It was a weird summer. Warm, weird, and bewildering. So much to see, so much to turn away from, or turn around and go back home. Summer, 2018 showed us much that was, until suddenly, it wasn’t. A lot of things that happened on the jamband scene left me slapping my head in disbelief.
I like going to shows. Like travelling there; like being there; like standing with 20,000 friends I don’t know, sharing in the groove. Our bands are part of what we know, and we’ve been to a lot of concerts, so we know a lot. The sounds, motions, lights and smells, I believe what they taught me. Simply put, in my college years, I went to shows; in shows, I went to college.
I turned 50 in June. This was mildly shocking, even though I saw it coming from a long way off. I figure at that milestone one can’t help reviewing the scaffolding we call a belief system… And there were plenty of reasons every day during my 49th to call the question. I saw what life so far had convinced me was settled; things no longer questioned – that just were – pummeled; knocked down; clawed back. Compositional deconstruction by the worst band on the planet. And my belief system was starting to feel deconstructed, too.
Concerts were a release; those assemblies let me forget for a while all the disassembly outside. That is what happens when the jams we travel for unfold. Jams don’t lie. Shows are Time-Outs. Part of the anticipation is for the moment the lights go down and the World’s not in here. The World ain’t got no ticket. So that’s like a piece of my scaffolding, so to speak.
Many times through the years, evil Fate dispatched my hopes to join my friends. It shut me out of Fare Thee Well in 2015, for instance. Never had a New Year’s Eve floor seat; never seen my heroes Steely Dan; never seen Eric Clapton; moe.down; Panic for Halloween. Never saw Walter Becker, the other half of Steely Dan with Donald Fagen. He died in 2017. So in 2018, I accepted a mission to harbor funds and stay on top of on-sale dates. In February, I bought tickets for August. In March, I plucked several tickets from the air like I was in one of those dollar-blowing booths on game shows. This meant sacrificing some Dead & Company and Phish shows to invest in something to look forward to even more, treading the crusty times until then. The Ticketmaster app flashed “You’re in!” for Clapton, Paul Simon and six Steely Dan shows: two in July with the Doobie Brothers, four in October. Man, I was merry in March.
Just… it didn’t all come together. It wasn’t only the last-minute cancellation of Curveball that upended my plans. More than one show went by the wayside. Worse, some were by choice! The first Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers show, in Camden, was cancelled when someone was too sick to go on. They rescheduled it for the following Wednesday. But I couldn’t go to a show on Wednesday when my wallet demanded I be at work at 6:00 AM on Thursday. The second one came a week later, but I just didn’t feel like going. The traffic, the crowd, the bumpy lawn under my butt. I was tired that day and when four o’clock came around, I just said screw it. Sold the tickets on Stubhub.
I shocked myself by deleting the Steely Dan shows. Never experienced an inclination to just skip it. It made me interrogate myself on my values. What was wrong with me? Where was my faith in shows raising my life one set at a time? I pondered what, if anything, it told me about my middle-age. It made me slap my head in disbelief, and disbelief over jamband events really threw me.
Then came Dead & Company in Camden. On the second night, it rained; I forgot my poncho; my binoculars were rendered useless by raindrops on the lenses. During the setbreak, it crept up on me again: I just wanted to leave. Up on the lawn, I hovered by the stairs, giving myself a good talking-to. You spent money on this show, Dude. You waited in the parking lot all day. Can’t handle a little rain? It’s the Dead for Chrissake!
But I left. Held the handrail tightly walking down the long stairs. Because they were slippery? Because every stair offered a 180? Or because I felt like a senile old man who needed reminding the show wasn’t over yet. Trudging the dismal, wet blacktop of the parking lot, I thought I heard the Furies howling over my capitulation. But it wasn’t that. It was everyone else, all my friends streaming, howling, from the show. The venue called off the second set due to lightning, dangerous winds onstage and such. Reached my car and was out of there before the swarm from the storm. Now, what the hell does this mean, I asked.
It meant two and a half concerts blown off. These dates were my special pleasures; I looked forward to them. We all did. The shows were on – until things went awry, I turned away, or storms defeated stages – and then they were off. Everyone else that night got half the value they paid for. I’d been doubting values; now values were getting up and leaving too.
