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Concert Review: Phish' Lemonwheel -- Lights and music delight Phans under the Maine sky

By Joel Rosenberg
Arts Editor

Phish's Lemonwheel

August 15 and 16

Limestone, Maine

Second of Two Parts

The sky up in Maine is huge, and gives the feeling of being a dome with a hundred mile diameter. Before the first set on the first day of Phish's Lemonwheel it was overcast, filled with a gray haze that gently subdued the anxiousness of the tens of thousands of fans waiting in front of the stage that was to be the throne for the kings of the land.

Mobius Better Blues

In an almost religious pilgrimage, the fans had streamed en masse from the parking/camping lot to the concert area, which was half a mile away to preserve pre-show secrecy and during-show seclusion. The logo for Lemonwheel was a distorted Asian face with lemons for hair, and that's a decent representation of what was to be found in what guitarist and lead singer Trey Anastasio labeled The Garden of Infinite Pleasantries. A playground designed to supplement Phish when they weren't playing, it was guarded by two 30-foot-tall bird-shaped weather vanes.

Exploration revealed bridges and lakes, a porta-potty tower, and a rock garden that yielded hours of amusement for those who chose to create their own Zen structures. Mounted on a platform were kegs, car doors, barrels, and fuse boxes that people could beat on together, a nice group dynamics project. Hiding spots ranged from huts with motion-sensitive lights to thickly thatched wisps of wood that provided unique solitary confinement. Man-made mounds of dirt gave extraordinary vantage points for those who reserved their places early enough, and musicians and street performers were scattered throughout this fantasy land.

The centerpiece of the Garden was "the Lemonwheel," a ferris wheel whose cars had been rearranged so that every two cars faced each other. The trace of each car would make for an interesting mathematical function as they orbited around each other, facing the car in front up top and the car in back down below. If "lemon" implies "defective," the genius who thought of this setup certainly had a lemon way of thinking. As great an idea as it was, I was disappointed to find a ride on the wheel was $3. Worth it, I suppose, but the time spent in line seemed investment enough to me. In any event, all these toys had the crowd restless for royalty to make their entrance.

Is this the Truman Show?

The crowd exploded when the band entered, and as they opened with "Mike's Song," the sky began to swirl. Miraculously, whether from the energy in the crowd, from the energy in the band, or from the invisible dome that really was surrounding the concert area, the clouds directly above the stage began to disappear. It was the same thing that had happened the year before at the Great Went, and I was once again stupefied by their mystical control over the weather. Course 12 would have had a field day.

When they played "Divided Sky" about halfway through their nearly two-hour first set, I lost myself in the fractal patterns the heavens were providing. First they did it, then they played it, and it was phenomenal. And as if that wasn't enough to get this party started, "Cities," a Talking Heads cover that has become the anthem of nomadic Phish-heads, declared Lemonwheel open for business. If every audience member was a string in Phish's instrument, they had us perfectly tuned by the time they closed the set with "Weekapaug Groove".

I: "Mike's Song" > "Simple," "Beauty of My Dreams," "Roget," "Split Open and Melt," "Poor Heart," "Moma Dance," "Divided Sky," "Water in the Sky," "Funky Bitch" > "Cities" > "Weekapaug Groove" (111 minutes)

The essence of Phish

You're either in on the joke, or you're not. And Phish loves inside jokes.

Between the first and second set each day was a long dinner break, which also gave time to find friends and look around the Garden. After meeting up with people and getting food, we started wandering and came upon a strange ceremony. Kids in Asian masks that resembled the logo walked slowly in a line, banging on chimes, while some tended a fire in a pit, and still others chopped vegetables. I was intrigued and decided to stick around to watch, even though my friends didn't care much about this strange cooking show. Phish rewards patience.

A guy with a half-smirk and a chef's hat started narrating:

"One day, the master returned home with a lemon."

The master, a sinister-looking, slightly scruffy guy, held up a lemon, to which everyone associated with the show announced "One Lemon!"

The chef explained how the master asked him about the significance of the lemon, to which the chef made some kind of profound remark which "caused the chef to gain two games on the Orioles." Over the next several minutes the master brought home ginger, carrots, and other vegetables, all of which the chef had a strange comment for, and for which he received a similarly strange reward. The split in the crowd between the mesmerized and the bored was seen in who seemed concerned that the set break was drawing to a close.

"One day the master returned home with a mushroom."

"What is the significance of the mushroom?" the master asked the chef.

"The mushroom," the chef paused. "is a shortcut to enlightenment. But it tastes good in a stew." Words of wisdom. More bustling around the scene.

"Finally, one day the master returned home with a fish."

"What is the essence of the fish?" the master asked the chef.

"The essence of the fish" - another dramatic pause - "is the head."

An Asian mask brought out a bowl of fish heads as the players all started chanting, "More fish heads! More Phish-heads!" And with that, the lights went out and the band returned for the second set.

The chef's tag line: "It's all in how you tell it."

