December 31st, 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of Phish‘s storied midnight–sunrise set at Big Cypress at the turn of the century on 12/31/99. L4LM’s B. Getz, who was in attendance for the legendary set, examines the significance of his Big Cypress experience in this 20-year retrospective deep dive. [All photos via The Seminole Tribune – Jan. 21, 2000 unless otherwise noted].
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Big Cypress—Phish’s shape-shifting, generation-defining millennial New Year’s Eve gathering—allow me to hop in the wayback machine and revisit this colossal event of preposterous proportions.
I consider myself lucky and privileged to have been among the 80,000-plus (some say closer to 100K) people who, in the face of the now-silly/then-scary Y2K hullabaloo at the close of the twentieth century, were willing and able to trek out into the dankest of South Florida swamps and congregate for a three-day affair. The largest ticketed event of the millennium New Year’s Eve anywhere in the world, and totally off the mainstream radar. If you were there, then you know. If you weren’t, my trying to explain is, frankly, an exercise in futility.
The musical performances and onstage spectacles of Big Cypress have been dissected and discussed ad nauseum over the past two decades, and I’m not sure I’ll have anything all that new to add in that regard. A personal reflection of the experience feels like the appropriate approach in this medium, and producing it indeed has proved to be a cathartic, emotional exercise in ceremony and nostalgia. With the 20th anniversary looming, there has been plenty of Big Cypress analysis out there. What follows is far from an analytical review. It’s more like the art of storytelling.
The recent After Midnight podcast created, written, and cogently narrated by the venerable Phishtorian Jesse Jarnow—some fascinating programming focused exclusively on Big Cypress—has been nothing short of tremendous. Filled with the kind of nuggets, testimonials, and minutiae that define this fanbase, it’s a podcast so engrossing that the memories—swampy and supernatural, dormant and undisturbed—have been flooding in between me and my mind ever since. As a result, I felt called to put pen to paper and reveal some of my own deep-seated recollections, to offer some heartfelt ruminations on the majesty of Phish at Big Cypress, the dawn of the new millennium, and the end of our proverbial innocence.
First, a bit of personal and cultural context. In the aftermath of Jerry Garcia’s death in August of 1995, while many longtime Deadheads found themselves at a crossroads of sorts, my generation (born 1978) enjoyed a collective coming of age as teenagers alongside (and in harmony with) Phish’s meteoric rise to arena rock royalty status. While kids from my time were certainly blessed to ride in the tailwind of the Grateful Dead’s reign on the top, we were indeed the collective beating heart of the golden era of Phish. As such, my late ’90s was filled with adventurous tales from across the USA, soundtracked by this band like none other. Phish was a living, breathing, musical (and cultural) organism, consistently and progressively mutating, evolving, and reinventing their approach to performing, writing, jamming and creating. They played by their own rules, adhered to ideals that bucked the establishment, and lived in the moment—a moment we collectively chased, onstage and off. And the rest is, as they say, Phishtory.
Nevermind Phish’s massive footprint in laying the groundwork for the festival culture in which we revel today, Big Cypress was the pinnacle of an era of Phish’s creativity, community, and cosmic alignment. It also doubles as the ultimate final act, before the first days of the rest of our lives. The event was a convergence of so many folks who dotted our extended network. The gathering coincided with the end of adolescence and collegiate years, beckoning the onset of what we thought would be adulthood.
9/11 happened shortly thereafter, and with that, sh*t got real. In conversations over the years, I’ve found that so many of us hold onto Big Cypress as either the crowning jewel or last bastion of our halcyon youth. For me, it firmly and emotionally remains both. At the dawn of a new century, from liftoff to landing, Philly to Florida and back again, the Long Gig (or “LG” for short) just might still be the best week of my entire life.
