25 Years Ago: Phish Stages ‘The Great Went’

Like 62,000 Phish fans descended on the remote town of Limestone, Maine, in August 1997, one could imagine that the locals regarded their visitors in a manner akin to an alien invasion. The mostly genial outsiders were headed to the decommissioned Loring Air Force Base for a two-day festival called The Great Went, held in August. 16 and 17 and offers two days of music, camping and all kinds of artistic activities and good cheer, all centered on the work of the four-piece jam band from Vermont. The crowds came in peace and were welcomed by their hosts.

“Everybody was out on their lawns, kids and parents, waving at us,” said Rob Foley, a 23-year-old Phish fan. MTV back then. “They had signs that said ‘Glad you’re here,’ ‘Phish Phans Welcome.’ One little kid had a kid’s fishing rod with a sign that said ‘Har Phun.’

“They were as fascinated with us as we were with them, and every local I met was nicer than the next,” recalled Scott Bernstein, editor-in-chief of JamBase. “Most people seemed to appreciate the boost to the local economy.”

The Great Went (named after a sequence in the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) was the second such event Phish hosted—a follow-up of sorts to 1996’s Clifford Ball, which they had staged in Plattsburgh, NY, in front of 48,000 fans. As the band’s manager John Paluska explained to MTV, Limestone had been chosen for a very specific reason.

“By moving it up in extreme northern Maine,” he said, “we figured it would filter out a lot of the more casual spectators and filter it down to the people who were committed to a full weekend experience.”

The Great Went was indeed a success, drawing even more fans than Clifford Ball and grossing $4.2 million—a large chunk of the $10 million Phish earned on their summer tour that year, which spanned 15 shows in addition to the two full shows they played at the festival. The band used the venue again for two subsequent festivals – Lemonwheel in 1998 and It in 2003.

While the music was certainly at the heart of the experience at Great Went, Phish provided an extensive, immersive list of activities and curiosities to keep fans engaged. There was a corn maze (called a maze of corn) in a nearby field, food and craft vendors, a post office with Great Went postmarks, and lots of art installations throughout the property.

Listeners were treated to programming full of live phish songs and band members’ favorites on WENT – an FCC approved radio station. Sitting to the left of the dial at 89.1 FM, WENT, acc Phish.netbroadcast each of the band’s performances, traffic announcements of arrival and departure dates, a program of Grateful Dead songs, Saturday morning jazz and a collection of original versions of songs that the band had covered in concert. Among the band’s favorites played on the station were tracks by influences like Sun Ra and the Meters (according to MTV), as well as pop tunes like Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” (as seen in the 2000 Phish documentary Bittersweet Motel).

Phish also gave a platform to Spencer Tunick, a performance artist and photographer best known for his large-scale nudes — sometimes thousands of them — in places like the Sydney Opera House, the Dead Sea and the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main square.

At Great Went, he gathered 1,100 volunteers to undress and lie down on one of the former air base’s runways. The resulting image was striking and appeared to depict a flattened crowd, set against the backdrop of the Maine woods. According to Phish.net, each participant was sent a print of the photo signed “Best Wishes, Phish Management.”

But the main focus of the festival was Phish’s music: six sets over two days full of energy, playfulness, immersion and, as always, improvisation. The first Saturday set ran nearly two hours; shortly after a run through of “Punch You in the Eye,” guitarist Trey Anastasio saluted gathered crowd.

“I’m just going to welcome everybody here one time and we’re just going to play and play and play for two days, so just feel good,” he said. “Go around and thank you for coming to our Great Went party because it’s a good one and we are, I have to say this in the rock ‘n’ roll tradition, well, we’re the biggest town in Maine. We’re bigger than Portland, Maine right now and not only that, but we’re probably way cooler than Portland, Maine!”

Listen to Phish’s The Great Went

During this set, Anastasio could also be seen encouraging his bandmates to relax and enjoy themselves. In the documentary Bittersweet Motel (which featured footage from Great Went), the camera followed the band to a backstage area, where Anastasio called the first set “the worst set we’ve played in six months” and explained his encouragement on stage.

“I didn’t know what the hell was going on,” he said. “Everyone seemed so nervous. The only reason I said anything was because it was so beautiful… Everyone was so tense the first few tunes. I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on. We didn’t something that we usually do. We played like crap. And I was kind of like, ‘Hey, you know, we’ve got the whole weekend.’

“When you said that,” interrupted drummer Jon Fishman, “I thought, ‘Trey must not be feeling well.'”

“I had a great time,” Anastasio replied. “That’s the only reason I said anything. I thought, why be nervous? It’s our thing. Everyone’s here.”

They finally laughed it off, with Anastasio joking that the band should make a live album called Phish: Five sets to redeem ourselves.

No one in the audience was into this conversation and most seemed to be having fun if the footage is included Bittersweet Motel is there any indication. The second and third sets seemed to go off without a hitch, with the band hitting fan favorites like “Wolfman’s Brother,” “Slave to the Traffic Light” and “Lawn Boy,” and covers of Talking Heads“Cities” and The Rolling Stones“Love cup.”

Phish exited the stage for the night after the second encore, but they weren’t done entertaining. From around From 2am to 3am on Sunday, the band played what amounted to a techno music rave (called a “disco” on notes distributed around the festival) atop a flatbed truck at the entrance to the concert area.

