c. taylor crothers © phish 2009

Phish didn’t invent the rock and roll festival by any means, but few bands have done more to re-envision it for the modern era. By the time the Vermont quartet hosted its first multi-day camping festival in 1996, the Clifford Ball, rock fests were more synonymous with corporate sponsors and boomer nostalgia than Age of Aquarius idealism.

“By the ‘80s MTV was invented and by this point in time there was loads of money to be made off popular rock music—people could feel it in their gut that they were being taken to the cleaners,” Trey Anastasio said during a recent Festival 8 preview on Jam_ON. “The resurgence of the festivals [was this little bit of] an underground upswell of people who wanted to get together and have a sense of community. Woodstock ‘94 was an attempt to take people’s money and everyone knew it—the last thing on the list was how comfortable the people were going to be who came to the thing. But we really actually put a lot of care into how we can make the experience comfortable for people.”

In short, in an era where the country’s most popular festivals traveled through amphitheatres, Phish created a stationary, destination environment that functioned as its own mini-city—often in remote locations and removed from the trappings of conventional concerts. Over the years that world expanded to include its own radio station, farmers market, newspaper and, of course, maze of art exhibits and installations.

This year members of the Phish team have dubbed the Empire Polo Fields “Little Vermont” and brought with them a village’s worth of new or re-envisioned activities: The House of Live Phish (an air conditioned tent where you can mix your own tracks from this past summer tour), a beer tent featuring over 50 varieties (including a custom Sierra Nevada pilsner brewed exclusively for the festival called Foam), jumbo screens showing everything from baseball to back catalogue Phish and, of course, a new, giant Ferris wheel (a Phish festival hallmark).

“Phish has long been leaders in the environmental movement. Festival 8 is a very green festival,” says David Whiteside, who is at the festival representing his organizations Black Warrior Riverkeeper and Tennessee Riverkeeper. “Two things that Phish is doing that you won’t see at other festivals: $1 from every ticket sold donated to environmental causes, a certified organic farmers market – meaning all produce is certified to be grown locally in California, and aggressive waste reduction efforts like offering water filling stations and not allowing bottled water. Phish continues to lead the way in reducing the impact of music festivals and concerts on our natural resources.

While peering out onto the concert field from the site’s aptly named Overlook, one could also catch the first glimpse of the festival’s visual components, as a team of artists hustled to put the final touches on an installation shaped like a dragon coiled with a castle. Phish lighting designer Chris Kuroda also showed off a new, site-specific light show that includes the illumination of 140 palm trees, as well as a row of custom designed tree-shaped installations positioned at the back of the main concert area.

Others will show off their work for the first time in the morning: “I created a couple of posters for the merch,” says longtime Phish artist Jim Pollock. “I did this new thing that I dreamed up with a friend of mine. There are two posters—one is a 3-D poster. We were thinking it would be cool to make a mask, and use 3-D glasses to be able to see through the mask, and see this poster. Then I re-thought it and I didn’t think that people would wear these masks with 3-D glasses the whole time.”

As fans waited for the festival’s gates to open, earlier arrivals were also treated to another Phish tradition: the semi-public (via radio) festival soundcheck. To the surprise of many, Phish actually played two soundcheck sets Thursday: one acoustic and one electric. The stripped down acoustic set—which found the four musicians scrunched together near the front of the stage—opened with a slow, pre-Story of the Ghost version of “Water in the Sky,” a song that will forever be intertwined with Phish’s festival-lore thanks to its opening spot at 1999’s Big Cypress. From there the group offered a few original songs from Trey Anastasio’s solo canon: “Sleep Again,” a ballad off his 2005 release Shine that has been reworked to include a lovely piano solo by Page McConnell, and “Let Me Lie,” another soft number that clearly has personal meaning to Anastasio. Not only did Phish begin playing the song with regularity starting at Great Woods this past June, but the band recorded a version for its forthcoming Party Time bonus album. Mike Gordon also led the group through the bluegrass-inspired “Invisible,” a highlight from his second album with Leo Kottke.

The quartet then offered loose, stripped down versions of two thematically linked songs: “Back on the Train” (“I’m gone and I’ll never look back at all/You know I’ll never look back again”) and “Driver” (“I’m moving through this life and I’m thinking about the next and hoping when I get there I’ll be better dressed”) both of which recalled the intimate feel of Anastasio’s acoustic comeback shows last summer. Much like those performances, in their stripped down forms the songs were more forums for Tom Marshall’s introspective lyrics than instrumental virtuosity, though Gordon’s bass had some interesting textures. Throughout the brief set, the group played around with several familiar themes, one of which seemed to reference moments of “Discern,” another of which almost developed into “Sleep.”

If Phish’s afternoon soundcheck found joy in song structure, the band’s electric evening soundcheck was a forum for improvisation. Over the years their soundchecks have ranged from quirky (a version of the old ditty “Dear Mrs. Reagan” reworked to reference a food vendor) to dark and mysterious (the twisted improvisation of the IT soundcheck that foreshadowed the Great Gag in the Sky). Either way, it is the closest glimpse fans get into the band’s legendary rehearsals, home to some of the deepest, most freeform pockets of improvisation of the group’s career. Festival 8’s approximately 50-minute soundcheck started around 6:30 PM and seemed to split the difference—bouncing between quick, tongue-in-cheek themes and deep improvisation.

At first, the band noodled around with a few familiar themes before settling on a funky groove reminiscent of the band’s 2003-2004 post-hiatus period, as best exemplified by a “Seven Below” jam: slow, patient and driven by Gordon’s accented bass lines. Eventually the improvisation moved into a spooky, Halloween-like section woven together by Anastasio’s short, choppy minimalist licks and some interesting synthesizer work from McConnell. As if to tune Gordon and Jon Fishman’s equipment, the band moved into the loose rhythmic grooves of “Undermind,” the 2004 song whose lyrics “reinvented, redefined” have taken on new meaning since the band’s reunion. The funky tune eventually uncoiled into a brief calypso beat and a fun cover of Mitch Rydell’s “Devil With A Blue Dress” and then a jam based around Yes’ “Starship Trooper,” as well as an instrumental passage that recalled “Sample in a Jar.” (“Starship Trooper” is one of the tracks featured on The Yes Album, one of the albums Phish “killed off” leading up to Festival 8’s Halloween set).

Keeping with the warm-up spots’ emphasis on new material, Phish segued into “Gone”—a fresh sounding original Anastasio first played on his solo tour with Classic TAB last fall—which will may well slip into the Phish catalogue this fall. The evening’s final selection was another dark, moody original, “Liquid Time,” the Anastasio original that closes out Party Time. Though still in their infancy, both songs are potential jam vehicles, especially during the group’s traditionally improv-heavy third sets.

Festival 8, of course, also intersects with another lauded Phish tradition, the Halloween “album cover.” Playing off that theme Phish has named each of Festival 8’s campgrounds after the remaining albums left in its “last album alive” Halloween countdown. When laid out visually, the festival map shows the range of possibilities: from seminal classic rock acts (Rolling Stones) to modern acts (Radiohead) to the children of Phish Nation (MGMT). Anastasio also teased the opening line of the latter band’s “Kids” during Phish’s evening soundcheck—a surreal moment for a band that grew up attending Phish shows and the destination festivals Phish helped pave the way for in the 1990s. According to reports, MGMT caught wind of the tease while in the studio working on an album of their own. Indeed, Little Vermont reaches deep.