"We're transforming what is essentially cattle pastureland into a giant campground/wonderland/playground for 75,000 rabid Phish fans," claims Dave Werlin. The president of Great Northeast Productions, the company responsible for conceptualizing festivals for the jam band Phish, Werlin is a week out from the group's four-day millennium blowout as he talks by cell phone from the aforementioned pasture.
Elaborate, tongue-in-cheek props are hallmarks of the Phish fests, as are remote locales. This time Werlin is working on a 1025-acre swath of cow fields surrounded by the Everglades. Part of the Seminole Indians' Big Cypress Reservation, the land will serve as temporary home to some 75,000 neo-hippie fans of the psychedelic free-form band, acknowledged heir to the Grateful Dead throne.
Another constant of the festivals is the element of surprise, so fans never know what type of fantasy scenario they're in for until they arrive on site. Given that, Werlin won't reveal what he, his creative team, and work crews are building just north of Alligator Alley. "There's an enormous amount of construction going on right now," he admits, and acknowledges that some elements will hold over from previous events, including an arts fair and cleverly designed public areas, such as a mock village setup.
The exact theme and form of the setup are the mystery factors. At last summer's Lemonwheel event at the abandoned Loring Air Force Base in Maine, for example, fans showed up to find an Asian village layout complete with a phony hotel dubbed the "Do Jo HoJo" and Japanese lovers' bridges like those found in Oriental gardens. Both the 1996 Clifford Ball in upstate New York and the Great Went, held at Loring in 1997, featured live orchestras providing dinnertime classical music and the band itself playing after-hours sets in the parking lot.
But no matter what the designers dream up, the band's concert-length jam sessions are the key for fans, who are traveling from every state in the U.S., Canada, and Europe to attend the Big Cypress shows. Selling out performances has never been a problem for the band, which was formed at the University of Vermont in late 1983 by three original members who were students there. But while Phish spent the early part of its career selling out bigger and bigger venues for its circus-event live act (which featured diaper-wearing and vacuum solos by the band), moving product was initially another matter. By the mid-'90s, Phish was packing stadiums, but up to that point they still didn't have a gold album. Four of their releases have since gone gold (one platinum), and once the merchandise train got rollin', it just kept picking up steam.
Fans can now mark the date for the next Phish concert on their Phish calendars. They can have their car keys on diamond-plated, metal Phish key rings. Once they've set up camp, killing time before the shows is no problem with Phish flying discs and Phish light-up yo-yos. For a little refreshment they can enjoy "Phish Food" flavor Ben & Jerry's ice cream.
Everything except the ice cream is available online via the band's Website (www.phish.com), but vendors will no doubt be selling Phish paraphernalia among the food and crafts booths set up in the impromptu tent-and-RV city, a slice of reservation land turned sleepover carnival. And this being a millennium-eve show, who knows what Phish and its promoters have cooked up. Early rumors were that Pink Floyd and Neil Young would be appearing at the shows. Then again, those rumors also originally had the event being staged in Hawaii.