I spent my childhood in the Philadelphia suburbs and was fortunate to be introduced to the Dead around my Bar Mitzvah. I caught a handful of GD shows before Garcia passed, and had been seeing Phish regularly since 12/28/94, mostly in the company of my older cousin and a smattering of dudes that I grew up with—the kids I had played Little League with, gone to elementary and Hebrew school with, surfed and chased girls with at the Jersey shore, tailgated Eagles games with in the warehouse shadows of Vet Stadium. Later, we learned how to cruise the lot across the street at the old Spectrum for the Dead, Jerry Garcia Band and, eventually, Phish; we’d somehow find our way into those shows years before we were old enough to drive. Some of us had older siblings and cousins who were kind enough to dub the tapes, open the gates, and/or show us the way. The other youngins just had a nose for the good stuff. To this day, this brood of brothers remains connected and grateful. A big part of that lifetime bond was forever cemented by the Big Cypress experience.
In the fall of 1996, the birthplace of this very band—Burlington, Vermont—was overrun with phans with little to do and no place to go after the granddaddy of ‘em all, Phish’s groundbreaking Clifford Ball festival in nearby Plattsburgh, NY. With Garcia gone, there was no more Dead tour, and Phish was off for a couple of short months. As such, downtown Burlington and the shores of Lake Champlain were teeming with hippies ambling about in the park. On the streets, it was a veritable lot scene, by day or night.
This absurd scenario would be my introduction to life outside my suburban Jerzadelphia hometown. That same September, I was fortunate to embark on college, moving to the heady-Mecca of B-town, ostensibly to attend Champlain College. It was in this bustling college town turned Phishtropolis, equal parts a Babylon and Bethlehem of the Green Mountain State —the cross-section of Champlain, University of Vermont, and St. Michael’s College—where I would fall into the bosom of a vibrant Phish community, just one of several loosely-connected extended cliques that co-existed independently within this frigid college town just beneath the Northeast kingdom. This group of wonderful souls would become my partners on Phish tour for years and miles to come.
And what Phish tour did was, to quote the great Scottish hero William Wallace, “Unite the clans. Unite us!” My hometown homies and B-town Phish crew came together on the road over the course of several years and before long, new phriends from colleges and campgrounds all over the country joined up with us as we adventured, one large, homogenized group of barefoot, dancing children sharing silliness and serendipity from sea to shining sea. Getting lost for hours outside Albany in Fall ‘97, years before the advent of GPS, hopping in a random car with only a backpack and a C-note and doing the Island Tour front to back, still making it back to class in Burlington that following Monday. Paying cash at the BVT airline counter to fly to Vegas to get Loaded on Halloween in ‘98. Our SUV catching fire in Raleigh, NC in summer 1999, only to grab a rental and make it to Virginia Beach for the “Julius” opener. From Air Force bases Loring to Oswego and a plethora of peculiar points between, this indeed was the life we chose. As we blazed on through a scorching December 1999 Phish tour, this collective coalescing continued to gather moss, mojo, and momentum as we said sayonara to the twentieth century and barrelled into Big Cypress. Before we even arrived on site, it already felt like the final stretch summiting the mountain—not only to us but, as we’ve come to learn, to the band members, too.
Why am I waxing nostalgic about my 1.0 Phish crew and hometown homies when writing about Big Cypress? Because that’s (sort of) the same story for a healthy cross-section of the 80,000+ phans who descended on this bacchanal. Each individual’s tale is its own narrative filled with fortuitous frolic and gluttonous glory but united in celebratory awe of the magnitude and majesty of what we shared, together on the sacred soil of a sovereign nation, twenty years ago this week. Like so many of us in this extended, multi-generational music community, it is the people with whom we embarked on these early adventures and embryonic experiences who so often remain our friends for the rest of our blessed days and disco nights. Hence the omnipresent term of endearment, “Phamily.”
Before I go any further, I would like to dedicate this reflection to three beautiful people: the late Mike Antanitas, Andrew Laganella, and Ryan Dewitt. I spent a great deal of my youth runnin’ with these rebels, and each of these gentlemen was essential to our Big Cypress experience, among countless others. They were uniquely vibrant souls, fellas who lived life to the max and made sure they brought their friends along for the ride. Tragically, in the interim years between this life-affirming event, all three of these dudes have passed on. These fond ruminations of an epic endeavor we shared together are dedicated in loving memory to a trio of dearly-departed friends. Rest in Peace Brother Mike A., Lag, and Ryan.
[Photo via B. Getz]
One band, no promotion, no corporate sponsorship and, for the most part, no mainstream coverage—save for a classic ABC spot hosted by the late TV icon, Peter Jennings, who famously gave birth to “The Phish” nomenclature on live television. The hordes of phans descending on Big Cypress were going on word of mouth and a belief in IT. For months, we’d heard the rumors of a destination festival in Hawaii, but there was no way we could all make that happen, financially or otherwise. But this, a cow-pasture in the middle of nowheresville, Florida, a Native American reservation with their own laissez-faire governing rules and regulations, and a friendly approach to this thing of ours? Yes. Can. Do! In a matter of weeks, my enlarged contingent had whipped together a blueprint for this “Big Cypress,” and it all came together rather swimmingly.
Alas, it was over forty of us that comprised our immediate squadron. Eventually it swelled to nearly double that with eight or nine RVs and a handful of cars and vans, a clown-car cavalcade of friends from across my lifetime thus far and, in turn, their friends from college, and of course their friends from back home, rinse/repeat. Many joined up with us in the Delaware Valley, loaded up the transport, piled in, and trekked down to Florida in the hours after Christmas Day, 1999. This was the dawn of the internet age as we know it now, same for cell phones. As such, it was a haphazard expedition. We lost and found one another on the road, at various rest stops, and with much hilarity. We picked up RVs in Orlando, acquired a smattering of food, copious cases of bottles and beverages, toured Daytona Beach bars in South Jersey style and eventually converged on a friend’s parent’s vacation home. It was here where we spent the night (and early morning hours) of December 27th turning a sleepy Central Florida retirement neighborhood into a ramshackle North Wookerton before scramblin’ out of town and towards the (eventual) destination seen un-clearly.
Before we even arrived at the infamous toll booth highway logjam and record-setting traffic mess, our group stopped for gas and supplies at a station/market that was overflowing with phans. We were astonished to encounter local youngsters who (for apparently recreational purposes) were bludgeoning birds—ducks (or possibly swans)—by clubbing them in the head with baseball bats. We happened upon the mutilated remains of several birds; a few kids scurried away on bikes, but the damage was done. I have a firm recollection of the DeWitt brothers bravely collecting the lifeless remnants of these poor animals and trying to give them some peaceful resting place, which unfortunately ended up being a nearby dumpster. Just a horrifying visual to collect and store in the ol’ cranial hard drive on the way to a psychedelic music festival.
Soon thereafter, we came upon the nearly 18-hour traffic jam on Alligator Alley, the lone way in and out of the festival region. Between then and now, in my years of festival-ing, I have sat in longer festival traffic jams (a full calendar day at both Burning Man—in 2016 they closed the gates while it rained on the playa—and Oregon Eclipse in August 2017). But no festival entry backup would ever really bother me because I cut my teeth on Alligator Alley and went to the Snake Road school of hard knocks. Were we distraught about the standstill? Absolutely not.
Instead of grumbling about our predicament, we spilled out of our RVs and cars and out onto the narrow roadway, began to introduce ourselves to our neighbors. If you looked down the road at all the traffic backed up, thousands were behaving similarly, and there were dozens of little parties going in and around assorted vehicles. Our heavily imbibed contingent of automobiles crawled down the freeway at a snail’s pace, giving new meaning to the term “rolling blackouts.” Struttin’ down Alligator Alley for hours on end. In spite of the traffic, we remained very merry pranksters and made ourselves at home, even on the side of the road.
As the caravan trudged along, cars stopped and drivers fell asleep in the single-lane road, and soon people started passing cars that were idling and holding up the line. A couple of assertive horn blasts and it could go from dead-stopped sleepy-time to a frenzied funny-car rally—and with a quickness—then come to another dead stop just as fast. The specifics of this traffic nightmare (and ultimate catastrophe) are explored in-depth on the After Midnight podcast, Episode 3.
We were kept abreast to the egress by way of Thin Air radio, 9.17FM. The pop-up terrestrial radio station served as crowd-control headquarters. They gave the 411 on traffic updates, general information, and offered DJs playing funky and obscure tunes, or classic Phish rarities. The radio station was another essential element to the journey to Big Cypress and became a fixture of the Phish festival experience moving forward.
Occasionally, when traffic abruptly sped up and vehicles briefly resumed moving swiftly, we lost some folks on the road who were socializing on foot; they wouldn’t reappear for hours, until they came a’knockin’ on the RV door a mile or three down the road, after we’d been stopped for (what felt like) hours. In would storm said homies, who’d return with stories of new friends and exciting plans for the fest—that is, if we ever even got there. Yet since we were in the company of our phamily, in the cozy confines of RVs and conversion vans, headed to a utopia in the middle of nowhere, the traffic was no big deal to most of our crew. Sadly, someone else was not so fortunate. There was a fatality when a young man fell from atop an RV into moving traffic. His death was a sobering reminder of life’s delicate fragility, something that we all carried in the back of our minds for the remainder of the experience, as we imbibed, danced, and toasted a new year, century and our collective future.
Once we finally made our way from Alligator Alley onto the long and winding Snake Road, we entered the sovereign nation of the Seminole tribe. You could feel the spirits beneath us, and in the air. There was an underlying vibe that permeated this place from the moment we set foot on Big Cypress, and every last phan who made the pilgrimage can attest to this. The site had little infrastructure beforehand, and Big Cypress Campground was closed for a month as the more than one thousand Phish employees took up every available campsite or chickee in the area. Then they built a city on rock n’ roll—temporarily the tenth-biggest in Florida, no less. Captained by Russ Bennett of Vermont’s seminal artistic troupe Bread & Puppet Theater and celebrated sculptor (and UVM grad) Lars Fisk, a group of dreamers and doers transformed Big Cypress’s barren, nondescript, though spiritually-rich landscape into a wonderland of imagination.
It all began when John Paluska, then Phish’s manager, was frantically scouting prospective venues for the millennial celebration and spied from a chopper this breathtaking land of serenity. Paluska and Seminole Chief Jim Billie struck a deal shortly thereafter, and the plans were swiftly underway. A local man with a low profile, Jack Motlow, saw his cow-pasture a half-mile south of “town” metamorphosed into a metropolis—a gridded-out, dynamic urban landscape in a swamp, people camped and settling in these rural environs with alligators, fire ants, snakes, spiders and other native creatures abound.
All in all, upwards of one hundred thousand revelers packed into a 26-acre concert venue quite comfortably. And akin to how we did in the traffic jam, everybody got very well acquainted with one another and our divine surrounds, and did so rather swiftly. The Seminole tribe were the ultimate hosts, led by the immortal Chief Billie, a stoic man of many talents who joined Phish onstage during their first set on 12/30, for a pair of traditional Native American numbers, the appropriate “Big Alligator” and “Che Hun Ta Mo”.
The reservation-turned-cityscape was bustling with far beyond what (in 1999) even a cagey Phish kid or festival-goer could come to expect from this sort of shindig—including, but not limited to: a general store, a boardwalk that straddled the swamp with a fake downtown, towering trees with humongous paper airplanes lodged in the branches way up above, and the aptly-named Delta, an area for congregating and socializing complete with a rock garden and Aztec ice pyramid. Naturally, they provided two Ferris wheels, we checked the time on an enormous sundial and were invited to take a ride in a hot air balloon. There was a gourmet Italian meal served on a giant checkerboard tablecloth. The End is Near was an archaeological area for a buried time capsule. There was a gigantic cork-message board with thousands of notes, dedications and missed connections. Psychedelic fairies, ballerinas, puppet-people on stilts just randomly roaming around the woods? I mean… what is a music festival without an errant missile that had crash-landed?
My personal fave area/installation/experience on-site was a legit cypress dome, steadily throbbing with the bombastic tones of cacophonous drum circles, sounds that spilled out into a sea of twirling dancers, energy guides weaving the joy fantastic in a spiritualized whirling dervish. They floated all the way out to the palmetto thatch domiciles that dotted the cow field’s landscape. I found myself visiting this space on a solo excursion deep into one night. Transfixed and levitating, I sat down, took out my leather-bound journal, and scribbled a poem (“Here Come the Drums” would later be published in Willard & Maple, Champlain College’’s literary magazine).
The layout of Big Cypress venue/grounds was engineered like that of a legitimate city, and we were provided with detailed maps of this evolving utopia, what former band manager Paluska termed “our own private Idaho.” Neighborhoods rapidly and riotously took shape as folks arrived from the arduous trek and began to set up shop. Our swollen contingent of revelers erected our RV compound way out in the northwest corner, Barrymore between 1st and 2nd Aves. It came complete with our own private recreational swamp ditch. One of our RVs managed to get stuck turning around, the source of much frustration (and then, comedy), but eventually we got appropriately acclimated. Over the course of a few hours, we built a veritable fortress of campers, automobiles, tents, and structures that acted as our enormous group’s headquarters for the duration of our stay. As we bumbled around the sprawling landscape, sailing a seemingly endless sea of cars, trucks, busses and beyond, the reality of my surroundings began to take hold.
Since we were set up somewhat isolated from the majority of people, I spent a few hours touring the grounds over the first two days, sometimes with the homies but occasionally solo, cruising up and down city blocks named for Phishtorical references like Amy’s Farm, Deer Creek, Nectar’s, Hampton, etc., streets juxtaposed with numbered avenues a la Manhattan to offer at least a modicum of familiarity. This geographical design was relatively easy to grasp when looking at a map. In real-time, however, things could get pretty fuzzy out there in the depths of our increasingly urban environs.
The weather in South Florida was just exactly perfect, but there was what could only be described as a severe cannabis drought onsite, a dearth of the dank. Every few paces, one could hear a hopeful voice pleading for “nuggets.” Conversely, there was an abundance of assorted psychedelics available, and it’s safe to say that from a people-watching perspective, this fact was readily apparent to anybody paying attention—not that anybody cared. Part of what came with Big Cypress taking place on Seminole land, it being a sovereign nation and all, was that many folks felt safe enjoying the ride in ways they might not have if this was a typical pre-show hang in an asphalt parking lot in some random American city.
We were privileged to be congregating, celebrating, and merrymaking on ancestral land, and with that came all the history, tradition, and energy that is sewn into the sacred Seminole soil for thousands of years. Early and often, I felt the spirits paying attention to our presence. They seemed patient while we got comfortable and situated. We built our temporary accommodations atop their fertile grounds and treated the Seminoles and their land with the appropriate honor and respect; the spirits observed us taking care of our neighbors. I firmly believe that because The Phish organization approached and executed Big Cypress with such righteous and respectful intention and, most importantly, because we phans followed suit, our benevolent hosts reciprocated in kind, whether tangible and otherwise. When the South Florida sun went down over the horizon and the orange sunshine came up in a rush, as it’s wont to do, the spirits were awakened with a mysterious power inviting us to dance with them in spiritualized harmony and kinship.
And so boogie, did we ever.
As I continued to amble about this new frontier over the course of 72 hours, the camaraderie between phans was heart-filling. A fairy-tale narrative was unfolding. In addition to the myriad of art installations and official attractions that kept people busy when the band was not on stage, throughout the gala we saw ecstatic friends old and new, ducking in and out of wild and untamed parties in the woods, illuminated by voluminous strands of white Christmas lights. Disco dance raves that thumped into the nocturnal abyss, bacchanalians spun silly and surrounded by the lurking gators, quiet-as-kept, invisibly patrolling the swampy exterior. Twenty years later and somewhat jaded by the boxed-in, homogenized nature of a contemporary festival experience, it’s hard to convey the sheer significance of being present for this unprecedented feeling of togetherness. Sharin’ in the groove, blissed-out in a supernatural millennial saturnalia—Big Cypress bonded people for life.
And then there was the music…
As I stated firmly at the onset of this retrospective, the onstage performances at Big Cypress have been reviewed extensively for the past twenty years all over the web, in hotel rooms, lot scenes, long drives, summer camp bunks, random pubs, podcasts, and beyond. Of course, “The Set”—the final, seven-hour, midnight-to-sunrise behemoth that ushered in a new millennium—receives the lion’s share of attention, and deservedly so. But both days were chock-filled with some phenomenal onstage highlights. I don’t think it’s necessary to thoroughly examine the music that was played at Big Cypress; there are a plethora of reviews, diatribes, and hot takes just a couple of clicks away. And I should reiterate that there is some phenomenal analysis on the After Midnight podcast, some of which I may touch on a little bit.
When the first number, “Water in the Sky”, and the line, “filter out the Everglades…” rang out into the South Florida sun, it was crystal clear that this would be a magical carpet ride. That was something of a pronouncement, as in, “we have arrived!” Given what many people felt they’d persevered through en route, this was its own version of tension and release. A feeling of liberation slowly and steadily infiltrated the enormous crowds that would gather for the three sets of Phish on 12/30/99. The performances from day one are so often overlooked because of the legendary night that followed.
The 30th packed some fiery jams, notably a focused, climatic “Antelope” and a “Ghost” unfurled into a spooked, medicated groove-sesh. “Tweezer” upped the ante, overflowing with cow-funk, and the “Boogie On> Tweeprise” encore was party time proper. Yet the standout from opening day was, without question, the “Mike’s Song”, which metastasized into something smoldering and slaytanic. Just hotboxing’ pure evil of the best kind. CK5 smoked-us out so hard, it really felt like the comet was coming. “Mike’s” self-oxidized into the transitive opiate glow of “I Am Hydrogen”, floating above the clouds. The major-key glee and jubilee of “Weekapaug Groove” assured every last one of us that it was all a dream, and we carefully placed both feet firmly back upon Mother Earth, albeit temporarily.
After the final notes of “Tweeprise”, we followed the Stikini, wandering into the darkness, the silhouette image of Long Ears appearing in the sparkling trees, the woods wickedly illuminated by the Milky Way. In the distance, we heard the bass ridin’ out like an ancient mating call, and could feel the presence of Breathmaker among us. We made a bee-line for the breakbeats and proceeded to rave til dawn.
I spent most of the last day of the millennium sleeping, pounding smoothies, and tapping the internal keg of mojo, mining the needed energy for the ambitious endeavor that lay before us phans, and the band. The quirky quartet who’d stolen our hearts for so long playing a glorious Green Mountain game of hide-and-go-seek had now led us to a promised land, found us a city to live in, and the day had finally come.
Phish would unveil an opening set that once again featured a plenitude of top-flight playing including (but not limited to) a killer “Tube” early in the frame and a stupendous serving of “Split Open & Melt > Catapult”, the latter an otherworldly outing that shocked, awed, and steamrolled in a furious search for new land. Heaven sent and a harbinger of hellfire to come, “SOAM>Catapult” was ridiculous, a ravenous red herring. It featured an improvised groove that they’d repeatedly return to throughout the night, and the fantastic voyage offered a kaleidoscopic glimpse toward the patient, exploratory, and experiential jamming sessions that would later define “The Set” and act as a symbolic soundtrack to the entire sojourn itself. But the undisputed theme song for all of Big Cypress would certainly be “After Midnight”. A message and a promise from the boys, the scorching JJ Cale number injected the late afternoon frame with a cryptic jolt of classic rock, greased the wheels of all who were present in a fashion that no one would soon forget.
We retired for an elongated setbreak, and to be quite honest, these few hours remain a bit of a blur. What I do recall is our huge team assembled like a haggard Voltron—weary, weathered, and wired from partyin’ like it was 1999. A huddled mass feasting together, a last supper of sorts. We got geared up, ready for the final countdown and the sunrise set. To match this festival’s aspirations—the cultural and engineering ingenuity of Big Cypress—with an artistic endeavor that ups the ante on ambition: a nonstop, midnight-to-sunrise musical performance to greet the dawn of a new millennium? That was simply beyond our collective comprehension, but alas, there we were, and it was about to go down.
An amalgam of fatigue, intoxication, Y2K fears, and penultimate premonitions, the weird energy in the hours running up to “The Set” was literally nauseating; I was doubled over at times, not from any substances ingested so much as from sheer anticipation. This undertaking was unlike anything any of us ever had the privilege of experiencing. Exhaustion was certainly a factor, but for your humble narrator, the anxiety was crippling. Soon I would learn this to be for good reason.
[Photo via B. Getz (top row, far right)]
[Photo via B. Getz (far right)]
This gargantuan posse started to loosely stream over to the stage area, a 20+ minute walk from the Barrymore hood, and amid the herds it was tough to keep everybody together. By the time we arrived at the concert field to regroup and squad up, we seemed to have lost my cousin Dan in the pandemonium running wild. My sensei, if you will, had disappeared on us. For what seemed like an eternity (but was more likely a half-hour), I scanned the sea of wooks in every direction, trying to identify my kin, but that was futile. I got all the way inside my head here and began to process the fact that I might not get to share this glorious performance with my cousin – the brother I never had – which only served to exacerbate the aforementioned pre-millennial anxiety.
Soon, in the distance, the famous flying hot dog of 1994 NYE emerged, hovering in the audience with the band members seated inside, and people started to go bezerk. Fireworks were exploding into the starry night skies, shrieks and screams filled the air, as did a pre-recorded “Meatstick”. The airboat made its way through the thousands of phans that surrounded it, and once the band arrived at the stage and dismounted, an oceanic surge shifted us considerably. Crowd control forced our group over towards the soundboard a few yards. Trey, Mike, Fish and Page began feeding meatsticks to a gassed Father Time furiously pedaling a bicycle clock towards midnight. In an instant a wave of calm came over me, as if Old Man Time was personally alleviating said anxieties and nausea. I felt a hand on my shoulder, and turned to my left (always). Alas, it was my cousin. And behind him, dozens of my nearest and dearest, from elementary school pals to my neighbors and classmates in Burlington. Offering a playful headlock and his trademark chipmunk grin, he’d had resurfaced just at the very moment the music started. And just like that, we were off to the races.
As many people who were there will tell you, “The Set” is pretty much a blur. Nearly seven hours of uninterrupted music, save for a bathroom break here or an onstage huddle there. An arguably note-perfect performance, too, not that anyone was scoring this one. I had never really revisited this set, certainly not in its entirety. And now, having watched/listened to it extensively (almost exclusively) over the past week, there is simply too much music and improvisational magic to reflect on here, certainly not with any real nuance, so I won’t even try. What’s the point? Instead, I will merely acknowledge a few ideas that still stick with me, twenty years on down the road.
A blistering “Down With Disease” achieved liftoff, raining a starshower of fireworks and sending us all soaring into the stratosphere. Long-winded, virulent versions of iconic songs rewired my musical circuitry for the duration. There was a couple hours-long stretch mid-set that was cut from the cloth of a lucid dream, blessed with an abundance of adventure and heaping slabs of hose. Specifically, the section played out like this: Rock and Roll, You Enjoy Myself, Crosseyed and Painless, The Inlaw Josie Wales, Sand -> Quadrophonic Toppling, Slave to the Traffic Light, Albuquerque, Reba.
“Sand” is my favorite Phish song, primarily because of the rendition uncorked midway through “The Set”. A clinic in psychedelic minimalism and organic, ambient meditative trance, the Cypress “Sand” is my personal pinnacle performance from the band. The recent After Midnight podcast features a musicologist who provides an excellent breakdown of why this particular “Sand” is among their most important and era-defining pieces of music. The elongated, industrious take allows for a methodical, assiduous ascent that relies on the foundational rhythm section and machine-gun lockstep of Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman. Trey mystically layers textures and licks in the spaces between, while Page McConnell bolsters the freight train with space-age analog synths and lush Fender Rhodes. This 22-minute “Sand” suspends time and space, only to land the Delorean hovercraft with the sublime meanderings of “Quadraphonic Topplings”, then spill into a positively celestial “Slave” complete with requisite emotional swells and ample hosification. “Sand” sets the bar sky-high, as does the spell-binding version of “Crosseyed & Painless”. This section of “The Set” contains my favorite Phish music, ever. Hands down.
Deep into the set amid a free-wheeling “Drowned”, the band turned a corner and seamlessly segued into an “After Midnight” reprise, which provided a much-needed swift kick in the ass and announced to everyone that we had reached the proverbial home stretch. Late in the excursion, the band started up “Harry Hood”, which they had clearly played the previous day. A weary massive, some still dancing but many sprawled out on the concert field in various states of consciousness, scratched their skulls at this peculiar repeat. No sooner did Phish redirect into a driving, assertive “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, rousing some folks from their slumber with a particularly inspired departure and detonation. As Phish began to soar towards “2001”, the sky was turning a muted, pastel pink, with scores of cumulus clouds swarming above the iridescence, the sun still waiting on the horizon to beckon us all a good day. Trey and Page took turns stoking the funk flame while Cactus and Fish pulverized the groove with lessons in low-end theory. A perfectly placed and masterfully executed “Bug” was nothing short of spine-tingling.
Phish chose to greet the new century with an emotional ballad in “Wading in the Velvet Sea”. There was no more appropriate song for this once-in-a-lifetime sunrise, and as we swayed in the cowfield, suspended in time, I began to shed tears of joy and awe, succumbing to the sheer might of the moment. Four years later, I stood in a different cowfield, in Vermont, and wept along with Page to this very same song, both of us crying tears of a different kind on that fateful afternoon. A definitive juxtaposition to this mythical morning, one not lost on me now, so much further on down the number line.
Nobody who stood there, stiff and slack-jawed in the cowfield, will ever forget what it felt like when “Here Comes the Sun” blared out of the P.A. Thousands of awe-struck phans silently wandering aimlessly from the stage area (which now resembled a Civil War battlefield) trudging towards their temporary homes to nap, pack up camp, somehow re-enter the default world, and go live the rest of our lives.
Rest assured, there was obviously much, much more to Big Cypress, musically and otherwise. In retrospect, as the fabulous foursome ambled offstage and the sun rose high in the sky, Phish—the band and the culture—had arrived at a crossroads. Moments after “The Set”, Trey reportedly remarked to Fish that they should just walk off and call it a career, in that they could never top what they’d shared and accomplished at Big Cypress. Musically, that’s up to interpretation, but twenty years later, I’m inclined to agree. Speaking strictly as a phan, for me, the whole experience—and, specifically, the sunrise set—were what Bill Simmons would call “Apex Mountain.” I’ve seen 124 more Phish shows in the ensuing two decades, but I have personally never again accessed that level of nirvana nor surrendered to the flow in such a profound way.
Big Cypress wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns, though. There were ugly incidents—your typical jerks and disrespectful people, as is to be expected—but they were the exception, not the rule. The porta-potty situation left more than a little to be desired, and there were all elements of danger, poor safety, and lacking sanitation. I have a vivid recollection of spying a syringe discarded on the concert field as I walked back to Barrymoore, a cryptic harbinger of the darkness and depravity ahead of us—both the band and the culture at large. But that topic, and the aftermath itself, is a discussion for another day. I could wax philosophic about what this event meant to us, but that too is subjective, personal, and lies in the mind and heart of the beholder.
Nearly six-thousand words in, and I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface with regard to impact, significance, and legacy. Twenty years later, Big Cypress remains all things to all people, no matter who you ask. A band beyond description, a congregation unholy, a celebration like none other. Worshipping among the spirits, we chose our own religion—and lived to tell the tale.
To the Phish from Vermont, plus each and every phan with whom I shared in the greatest and most grandiose groove, I offer a deep bow in gratitude and humbly give thanks.
To Chief Billie & the Seminoles of Big Cypress, Sho naa bisha!
“Nothing I see can be taken from me”
Words: B.Getz – Upful LIFE