.

The next three days were spent walking the mile or so to the venue to hangout on Shakedown. Chicago had been fun and all, but this was full on summer tour Phish and the scene was wild. We got our fill of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and veggie burritos, picked up some lot shirts, and just all around had a blast.

Shakedown was bumping!

Phish played some incredible shows over those three nights. After getting our minds blown by the band, we’d embark on the ridiculous walk past the cornfields back to the campsite. There were bands playing late-night shows back there every night and the party raged until the wee hours of the morning.

Deer Creek holds a special place in my heart, as I’ve now seen 7 Phish shows there on four different visits. The name changes every year and the corn fields are now subdivisions, but I’ll always remember it as it was in 2003 when I was a wide-eyed kid just scratching the surface of Phish concerts.

Miami NYE 2003

If I had my way, I would have spent that entire summer following Phish around. Too bad I was a broke high school kid with a broke down minivan and parents who were most definitely not down with my lifestyle choices. Instead I had to play the waiting game once again.

A few months later, Phish announced they would be playing four nights in Miami to end the year. Escaping Michigan winter for a bit and seeing my favorite band ring in the New Year sounded great to me, but I wasn’t the one who needed convincing.

Sometime that fall, my mom asked me what I wanted for Christmas. She had no idea how to shop for her 18-year old, recently-turned hippie son.

“So what do you want for Christmas this year?”

“Ummm… A plane ticket to Miami…”

“Let me guess… Phish is playing there.”

“Yeah they’re playing four nights for New Year’s.”

“And where are you going to stay?”

“I’ll figure it out…”

“Ok fine. I’ll get your flight, but you’re on the hook for tickets and your hotel!”

I scored a 4-night pass from Phish Tickets By Mail (PTBM) and booked my flight. Just like that, I was going to Miami! Party in the city where the heat is on, all night on the beach til the break of dawn!

Some of my favorite stubs.

Originally, I had a cheap hotel room booked a few miles from the arena. Staying by myself and taking cabs back and forth didn’t sound that fun, though. I jumped on Phantasy Tour (Phish fan message board) and started looking for roommates. When I saw a guy looking for another person to split their room for just $200 for four nights, I jumped on it.

Needless to say, my folks weren’t exactly stoked when they learned I would be staying with strangers from the internet on this trip. I was 18 though, so they just shrugged their shoulders and let me go.

Before I go on with the story, I should mention that I managed to reconnect with my Miami roommates many years later. It was only then that I heard their side on the whole situation. You see, I told them I was a young fan named Sasha traveling from Michigan, but I never told them I was a dude. They were a bit disappointed when I showed up with my shaggy hair and Ugg slippers instead of a cute Russian chick!

Even though the guys were certainly bummed, they still took great care of me that weekend and showed me the ropes. I crashed on the floor a few nights, got the couch one night, and I think I even slept in a bed for a few hours one night.

They taught me how to open beer bottles with a lighter and turned me onto all kinds of bands I had never head. I’ll always appreciate the kindness of strangers that I’ve experienced at Phish shows. Over 100 Phish shows I’ve had so many people offer me a place to sleep, a ride, a ticket, a beer, a joint – the list goes on and on. The community of fans is definitely one of the best parts about seeing so many Phish concerts.

What a rager that run was!

As far as the shows go that weekend, they were incredible. The energy in the room was palpable from the first note all the way up to the encore around 1:30 AM on January 1st. That second night remains one of if not my absolute favorite Phish shows I’ve seen.

More than just the music, Miami was a huge learning experience for me. It was the first time I traveled by myself. I sat with different people every night and made friends from all over the country. Overall, it was the experience of a lifetime and one I will always cherish. Over the years, I would make it back to Miami twice more for Phish New Year’s runs, but we’ll get to those later.

Las Vegas Spring Run

Traveling home on New Year’s Day in 2004, I figured I wouldn’t be seeing Phish again until the summer. Thankfully I was wrong, as the band announced a 3-night run in Las Vegas that just so happened to coincide with my senior year spring break. While most of my friends rented a car and drove down to Florida to binge drink, I convinced one buddy to fly to Sin City with me to see the Phish from Vermont.

There was just one small problem with two high school kids traveling to Vegas – neither of us could legally check into one of the casino hotels. Mind you, this was 2004. There was no Airbnb back then and even online hotel booking sites were still brand new. Crazy to think about how much has changed travel-wise since then…

Vegas ’04 – the beginning of the end.

My friend’s brother offered to travel from LA to meet us there and check us into the Flamingo, but he couldn’t get there until Saturday. That left us to fend for ourselves for the first night, so we had to be a bit clever.