Energizer Bunny sets

The weather was as perfect as the music as the show got started again. Outside in the dark, light master Chris Kuroda illuminated the night sky with the bold colors and intricately patterned designs that are Phish's trademark. With just the right amount of haze in the air, the beams shined up to the heavens. And the Lemonwheel was now lit, it's fluorescent bulbs, while not light board controlled, flowing in and out of the circle hypnotically for those who were watching it. During "The Horse," standing under deep purples and a white spot, Trey made the place feel as small as a night club, which was part of the intimacy the band was going for as indicated by their decision not to use video screens this year. "Silent in the Morning" had me on the brink of tears thinking back to how "this exact thing happened to me just last year," "Chalkdust Torture" brought thoughts of impending school, and "Slave To The Traffic Light" reminded of the daily grind that was still several sets and hundreds of miles away.

After another break, the third set and encore was 80 minutes short. It was hard to believe they had played more than four hours already, especially when Trey announced they were going to fill the stage with candles, surround the concert area with a "ring of fire," and play a Brian Eno-esque ambient fourth set. Some people left for home, while others settled in for the half-hour delay. And while I was thinking about other things once the band started playing yet again, people described being in a dream-like state without being asleep during the hour-long jam. They finally stopped playing near two in the morning, well past the curfew they normally encounter at mainstream venues.

II: "The Wedge" > "Reba, Gumbo" > "Sanity, Tweezer" > "The Horse" > "Silent In The Morning," "Chalkdust Torture," "Slave To The Traffic Light" (85 minutes)

III: "NICU" > "David Bowie," "Strange Design," "Limb by Limb" > "Brian and Robert," "Loving Cup"

E: "Halley's Comet" > "Cavern," "Tweezer Reprise" (80 minutes)

IV: Ambient Jam (55 minutes)

Circus in town

After a good night's sleep and several hours to recover the next day, the troops returned to the trenches in mid-afternoon to catch day two. There were more street performer and more wandering minstrels, including an incredible musician, Jamie Janover, playing the hammered dulcimer, kind of like a harpsichord you bang with mini drumsticks. Incidentally, he had a bag from the Fourth Annual World Wide Web Consortium Meeting, and there was an MIT emblem on it.

The sky started clear this time, if everyone's heads didn't, and there was a new addition to the landscape - a giant gray elephant float that was to play into the evening's festivities. Another marathon opening set included "Rift," "PYITE," and "Birds of a Feather," which I was disappointed they played in the daylight, since it's accompanied by a great light show. Pianist Page McConnell was the textbook lounge lizard, playing to the crowd on "Lawn Boy."

Set break came and went, and in set six (counting the extra late night set) they told "The Story of the Ghost," which is the name of their new album due out in October. "When the Circus Comes" was appropriate to describe the traveling show that is the culture surrounding this band. The highlight of the set, though, was when drummer and comic relief Jon Fishman took center stage and announced he was going to sing "a love song about a turtle." Instead of the Grateful Dead's "Terrapin Station," however, which Phish had covered for the first time just days earlier at Virginia Beach in honor of the anniversary of Jerry Garcia's death, Fishman, wearing his traditional tie-dyed dress, completed the ultimate dare and sang "Sexual Healing"-quite well, in fact. Fishman's vacuum solo created "sounds of love." And after "Run Like An Antelope," just one set remained.

I: "Ginseng Sullivan," "Bathtub Gin" > "Rift," "Punch You In The Eye," "Lawn Boy," "Ya Mar" > "AC/DC Bag", "Relax", "Birds of a Feather", "Guyute", "Possum" (98 minutes)

II: "Down With Disease" -> "Piper" -> "Story of the Ghost" > "Fluffhead," "When the Circus Comes," "Wading in a Velvet Sea," "Hold Your Head Up" > "Sexual Healing" > "Hold Your Head Up," "Run Like an Antelope" (101 minutes)

Fin

Exploding into the beginning of the end with the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," they moved into a rockin' Also Sprach Zarathrustra, the theme from 2001 they build to high tension only to crest to nothing, over and over. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was a beautiful way to close the set, and the sea of lighters quickly followed.

Returning to a crowd that even after hours and hours still wanted more, they played "Harry Hood," after which Trey lit a fuse that traveled up, across, and down the front of the stage, then along the fence of the concert area to the elephant. When it got there - life! Fireworks marked the birth of the creature, which raised it's trunk and squirted out water. Making it's way through the crowd,the elephant moved towards the campground while the band jammed Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk" to the cheers and applause of all. There was no second encore, but then, not much could have topped that finale.

III: "Sabotage" > Also Sprach Zarathustra, "Wilson," "The Mango Song," "Character Zero," "Bittersweet Motel," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (55 minutes)

E: "Harry Hood," "The Baby Elephant Walk" (25 minutes)

Back on the wagon

The ride home gave me a chance to reflect back on the exhausting weekend. I couldn't figure out why there were virtually no minorities at the show - it was almost exclusively caucasian. I also couldn't decide if the conscientious friendliness everyone showed all weekend could or would follow people home, especially once the crowd was no longer homogeneous. I'm fascinated by the social contract that exists up there, and wonder if it's possible to somehow transfer it to everyday life.

Some people complain that Phish has gotten too big, too mainstream, that there are too many fans, and tickets are too hard to get. Well, the band tried to accommodate their entire wagon up there, and I think they were hugely successful. If you want to check them out, they're playing The Centrum in Worcester the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. Tickets are $23.50 and go on sale October 17.

And so, I leave you with this: "Teach a man to Phish, and he grooves forever."