I realized toward the Fall that since that night, a growing doubt had nested in the back of my mind. About whether shows I held tickets for would actually happen; whether I’d actually go. I imagined some intervening event, like a flash flood; a stagehand union walk-out; a giant comet, could happen at the venue and I wouldn’t actually see the show even after getting there. But we often don’t pay attention to ideas in the back of the mind; that’s why they stay there.
Maybe that explains why I was strangely comforted a few days later that Dead & Company did not sell out at Mets Stadium. The high bleachers looked like broad, pink gums with chipped teeth and missing molars. This summer there were gaps in how things were supposed to happen, and then actually happened. You saw gaps in who valued what, and why. You didn’t know what to believe. Which brings me to Curveball.
I reached Watkins Glen Speedway literally moments after the State of New York officially cancelled the festival. In the last mile or so before the gate, I saw workers in yellow vests pulling LED light signs on wheels into place beside the road: “EVENT CANCELLED.” I desperately tried to think it was a joke – Phish was starting the weekend with a curveball. The first set opener would be the song “HA HA HA.” But I simultaneously knew it was for real. You don’t put up riot-inviting signs like that if it’s not true; and it wasn’t be the least bit funny. Or practical. But policemen were directing traffic and signaling me to proceed. So I motored along, doubtfully but dutifully, and pulled right up to a ticket-taker booth. (This was Thursday afternoon around 3:30; there wasn’t much of a line yet.)
“Is this for real?” I asked the young man standing there. Never seen an expression like the one on his face – incredulity, astonishment, embarrassment and I think fright. Probably there had not yet been time for the organizers to give the gate crews guidance about what to tell people. “Yes,” he croaked sheepishly. Of course, my next question was, “Are you [email protected]%$&* kidding me?!”
His face turned sympathetic. “No. It’s true. Polluted water from flooding. The Water Department shut it down because there’s no drinkable water.” Words would not form. I was sputtering and spittering. The kid gave me all the rest of what he knew. “They said too much risk that people could die. It was just a few minutes ago.”
New York State. The Board of Health. The county Water Department. Local authorities and State Troopers. The World beat us to this show and snuck in without a ticket. I clenched the steering wheel and slammed the stick-shift into Park, sort of a defiant spasm. Just then a trooper walked up to my car, also wearing a look of sympathy, but at the moment his job was to get me moving in one direction or the other.
“Everyone arriving today can camp for the night, but you have to be out by noon tomorrow. So you can do that if you want.” He pointed to the camping area closest to the gate, where I saw a couple hundred cars and trailers parked. Early arrivers clothed colorfully but in a blur of confusion, spinning on their heels to catch words from this one and then that one, stamping their feet. They looked like they refused to believe this festival had been on until a few minutes ago, and now it wasn’t. They were still in doubt.
I hovered in that anti-gravity refusal, too. Pulled in, got out of the car, sat on the trunk with my eyes to the air and my jaw to the ground. “Is this for real?” I shouted out to no one in particular. A skinny guy wearing only a grass skirt and sandals turned around and said, “Yeah” with a shrug. “It is. It isn’t gonna happen.” And he kept walking.
A giant comet had hit Watkins Glen, and the shock wave was squeezing my head. Would it help to pull my hair out? (Decided no.) Well, what now? Camp overnight? Gorge all the fruit and Pop-Tarts I brought? Cry?
Then my confusion lifted and I realized that what had just happened guaranteed what was about to happen. For the next many hours a multitude of cars, RV’s and busses were going to roll up and everyone was going to be angry and sad and slapping their heads in disbelief. A veritable WTF festival. Who wants to be in the middle of that mojo? The state saw the necessity of shutting it down, and I had to believe they were right. Some trashed Wookie would fall into a ravine, vomit enormously, and then drop dead. It all had to be avoided.
But it was the cars that focused my thoughts. They’re all going to be turning around, I realized. The road in and out is going to get gridlocked. The early bird catches the curveball.
“I better just get the fuck out of here.”
So I went to Curveball for about 8 minutes. On the way out, seeing carloads and busloads of shocked sign-readers gasping and flailing behind their windows, I believed I’d made a good decision. Just go.