Anyways, we found a cheap room at a place called Terribles. Turns out it wasn’t just a clever name. The place was a dump, but at least we could afford it! There was still the issue of being able to check in, though. Cue Phantasy Tour (Phish fan message board). I made a post explaining our situation and offered whoever could check us in a free place to crash for the night. Naturally, someone responded that very day. Phish fans always love free shit!

We flew out to Vegas and made our way to Terribles, where we patiently waited for our “brother” to arrive. The casino staff kept shooting us funny looks as they made sure we weren’t trying to gamble or drink. When our new friend showed up, we all checked into the room and got ready to party.

As a sign of his gratitude, our new roomie bought a case of beer and the festivities began. We made our way over to the lot at the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of UNLV where the party was raging. At some point, we got drunk in a VW microbus with a guy who looked like Wee Man from Jackass. It was an interesting day…

Rage lots.

By the time we finally went into the show I was hammered drunk. I totally forgot I had some nugs right in my pocket. The security guard made me toss it (and probably grabbed it for himself) as I stumbled into the arena. Those shows were GA and we somehow got up to the first few rows on the floor. I don’t remember a whole lot of that show but I had fun!

One thing that sticks in my memory from that Vegas run is how much we walked. Everything in Vegas looks like it’s right up the street since it’s in the middle of the desert. Then you walk for half an hour and you haven’t made any progress. This was before smartphones and Uber and we were poor high school kids, so we probably walked 20 miles that weekend.

Feeling real cool seeing Phish in Vegas.

The next two nights were a bit more fun as my friend’s brother took us out to lunch then got us some beers to slam in the room. He went down to the casino floor and gambled while we walked over to the arena to have our minds melted by Phish.

While we were having a good time, all was not well in the Phish world. Some shit must have happened that weekend, because not too long after the Vegas run they announced that summer tour would conclude with what would be the last Phish shows ever. From the soaring high of enjoying my first Vegas trip with my favorite band to the crashing low that they were breaking up, it was a rough transition.

Deer Creek-Alpine Valley Summer 2004

Summer Tour 2004 was slated to be the final Phish tour. Of course, I wanted to do the entire thing. Once again, there was the issue of having a piece of shit car, no money, and parents who didn’t exactly agree with such life decisions.

With it being the last tour, we at least managed to get a crew together to hit the four shows between Deer Creek and Alpine Valley. Three of us piled into a truck to do the whole run, while a bunch of other friends came down just for the first two nights. This was also the first time I took one of my siblings to a Phish show as my brother came along for the ride.

Deer Creek ’04

We set up camp on some local’s front lawn about a mile down the road from Deer Creek. No longer lot newbs, we came prepared this time with a few cases of beer to sell. “1 for $3, 2 for $5!” Of course, we ended up drinking most of it but at least we offset our costs a bit!

On the way into the show the first night, there was a problem with my tickets. My brother and I had to run across the parking lot to the box office to get it sorted. We were sprinting into the venue as the band hit the stage, causing me to lose my little bag with my bowl and my stash. Bummer!

Years later, a friend was hanging out at a party in college when someone passed him a familiar looking bowl. “Where did you get this?” he asked. His buddy responded, “Dude I found it with some nugs on the way into the Deer Creek show a few years ago!” After hearing the story, he happily returned it to me. Minus the nugs, of course…

Back when it was surrounded by corn fields…

Those two nights at Deer Creek were so much fun. It was the first time I got to see Phish surrounded by a bunch of friends and it felt great. The band was on fire and none of us could understand why it was all coming to an end. Some of the more wily tour veterans knew what was going on backstage, but us newbies were oblivious.

From Deer Creek, it was a long and tiring road to Alpine Valley. There was tons of construction on the way, slowing us down by a good two hours. At one point in the trip, I was looking out the back window of the truck when I saw a few of our bags fly out of the truck bed. Thankfully they rolled to the side of the highway, but it was still a terrifying endeavor getting them back.

We got to the campground with very little time before the show to even more problems. They wouldn’t let us check in because I was the only one who was 18. We explained that if we went to the show with a truck full of gear that it would all be stolen, so they agreed to let us leave it and come back to pick it up. There was nowhere else to stay anywhere near the venue, though, so we had to think about that all night.

Alpine ’04

Not letting that deter our good time, we piled about 15 people from the campground into the truck and went to the venue. It was my first experience on the steep lawn at Alpine Valley and I vividly remember wooks wiping out left and right on the vicious incline.

After another solid show, we headed back to the camp to figure shit out. Our new friends told us to just set up camp anyways as no one was around to tell us otherwise. We ended up camping there both nights and didn’t pay a dollar. Take that, jerks!