Fan Luann Abrahms, posting on Phish.net, witnessed the set and reported, “The band had a huge trailer with a light rig on it, set up with what Trey had called ‘lots of crappy ’70s keyboards. They dug all the Moog and Korg antiques they could find for this. … There were strobe lights and a disco mirror ball and smoke pouring out of this big semi. … Musically it sounded like they were going for a techno/industrial kind of thing. … Every once in a while one of them would say ‘Shake it baby’ or ‘Groove on it’ or something, which would then be sampled and stretched into the rest of the groove.”

Day two of the festival included, in addition to three more Phish sets, a selection of classical music performed by 20 members of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dr. Stuart Marrs of the University of Maine. The ensemble played a program of Stravinsky and Debussy, including an hour-long, narrated version of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat (“The Soldier’s Tale”).

Listen to Phish’s The Great Went

“The piece and our group were introduced to Phish fans by Trey Anastasio, Phish’s manager, who just before our performance asked me for a brief history lesson on the creation of the piece,” Marrs recalled. “He took dutiful notes and introduced it to the crowd as a sage professor brings forth words of wisdom to the admiring class.”

After performing the Stravinsky piece, the conductor indulged in a rock ‘n’ roll moment.

“And it was a strange sensation, actually,” he recalled. “Finally, after acknowledging the narrator and the musicians, one turned to [62,000] pair of eyes lifting my arms in acknowledgment of their attention and receiving a roar of appreciation in return.”

The orchestral musicians followed that experience by playing Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” while a glider performed aerial acrobatics above the festival space. “It was really beautiful,” Marrs recalled.

Listen to Phish’s The Great Went

Phish’s performance that day leaned toward the remarkable. An almost half hour “Down With Disease” featured a fantastic interplay between Anastasio and bassist Mike Gordon. A 15-minute “Bathtub Gin” sent JamBase’s Scott Bernstein into something of a tizzy.

“Went Gin” is about one beautiful riff that Trey settles into and varies slightly to great effect,” he wrote. “For many, the greatness of phish-jams is about how far the band travels from a song’s typical structure. … The Great Went version of ‘Bathtub Gin’ doesn’t go too far out of bounds, but the riff Anastasio works into it mix that serves as the basis for the improvisation is unlike anything he’s ever played. … Years later, ‘Went Gin’ still ranks among my favorite moments in Phish history that I saw live.”

Phish also mixed the festival’s significant visual arts component into their musical presentation. At various times during their performances on Sunday, the band members went to the side of the stage to add their individual touches to a collective artwork for the Tower of Art, a large sculpture at the outer edge of the audience area, consisting of pieces of painted wooden fans had been added the whole weekend.

After a long, funky run through “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey), Anastasio took out Phish’s contribution—a large, colorfully decorated piece of thin board—and asked the crowd to return it to the tower. As they did, keyboardist Page McConnell played an ethereal chord progression and Fishman gently tapped his cymbals and began a tense but quiet jam as the entire band watched the board slowly float further away from them, carried on a sea of ​​hands. The sculpture was eventually set on fire, lighting up the sky with the largest campfire anyone present was likely to ever see.

Listen to Phish’s The Great Went

Such interaction and activity is part of what brought Phish and their fans together at the Great Went, and what continues to bring them together today. There is community – between four musicians who perform on stage for hours, in virtuosity and discovery; between these musicians and their audiences, listeners affected by these performances, by their nuances and broad strokes; between individual audiences to each other, in acts of empathy and kindness and mutual enjoyment.

This is what Phish and their audience mean to each other. That’s what they brought to Great Went.

Phish, The Great Went, Limestone, Maine, Aug. 16-17, 1997

Day 1 (August 16, 1997)
Set 1:
Makisupa policeman
Harpua
Chalk dust torture
Theme from scratch
Hit you in the eye
Ghost
Ginseng Sullivan (Norman Blake cover)
You enjoy myself
Took song
Grade zero
The Squirming Coil

Set 2:
Wolfman’s brother
Simple
My Soul (Clifton Chenier cover)
Yam
Slave of the traffic light
Rocky Top (Felice & Boudleaux Bryant Cover)
Julius

Set 3:
Halley’s Comet (Richard Wright cover)
Cities (Talking Heads cover)
Llama
Lawn boy
Limb for Limb
Funky Bitch (Son Seal’s cover)

Encore:
Contact
Loving Cup (The Rolling Stones cover)

Day 2 (August 17, 1997)
Set 1:
The wedge
Beauty of My Dreams (The Del McCoury Band Cover)
Dogs Stole Things (Trey Anastasio & Tom Marshall cover)
Vultures (Trey Anastasio and Tom Marshall cover)
Water in the sky
Labyrinth
Jump around the room
Tweezers
Taste
Carolina ([traditional] cover over)

Set 2:
Down with illness
Bathtub Gin
Uncle Pen (Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys cover)
Zarathustra, too, spoke up. 30 (Richard Strauss cover)
Yam
Harry Hood

Set 3:
Buffalo Bill
NICU
Ways
Guyute
Dirt
Smell of a mule
Prince Caspian

Encore:
When the Circus Comes (Los Lobos cover)
Tweezers Repetition

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