Concert Review: Phish's Lemonwheel -- Anarchy works in the tent city
A small city appeared and disappeared for Phish's Lemonwheel concert at the decommissioned Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine.
By Joel Rosenberg
August 15 and 16
First of Two Parts
IHTFP - I Have Truly Found Paradise. The designation utopia is not one that I throw around freely, but in the case of Phish's end-of-summer two-day, three-sets-a-day music festival at a corner of the Earth, I think the city that pops up approaches whatever that term is supposed to mean.
This year Phish called their party Lemonwheel-nobody's sure what the name means. One explanation from phish.net is that it's in the tradition of the motion-oriented names of their previous two weekend gatherings (Clifford Ball and Great Went). Another is that it's a play on the location of the show-Lemonwheel in Limestone, Maine (same location as the Went). Limestone, by the way, is about 8 hours north of Boston, which makes it all the more impressive that 70,000 people have gone up there the past two years to be part of the functional anarchy that governs this fleeting city.
Traffic wasn't bad getting there, and it was 75 and sunny - perfect driving weather. We stopped a few times, and each time were greeted by banners and smiles that both read "Welcome Phish Phans." Always phans. In phact, they lophed ph. At one stop, I bought a "phrisbee" for a "phundraiser" that was related to the band only by the fact that it had a poorly drawn cartoon fish on it, as seen in the graphic on this page.
Once there, a sign just outside the main gate warned "NO UNAUTHORIZED VENDING!" Apparently Phish was going to going to attempt to control the invisible hand. I showed my maize-colored, hologram-embossed mail-order ticket with a picture of a city on an ark to the guy at the gate, and he fitted me with a fluorescent green wristband that clearly explained it was not to be altered. It was a $75 toll to enter, one I was sure would pay off.
The event is held on the decommissioned Loring Air Force base, with camping between the landing strips (used for parking). The section closer to the stage was named Camp Foreman, and the latter section Camp Ali. Even though it appeared that Ali was already filling up when we got there around five on Friday afternoon, they directed us well into Foreman. We parked and went looking for a place to camp, only to find it pretty crowded. Just as we were about to settle for a crappy spot, a guy setting up his tent told us to walk about a hundred feet further, past the tents that were blocking us from seeing the vast tracts of unoccupied land. We thanked him, and sure enough, things soon opened wide up. We had plenty of room in 3B - 11C was farthest from the stage.
Tales From the City
Once we set up camp, I went out exploring. The walkways were lined with vendors arranged as one huge flea market. Some vendors in tents that defined booths had laminated passes around their necks, which I guess designated them as "authorized," but there were a good number of "renegade" retailers standing by their coolers or just holding up their stuff. Adam Smith prevailed after all, and there was a market for just about everything.
Food ranged from funnel cakes to falafel to "goo balls" (rice-krispie-ish "treats"). I stopped and bought a grilled cheese from a guy who looked like he knew what he was doing.
"How long you been on tour?" I asked while he was squirting butter on the bread.
"Ten years," he answered, and smiled at me.
"Oh, well that explains it."
"This tour? I just picked it up for this show."
"This your summer job?"
He looked at me like I was crazy. "I gotta work."
"Where do you work?"
"At a hospital in Ontario, setting up beds and stuff. I had been on [tour with] Further [Festival, the Other Ones from the Grateful Dead], but I used up my vacation days."
"Do they give you a hard time at work for going on tour?"
He smiled. "Sort of. They just don't understand what it means to be on tour. But I work for my brother, so he understands. And I just took my dad on tour for the first time. He doesn't give me a hard time about it anymore after seeing how hard I work."
I smiled back. My grilled cheese was done. I thanked him and paid him. And thanked him again.
There were tons of shirts for sale, many with parodies of marketing logos retrofit with Phish song titles (Bounce fabric softener into Bouncin', Timberland into Timber-Ho!). There were tapestries and posters, and one guy was selling 3D glasses for the show, even though it's already in 3D (unless you're missing depth perception). Bumper stickers read "You! Outta the gene pool!" and "Who wants a president that doesn't inhale?" I got one with the Microsoft logo that said Mike'ssong, bassist Mike Gordon's theme, which now adorns my computer. I also saw a couple riding bikes together, each holding up the same bumper sticker: "I Went^2 To Lemonwheel." I doubt they sold many.
All levels of smoking paraphanalia were available, from $5 wood bowls to $500 glass bongs. Drugs could be found by listening to the mumbles from passing merchants, and yet nobody seemed particularly seedy. In fact, there was a good vibe all around. I sneezed and somebody said bless you. I saw someone pick a hat off the ground and bring it to the nearest vendor with the hope that the owner would return for it. A friend of mine bought a cap that made him look like an idiot, and the salespeople were nice enough to agree and give him his money back. Throughout the entire weekend, the only trouble I heard of was someone passing out counterfeit twenties, which is an absolute minimal amount of trouble for any crowd. As I said, it was functional anarchy, and it was a beautiful thing to be a part of.
Silent In the Morning
Night fell and everyone was partying, just happy to have made it up there. The all-night disco could be heard in the distance, drum circles grooved late, and I fell asleep after a very long day.
I awoke around six the next morning to watch the sun rise. It was so cold, I bought a cup of coffee, and ended up spilling a good amount of it on my shirt - my hands were shaking so much. Camp was dark and quiet, and when the sun did finally come up, it was too cloudy to see. I went to the 24-hour cafe and got a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich, went and brushed my teeth at the washing sinks they had set up (their fluid mechanics didn't put much water pressure through the PVC pipes), and watched the city wake up, refreshed for the main event that was still a good eight hours away.
It was soon time for another cup of coffee, which I got from a hispanic guy who's a bellman at the Omni in Albany. He complained about the crackdown on vendors, which I hadn't seen but apparently he had.
"This was all vendors last year," he explained, motioning to a large space where there were no vendors. "I spoke to the guy in charge about maybe selling a vendor's ticket for $150, and he said they might do it next year. But I don't think they will."
I asked him how long he had been touring for.
"I used to do Dead tours all the time. Then I got arrested," he said as he started looking off into the distance. "And then Jerry died." He was staring at where the vendors had been. Then he came back. "I've done some Phish, but this is the first one this summer."
I asked how the Phish crowd compared to the Dead crowd.
"The Dead crowd was a little more alive," he said with a chuckle. "More people are just smoking dope here, but I don't like to say that." I just nodded, lacking any first hand knowledge. I paid him and thanked him, and he told me to come back in a little while to get three pancakes for three bucks. If they were cracking down on unauthorized vending, he didn't seem concerned about being cracked down.
On the way back to camp, a guy with a bottle of Mississippi Mud and a cigarette dangling from his lip staggered by a well marked sign and asked, "Does that say 6A?" Ah, the remorse of a sugar junkie.
A little further down was a kid giving out free granola. Leaning on his car was a beautiful framed "picture" that had a four-by-four grid of convex mirrors which made for a great effect. I asked him if he was selling it, but he said he wanted to trade for it. Since I lacked anything worthy of it, I told him I liked it and moved on.
I saw a tour-ready school bus that had "Foo" painted where "School Bus" usually goes-I thought Course VI would appreciate that. Someone had a tray of bloody marys, each with a celery stalk in it. Nobody goes without in the Phish parking lot.
I went to our car and turned on the radio to 88.9 FM, The Badger. It's the station that services the festival, playing Phish archives and generally good tunes, and bills itself as "The World's Only Radio Station," which for this world it was. I fell asleep listening to some Miles Davis, and when I woke up, it was time to get ready to go to the show.