That second night of Alpine Valley was incredible. The band just sounded so good, once again making us wonder how and why they were deciding to hang it up a few weeks later. They moved on with the tour to play a few more shows on the east coast while we headed back to Michigan to get ready for the final hurrah.

Coventry

A few weeks before I moved into my freshman year dorm room, I piled into the car with friends for Phish’s final festival. It was called Coventry after the small town in their native Vermont that was hosting it. About ten of us went in two different cars. With my van out of commission again, it came down to an old Chrysler New Yorker and a new Toyota SUV. I got stuck in the New Yorker, of course.

Me and my often broken down van.

We had a big decision to make – drive through Canada and shave off a few hours or take the long way through the US. Since we weren’t bringing any contraband, we went through Canada. Naturally, we were grilled on the way in and out of Canada thanks to our shaggy hair and Phish t-shirts.

After driving all night long through no man’s land, we arrived at the festival site. On our way through the security check, the old New Yorker crapped out on us. We pushed it through the line, parked it, and looked for someone to help us jump it. It started back up, but it wasn’t sounding good. We decided to forget about it until Monday morning.

There had been bad storms there all night, leaving the concert grounds a muddy mess. That morning, Mike Gordon came on “The Bunny” (the radio station Phish sets up at festivals) to tell us that people would be turned away at the gates.

Thousands upon thousands of fans parked their cars on the side of the road and began walking in to the venue. Some people walked upwards of 15 miles with all of their gear just to get into the show. Say what you will about Phish fans, but we’re a dedicated and resourceful bunch!

As a result of the weather, the whole place was a disaster. Cars were stuck left and right. With very little dry ground, most people were setting up tents in the mud. Despite the inclement weather and our dead car, we tried to remain positive. Unfortunately, it was a sign of what was to come on stage as well…

Ugh… Coventry…

It being the “last shows ever,” we joined the hordes of people at noon to sprint to the front of the grounds when gates opened. The scene was like some kind of obstacle course gone wrong, as hippies ran through mud, over wood chips, rocks, a bit of grass, and more mud to arrive at a concrete slab. We spent the next three hours there killing time as we waited for the band to hit the stage.

I don’t want to say much about the Coventry shows, as they were pretty awful. Drummer John Fishman later went on to describe them as “the greatest train wreck in rock & roll history,” and that’s a pretty accurate assessment.

They forgot lyrics, flubbed notes, and even started the last song in the wrong key. Worst of all, the band was clearly suffering on stage. It really was heartbreaking.

The band even cried during “Wading in the Velvet Sea” and we all shed tears with them. I’m honestly choking up just writing this now, and it’s 15 years later. Even though Phish has since made their triumphant return and have had an amazing decade-long renaissance, it still hurts to think back to Coventry.

Worst of all, once the whole mud-soaked, out of tune mess came to an end, we still had a dead car on our hands. We got it jumped once more and made it to a rest stop to pick up some maps and gas up the car. It died again. We called AAA but they informed us no one could come help until the morning. Caked in mud, exhausted, and depressed, we spent the night sleeping in the car.

The next day, we got it towed and paid a little bit to get it running again. We were warned by the mechanic that it would likely not make it back to Michigan, but we gave it the old college try. The idea was to just keep it running and we would be fine. We kept it on while we pumped gas, and I drove in circles around the parking lot while my friends got Burger King. It was pretty ridiculous…

Everything was going fine until the Massachusetts-Connecticut border, where traffic slowed to a crawl. I had no choice but to take my foot off the gas as we waited in line. The car sputtered out as we pulled up to the toll booth, so we had to push it to the side of the road. As Phish sings in “Possum” – Your end is the road!

Long story short, we ended up flying from Hartford to Chicago, sleeping on the floor of the train station, and finally catching a train back to Detroit. It was a fitting end to the disastrous weekend that was Coventry.

The End?

That fall, I started my first semester at Michigan State. I couldn’t listen to Phish after the heartbreak of Coventry, so I got into new bands that were playing a lot of shows in the Midwest. The next few years were full of Umphrey’s McGee, Disco Biscuits, and STS9 shows. Phish was still my favorite band, but I had to put them on the shelf for a while.

In my dorm room, rocking my Coventry shirt.

Thankfully the story doesn’t end there. Five years later, Phish announced their return to the stage with a reunion run in Hampton, Virginia. I was teaching English in China at the time and wasn’t able to make it to those, but I had recently met a girl and we began making plans to go on summer tour.

In the end, I saw 17 shows in 6 states during the era that has come to be known as “Phish 2.0.” The band came back with a vengeance and so did I, but that’s another story for another day. In the next post, I’ll dive into the 83 shows I’ve seen since the band’s return.

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