Before lightning struck and brought a heavy rainstorm, Phish fans traded crystals, passed vodka in water bottles and shared where they came from.
“Just got in from West Virginia … ”
“See that license plate? I’m from Chicago … ”
“Me and my family, we drove the van all the way from California … ”
The end point of all the road trips was the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Thursday night. The concert began at 7:30 p.m. and signs said the gates would open at 6 p.m., but fans were already milling around outside at 4 in the afternoon. Some of them had tickets to see Phish perform at SPAC on the following two nights.
Home states weren’t the only facts Phish fans were exchanging. A fan’s “number” — that is, how many concerts they have attended — determined a sort of Phish fan hierarchy.
“My number?” asked Melanie Barnaum, who drove up from Virginia. “Two hundred and sixty.” Even more impressive was her time frame — Barnaum has only been a Phish fan for five years. Over the next few weeks, her number will climb steadily as she follows Phish to eight shows, including upcoming concerts in Philadelphia, Randall’s Island and Canandaigua.
“You keep going because you meet a lot of really good friends. You stay in their houses. They stay in your houses. You dance together,” Barnaum said.
Sure enough, new friendships were being formed outside the gates of SPAC on Thursday night. Sam Robbins — a fan from Miami — felt comfortable enough with Rachel Beyer — a fan from Chicago — to reach over and grab her water bottle of vodka, adding, rather unnecessarily, “Can I have some of that?”
“Sure,” replied the 26-year old Beyer. She handed over the vodka, giving her use of both hands to finish off her second drink, a Red Bull “Summer Edition.”
Beyer said Thursday night was her 20th Phish show.
“I first heard them in ’99, but I didn’t give them a chance until 2012,” she explained.
Beyer would have been around 11 years old in 1999, perhaps not the most natural fan base for the eight- or nine-minute songs Phish is famous for. But since seeing Phish at the Bonnaroo Music Festival with her boyfriend, Beyer has embraced Phish and all the accompanying fan culture. On her tank top, for instance, appeared the name of a band so culturally intertwined with Phish that their fan bases often overlap: the Grateful Dead. (A few passing fans pumped their fists in the air when she said “the Grateful Dead” aloud.)
It cost Beyer $250 to see Phish perform at Madison Square Garden last year.
“I paid half of that here for three nights,” she said.
Meanwhile, one-night tickets for this weekend sold for about $75 on the Live Nation website.
Asking fans for their favorite Phish song generally led to one of two responses. Either the fan refused to choose — “They’re all too good,” said Robbins — or the fan was so sure in their choice that he sang a few lines aloud, as if to prove its musical superiority. One such performance came from Ron Grady, a 36-year-old who drove in from West Virginia.
“Corinna is their best. Not Carini! Cor-in-na,” he repeated emphatically. “You wanna know why? There’s this line that just kills me. ‘Have mercy, have mercy, baby. Honey, you’re my hard luck. Baby, you’re my hard luck soul.”
Grady took a long drag on his cigarette before continuing.
“There’s this point in the show where I’m like, how did you know? How did you know that? That feeling coursing through me, that thought in my brain?”
But not long after Grady said this, a thunderstorm rolled in, jeopardizing the evening’s show. The first streak of lightning cut through the sky at 5:30. Rain began sprinkling down. Around the same time, Phish posted on its Facebook page that “due to heavy weather heading towards Saratoga” the gates at SPAC would not open until 6:45, 45 minutes later than originally planned.
As the towering pine trees on the state park grounds began swaying in the wind, police officers took out loudspeakers to warn fans to stay away from trees. One man handed out yellow plastic rain ponchos. At 6:10, a startlingly loud crack of thunder was heard and rain belted down much harder. Many people took cover in their cars.
At this point, a few Phish fans may have been experiencing deja vu.
“Last summer, inclement weather canceled a show,” said SPAC employee Vanessa Henry. “We had to send all the fans home. It was the worst Phish concert ever.”
Luckily, the thunderstorm passed, the crisis was averted and the show went on.
Henry, who lives in Johnstown, said she was looking forward to her upcoming duties of directing Phish fans around the concert grounds that night.
“We [employees] can hear the whole show,” she said. “I’m not a longtime fan, but I’m excited for this.”