The first time Bonnaroo took over the farm in Manchester, Tenn., was in 2002, and the headliners were Widespread Panic and Trey Anastasio. Elsewhere on that initial bill were String Cheese Incident, Gov’t Mule, Moe., The Disco Biscuits, Ween and multiple Les Claypool assemblages. Over the next four years, everyone from The Dead to the Allman Brothers Band played the annual June festival, solidifying it as a destination for jam band enthusiasts.
In the years since, Bonnaroo, named for the Creole saying popularized by the dearly departed Dr. John translating to—and I’m paraphrasing here—a helluva good time, has flip flopped. Kings of Leon and My Morning Jacket have headlined; so have Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen. When attendance slumped in 2016, Live Nation swooped in and tapped U2, Chance The Rapper and festival regulars Red Hot Chili Peppers for the 2017 event, followed by a head-scratcher-of-a-bill in 2018 featuring Eminem, The Killers, Muse, and, as is typical for ‘Roo now, a host of EDM acts.
But in 2019, Bonnaroo got its groove back, partly in thanks to one of those very first headliners: Anastasio returned to the main stage with Phish for one set on Friday night and two on Sunday. Bonnaroo is, at its heart, weird and loose, defined not so much by a genre and more by a feeling. This year’s schedule was wide-ranging in terms of sound but undoubtedly even in terms of mood—from a groovy country spaceout at Kacey Musgraves’ sunset show to Beach House’s sleepy tent showoff to Sun Seeker’s transportive beats, it was a four-day hootenanny ruled by slow-burning vibes and big musical payoffs. So what better way to close out the weekend than with Phish, the ultimate live band?
It feels very fitting, as Bonnaroo wouldn’t be the festival we know today without Phish.
“There’s no underplaying the significance that Phish had, as a band and as an organization, in the direct development of Bonnaroo,” festival co-founder Rick Farman said in a recent interview with USA Today.
Indeed, in the ’90s, before fans were flocking to the farm, they may have been retreating to one of Phish’s massive musical functions on some rural slab of country, festivals inspired by Woodstock and hosted by the band that frequently drew up to 85,000 fans. They invited folks to a free show on a farm in Maine in 1991, what’s now known as “Amy’s Farm,” the stuff of Phish legends. Five years later, 70,000 showed up for a camping festival in upstate New York. After Woodstock ‘99 all but failed, Phish were still in the game, hosting a crowd 85,000-strong on a Florida Seminole reservation, an event that included a legendary all-night set (a.k.a Big Cypress, an all-time fan favorite that lasted from midnight ‘till sunrise). Bonnaroo’s founders took notice and eventually adopted Phish’s formula for throwing the perfect outdoor music event.
Going into my first ‘Roo, I had my doubts about the Vermont-formed, perpetually touring jam titans (for the uninitiated, that’s Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, drummer Jon Fishman and keyboardist Page McConnell). Two summers ago when I was living in New York for an internship, Phish commandeered Madison Square Garden for their now-famous Baker’s Dozen run, a 13-night residency at the iconic Manhattan arena during which they played 237 songs without a single repeat. I’ll never forget the morning I went for coffee somewhere near Greenwich Village and saw a child no older than four wearing an oversized “Baker’s Dozen” shirt that dragged along the concrete. For the next two weeks, I saw those tees everywhere, on men, women and children—even in Brooklyn. I went to a big southern school where jam bands were the scene. My friends listened to Phish; a few had traveled to NYC that very week. I watched Broad City and fully appreciated Abbi’s obsession. I even really liked one song (“Funky Bitch,” any recorded version).
But I didn’t fully grasp fans’ commitment to—or passion for—Anastasio and co. until I saw that kid trudging through Washington Square Park in his nightgown-looking doughnut shirt, some 25 blocks and 12 hours away from the show. But even then, I mostly saw them as another frat boy infatuation, unworthy of my playlists (which, ironically, at the time were probably stuffed with the Dead, the Peppers and whatever else my friends liked).
But, as it turns out, you’re not supposed to find Phish on a playlist. They really are—as their fans will painstakingly remind you—a live band. The beauty and excitement of Phish isn’t necessarily in listening to your favorite recorded tunes on repeat (though there’s plenty of that, too)—it’s in the anticipation, the feeling when you go to show without a clue which of their 300-some-odd songs or spur-of-the-moment covers they’ll play, or how they’ll play them. It’s in the lore—the kooky stories and legends that hang around certain albums and songs—and the community, the shared experience of following this band to the ends of the earth. It’s also in the spectacle: the tricked-out light show, impressive improvisation and pleased-as-can-be observers watching it all go down. Well into their fourth decade of band-dom, including their breakup in 2004, Phish are still finding new ways to play their music. That’s pretty miraculous.
While Bonnaroo’s twin Sunday night sets were said to be especially fan-friendly, Friday night’s warm-up show was something of an ideal entry point for novices like myself: The intricate lighting choreography was a show in and of itself, and glow sticks rained on the crowd at just the right times during classics like “Tweezer,” “Harry Hood” and “Possum,” a song I’ve tracked about 20 listens on this week alone. The musical dynamics and energy were unparalleled—Phish Phans are generous and excited, and it didn’t take long for me to give into their glee. On Monday morning, the Phish subreddit erupted with fellow first-timers’ first impressions: “I’m amazed! Easily the best show I’ve ever seen,” wrote one user. Another gushed, “First show and first time on the subreddit, I found them real easy to dance to!” attracting this warm welcome from a veteran: “Good for you mate. We are all stoked to hear about other people getting into our favorite band!” Throw 80,000 music fans—people who will literally pay to camp on a farm for four days just so they can see bands with like-minded concertgoers—in front of a couple Phish shows and you’re bound to see that kind of ripple effect.
Anastasio and Phish have returned to Bonnaroo on multiple occasions in multiple iterations since 2002, and this year, their first appearance since 2012, felt like a family reunion. Anastasio even noted in USA Today, “Bonnaroo, to me, I feel like I’m part of the family there. And I like that feeling. We kind of just keep coming back.”
So Phish will probably be back again, and again and again. And so will I.
Watch Paste vault footage of Phish performing in California in 1998: