Phish at Alpine Valley — East Troy, WI

Interlude: Mohegan Sun -> Lawn Guy Land -> Chicago -> Alpine Valley (7/11 – 7/12)

I’m well into the back end of this Summer’s 19 in 19 run with 6 shows remaining: 3 at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin and 3 at Dick’s in Colorado during Labor Day weekend.  Today, July 11th, is an off day only in the sense that there is no show. It may, in fact, be one of the busiest days of tour yet.

In the morning I hit the road to return home.  It’s a fitting route to conclude the driving portion of this 3-week stretch, as said is the same one (but in reverse) that provided the middle stretch between MPP and Bangor when this whole thing was kicking off.

The road to Alpine will involve a flight through the skies.  It also requires a different kind of packing than the last few weeks have.  TPhish, Island Girl, and I will be camping for this run and I’m ill experienced in packing for camping via air travel.  Oh, by the way, did I mention Island Girl is coming?! You recognize her from the preface and prior interludes, but up to this point, she hasn’t been along for the ride  That’s about to change.

Speaking of Island Girl, she’s a seasoned veteran when it comes to this kind of packing and travel.  When I relay my increasing anxiety over how to do this, she tells me “Relax, kid. Throw your shit together, bring it to my place, and we’ll figure it out together.”  ‘Nuff said. I get to her joint and we arrange our belongings while awaiting TPhish’s arrival, which comes around 1 in the morning. Before we know it, it’s time for a glorified nap before we head off to JFK around 4 AM for our 6:30 flight to Chicago O’Hare.

As the morning progresses and our flight draws near, different anxiety begins to consume me.  Waiting for us on the other end of our arrival in Chicago are my 2 sisters and 3 nephews. I am beyond excited, even more so than I am for the shows — to see them and for them to meet Island Girl and TPhish (and vice versa).  But I’m also nervous as hell. I haven’t seen any of them since before I got clean, and one of my sisters and I haven’t even spoken. Fortunately, I’m able to sleep through this anxiety for the majority of the flight.

But it instantly kicks back up the moment I wake upon touchdown.  The reunion is becoming real, tangible. I touch base with my sister once we get our rental car and all along our drive to suburban Chicago, Island Girl and TPhish do their best to assuage my fear while acknowledging the bigness and validity of the situation.

And then we get there. I step out of the car and everything I’d been wringing my hands over dissipates in an instant as my 3 nephews race to embrace me in the warmest group hug of my life. As alive and present as a Phish show makes me feel, that kind of experience has nothing on this. There is unconditional love, and then there is unconditional love from little people who you, the supposed adult, look up to and admire. They’ve grown and matured since I’ve seen them last, yet they’re the same as I’ve ever known them.

The Nephews & me

The trio of brothers exuberantly greet and introduce themselves to Island Girl and TPhish before escorting us to my big sisters.  At this point, I don’t even attempt to hold back the tears. Mid-embrace, my oldest sister asks why I’m crying, through tears of her own.  I want to tell her its because we all lived with the very real possibility that this kind of engagement may never take place again.

We compose ourselves and my sisters exchange their greetings with Island Girl and TPhish before I dole out some awesome Phish shirts I got for my nephews and we head inside for a delicious breakfast.  The entire time is some sort of strange combination of zen presence coupled with an out of body experience. I look around and listen as my nephews, simultaneously goofy little boys and mature beyond their years, interact with my 2 friends as if they too are part of our family.  My sisters, too, engage Island Girl and TPhish (both sides having heard so much of the other) in this manner, excited to finally spend time together. There are genuine interest and laughter from all of us, from 8 years old to 47, spread about our round table of 8.

A family reunion in suburban Chicago

Before I know it, the time has come to part ways.  But there is no bitterness accompanying this sweet departure.  Nothing but gratitude and joy abound as we exchange our farewells, knowing this truly is a new beginning and that there won’t be nearly as big a gap until our next get-together (in fact, just before hitting the road, we spit-ball some plans to meet again on Monday before we fly home).

We have a quick 90-minute drive to camp at Kettle Morraine State Park in Wisconsin. We make a pit stop at Target and Dick’s for some provisions. This is all of our first time in Wisconsin and along the way, Island Girl and I break down the thing about Wisconsin cheese to TPhish. After a wrong turn looking for our campgrounds, we find the proper path and soon arrive at our outdoor home for the next 3 days. We settle in, pitch our tents, and ready ourselves to head to the venue for Alpine Valley Night 1.

TPhish, Island Girl, & me set up at camp

Chapter 7: Alpine Valley Amphitheater

East Troy, WI (7/12-7/14, Shows 14, 15, 16)

“An ocean of love would carry me up from this prison of lies…”

Alpine Valley N1

Reception is shoddy in the boonies of Wisconsin but Island Girl finally snags enough of a signal to get us on our way to the venue for the next 3 nights — Alpine Valley Amphitheater.  On our way, we stop at Piggly Wiggly to grab some eats — chicken fingers, fruit, and donuts. Somewhere along the drive I receive a text from San Diego Rick wishing us all well and sharing with me the personal significance Alpine Valley holds in his heart.  There’s something about this type of sharing from a friend that always cranks my excitement for a show up to 11. From everything I know about Alpine Valley, it is a truly historic venue, having stage many remarkable performances by The Grateful Dead and Phish.  Something about this impending run just feels different.

We arrive to park in a massive field, part grass, part dust.  It’s hot as Hades — my shirt is off as soon as I exit the car.  A ten-minute walk across the field brings us to the gate and through a quick and easy security check.

I’d heard Alpine Valley referred to as The Hill and instantly I see this is no misnomer.  I am looking down a steep, green grade upon the pavilion covered stage with an array of green canopy providing the backdrop.  I am struck with immediate love for this place, vast and immersed in nature’s untainted splendor.

Alpine Valley Amphitheater

Island Girl, TPhish, and I find the Phellowship table perched atop the peak of the hill and commiserate with those doing service and hanging around. We make our move to the lawn and scout for the flattest, most level space we can find. Success! A small area of smooth ground is spotted stage-center, lawn-middle and we post up before taking turns exploring the rest of the confines. Stocked up on snacks and water, applause pours in throughout the crowd as Phish takes the stage.

TPhish, Island Girl, & me on the flattest spot of the Alpine Valley lawn

They open the set and run with the existential crisis narrative Sand, a statement that they came to throw down.  As if this isn’t enough of a power open, Sand gives way to a brief but powerful Tweezer. Turtle in the Clouds follows and the crowd erupts as Page sings the line “my friends are dancing on the hillside for the first time in a long time,” taken as a nod to this being Phish’s first time back here since 8/9/15.  Next is Set Your Soul Free and I heed the lyrical plea, taking a few moments to turn and gaze about the massive gathering of beautiful, smiling, dancing souls.  Page croons Lawn Boy — and what better place to take in this mellow ballad than on the lawn? I lurch up and down through Camel Walk and swim through the crowd during Theme From the Bottom.  Sunset is officially underway just in time for Rift. The musical intonations and lyrical play match perfectly with the purple clouded sky. I jog about the crowd before Wolfman’s Brother comes down on me, forcing my feet and legs into dance overdrive and closing Set 1 in pure euphoria.

Sunset Rift

Glowing with delight over a phenomenal Set 1, I take the trek uphill for some candy from the table and a bathroom break and Redbull to get my wings for Set 2.

No sooner do I polish off my beverage than the lights dim and Phish casts us amid the No Men in No Man’s Land.  I’m excited when Prince Caspian follows and provides a much stronger version than that of Bangor N2. To no surprise, Everything’s Right comes out of Prince Caspian and the mellow, spacey back-half provides a clever juxtaposed transitional platform into the fan favorite Ween cover, Roses are Free.  We are urged to “get in your car and cruise the land of the brave and the free.”  The dance party, though never in doubt, is in full effect upon the opening notes of 2001.  The Wedge has the music flowing through our veins before the second remarkable Plasma sandwich of the year is breaded with Light.  This smoothly gives way to t46 Days as Phish and the Phans summon the gods of face melting. The Squirming Coil closes out Set 1, ¾ of the band leaving Page along to finish things out with his melodic piano solo.

Take the highway to the Great Divide

Encore opens with GOTF A Life Beyond the Dream and I realize that is exactly what I have been living throughout this entire Summer run.  A short but stout Tube seems to be closing Night 1 until the guys gather around Trey’s microphone to belt out the a cappella Grind and send us out in harmony.

Night 1 of Alpine Valley is in the books and the entire walk and drive back to camp the 3 of us are unable to contain our elation over the party we just took part in.  Back at camp, we indulge some late-night munchies by the campfire before calling it a night.

Alpine Valley N2

Day 2 of the Alpine Valley run wakes me up earlier than I prefer, but what are you gonna do when it’s nearly 90 degrees at 7 am and there’s no shade on-site?  Island Girl is already up and stirring with coffee at the ready. Reason 642 why I love her: she doesn’t even drink coffee but has some ready for me early in the morning.  More people need to be like her — I need to be more like her.  Good morning, indeed.

In addition to a campsite cup of joe, she’s got a hug for me, a special one.  A congratulatory, 2 years clean, thank God we’re here, thank God you’re still here hug.  Today is the day I mentioned way back in the preface of this whole series — the 2 year anniversary of this first day I woke up and didn’t get high for the day.  This hug means significantly more than most — Island Girl is the one I called that last day I used, 2 years ago yesterday; the one who picked me up and made sure I had nothing left on me; the one who brought me to a meeting that night, despite my state of inebriation.  It is perfect that she be the first person I interact with on this morning.

Soon, TPhish is up and joins us for some home-ish cooked breakfast.  Island Girl is a pro at this shit and provides everything we need. The best part of breakfast is a freeze-dried ice cream sandwich — I seriously think this might be superior to a standard ice cream sandwich.

After breakfast, we throw down a few rounds of Exploding Kittens and UNO.  Shortly before lunchtime, we head off for nearby Milwaukee, packing for tonight’s show in case we don’t make it back to camp beforehand.  45 minutes later we approach the city and prematurely pass a collective underwhelming judgment on this new (to us) city. But as we traverse deeper into the heart of Milwaukee we retract this judgment, looking in humbled awe at the brilliant Victorian and European Renaissance architectural skyscape.  We sit corrected.

For lunch, we hit up a joint called Toast.  We’re served up some delicious brunch fixings along with some delectable and chunky gourmet donuts.  After we polish off our plates, Island Girl and I drop TPhish off at the local library and head a few minutes down the road to catch a meeting so I can pick up a 2-year keytag…and, ya know, for our health.

Heady Donuts at Toast, Milwaukee

We find the meeting location and head down into a church basement, the most common space for these kinds of gatherings.  It’s not too crowded, but as the meeting progresses, the room grows full. At some point, I doze off for a few minutes, but after coming to, I am re-energized by my power nap.  Island Girl introduces herself and takes a turn sharing. I follow suit and let the folks know I’m visiting for some concerts and that I have 2 years clean as of right now. At this, to my surprise, one of the homegroup members presents me a 2-year coin, a token typically reserved for pre-arranged anniversary meetings back home.  At the conclusion of the meeting I pick up the standard black key tag I came for signifying “multiple years of recovery.”

2 Years Clean

After the meeting, Island Girl is quick to inform me that, despite receiving a coin, I still have to put in for an anniversary back home, something I have been dragging my feet on.  I go outside while she hangs back to mingle with the locals. A tall, blond-haired, flannel-clad dude approaches me and leads with a “Are you going to the show tonight?” Instantly, I realize he’s one of us on more than one level.  We’re off to the races.

Flannel Man is in town from Fargo, North Dakota and is flying solo for the run, something I admire.  He’s also just starting to dip his toes into the Phellowship waters. Fortunately, Island Girl is the perfect person to guide someone along with this kind of immersion.  She joins us outside and before I know it 45 minutes have passed. We part ways with Flannel Man, but not before arranging a rendezvous at the show tonight.

Island Girl and I stroll down the block to a street fair, a Milwaukee celebration of Bastille Day.  We peruse the booths and vendors, a Shakedown Street of sorts, but we both refrain from any purchases.  A few moments later, TPhish gets in touch and we scoop her from the library to head back to camp with time to kill before heading to Alpine Valley for Night 2.

Bastille Day in Milwaukee

Inside the venue, we make the usual stop at the table before finding our spot from Night 1 unclaimed.  We post ourselves up and make ready in the typical fashion. Shortly before the lights go down, Flannel Man finds us and settles in with our mini-squad.

AC/DC Bag kicks Set 1 off, opening a show for the second time this summer.  NICU has all appendages flailing before an early ballad provides some Shade.  Funky Bitch gets things rowdy again and a 12 ½ minute Blaze On officially sets the night on fire.  The calypso cover Ya Mar follows and gives way to Frost, a Trey solo ballad performed only 4 times prior.  The rest of Set 1 has no let-up starting with The Sloth, a short but raucous narrative told by the titular character.  Fuck Your Face and My Friend, My Friend form a sadistic combo before The Final Hurrah mellows things out in lyric while picking things up in the groove.  Quintessential Character Zero rounds out Set 1 in choral fashion as the sun sets amid the forested horizon of Alpine Valley.

TPhish, Island Girl, Flannel Man, & me

At set break, I make my way to the Phellowship table to share my gratitude and excitement over celebrating my 2 years among my Phamily and with Phish.  After the meeting, I snag a free refill of popcorn with yesterday’s bag. Some may call this cheap but I call it economically and environmentally conscious.  And hey, I didn’t make the refill policy. I pair the popcorn with a Redbull before I get back to Island Girl, TPhish, and Flannel Man upon the hill.

Set 2 opens with Halley’s Comet soaring over the now starlit landscape.  Next is a song I’ve been pseudo chasing, A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing, played only once this tour before I hopped on.  Without a break or pause, this evolves into Runaway Jim, my favorite Phish dog song (there are many). Jim gets out there halfway through and eventually runs itself into a standout segue to Undermind.  Now I’m trotting throughout the crowd, unable to help myself. A blissful Ghost follows before the dance session blasts off into Golden Age. It’s all aboard the bounce when Back on the Train pulls out of the station next.  A few minutes in, this Train gains full steam. I find myself raging breathlessly with an inspiring family of 5 down the hill. Their son is challenging and motivating me to keep my foot on the pedal in a dance-off that everyone wins.  TPhish’s favorite, Harry Hood, wraps up Set 2 in stunning form before a S.A.N.T.O.S encore ensures none of us will forget this night.

“Where do you go when the lights go out?”

Tonight’s show was a near-perfect build off last night.  The parking lot echoes with hoots and hollers, fireworks and high-fives.  Island Girl realizes she literally danced non-stop the entirety of the show, a tribute to the power of the atmosphere.  Show 15, Alpine Valley Night 2, is now history, and there’s one more to go before the longest break of 19 in 19.

Alpine Valley N3

You’ve probably noticed by now that most of these recaps focus on the days and experiences surrounding the shows more than the shows themselves.  The entry for this night will veer slightly off this course due to the historic nature of the show itself.

Island Girl, TPhish, and I arise early on Sunday only slightly aware of what lay ahead.  Much like the anticipation before Camden N3 we are in tune with the adage “Never miss a Sunday show.”  It’s also, for me, the final note not of 19 in 19, but of the 16 shows strung together over the past 3 weeks spent in cars, hotels, planes, and tents.  Nearly 2500 miles traveled by road, over 600 by air, and not as many dollars spent as you’d think have led to this night.

We wake ourselves up with coffee, eats, card games, and conversation.  We hit a grocery store late morning for some lunch and a canopy for shade at camp.  There’s not much going on today among us in terms of pre-show activity. We’re weary and saving up what we can for whatever Phish decides to bestow upon us tonight.

We head to Alpine Valley earlier than the prior 2 nights.  No sooner are we out of the car than Island Girl is making new friends on behalf of her yellow One Show at a Time sticker.  TPhish, guitar strapped over her shoulder, and I do some meandering about the lot. There is no official Shakedown Street at Alpine Valley — only sporadic pop-ups and tailgates.  Before long, its that time and we head inside.

Once again our “usual spot” is clear so we lay our relative claim.  I take advantage of the popcorn loophole one more time and hastily down some water in time for Set 1…

Before we knew what we were in for

…which comes out of the gate with The Landlady.  This is an incredible opening on multiple levels. This song debuted in the late 80s as a midsection of another song, Punch You in the Eye.  It was extricated from PYITE in 1990 and played by itself frequently until 1994, after which it was strictly confined within PYITE until busting out on its own in 2015.  This is only the 4th time it’s played in standalone fashion since 1994 and the first time in 3 years or 122 shows. Based on this opener alone, this show is jumping off in historic fashion.

Phish instantly outdoes this incredible open when they subsequently roll into Olivia’s Pool.  If you thought 3 years and 122 shows was a long time for The Landlady to be in hiding, put this bust-out in your pipe and smoke it:  11/17/97, the last time Olivia’s Pool and her sonic waters drowned out a Phish show. Taboot, not only is this the first performance in 22 years worth of 692 shows (!!!), it’s only the 7th performance ever.  (For more on this song’s wild history, click here)

At this point, I guess Phish decided they’re having a blast with the bust-outs because they go right into another.  TPhish has been chasing this one, hoping each night along the way would be the night for it. The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Avenu Malkenu > The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, last seen on 8/21/15, 147 shows ago at Magnaball.  This segment casts an energy over and throughout the crowd that cannot be described. I get the sense we all kinda realize something unusual and special is unfolding before our eyes and in our ears. All you can really do now is sit back and throw away expectations.  All Phish shows are different, literally, but this one seems to be on track to transcend the meaning of “different” as it’s used to describe Phish shows. Meatstick follows and I’m almost relieved to not be whacked over the head with a 4th consecutive bust-out.

TMWSIY > Avenu Malkenu > TMWSIY

But then the next two throw us back on this outlandish course.  Vultures, while not officially a bust-out (defined as a song not played in 50+ shows) hasn’t been seen for 35 shows (dating back to 10/27/18) and is making its first appearance of the summer tour.  Spock’s Brain opened this year’s Mexico run after a 15 ½ year, 429 show absence and loses its status as a bust-out here but is being played for only the 10th time in history. A rarity, indeed.

At this point, exception Meatstick, this show is entirely bust-outs and rarities, and that keeps up with the 2.0 masterpiece, Pebbles & Marbles, making its second appearance of the Summer but only it’s third since 2014.  Glide slides into the next slot for the first time in 2 years or 82 shows and I can’t help feeling glad, glad, glad before About to Run gives Phish a chance to throw a new instant classic in among all these historic and age-old bust-outs.

As soon as About to Run concludes, Phish is back to making history as Page takes the lead on the first Strange Design in 124 shows.  Next is Timber, fitting neither the bust-out nor rarity bill but serving up an absolutely monstrous peaking take in a powerful 6 minutes.  John Sullen Melancholy (a Jon Fishman alter-ego) makes his way stage-front to perform his coveted vacuum virtuoso during I Didn’t Know, Trey imploring him at the end to “Suck it!”  Fishman, solo finished and sucky, proclaims “it’s hard to be so sullen!” A historic Set 1 comes to a thunderous close with a fitting cover of Led Zeppelin’s Good Times, Bad Times.

This show could be over now and we’d all go home over the moon.  Everyone is trying to process what just took place, turning to friends and strangers alike for answers to questions we don’t even know to ask and to share in the revelry.  And then it kinda dawns on me… holy shit… that was… just Set 1. As in, I’ve just witnessed one set that arguably tops any complete show I’ve seen… but yet there’s still.  Another. Fucking. Set. Island Girl, TPhish, the Phans, and I do what we can to prepare for whatever comes next.

What is happening?!

What comes next is a dose of Mercury.  Oh, I see what’s happening! Set 1 was chock full of songs, more than usual, but they were almost all bust-outs and rarities, more than making up for a lack of any true jamming.  But Set 2 is opening with Mercury, which means here come the jams. However, a few minutes later I’m thrown for a loop when this turns out to be a slight microdose of Mercury, a song that almost always pushes the envelope of 20+ minutes.  As it comes to an early finish, I feel slightly confused and almost a little bummed. Where went the rest of mighty Mercury? But then I remember Set 1 and realize nothing can make tonight a bummer in the slightest. And another “but then…”

But then Ruby Waves.  Or as it will forever be known after tonight, Alpine Valley Ruby Waves.  When a take on a song gets its venue or location permanently affixed to its title it indicates the arguable best, most lauded version of that song.  There’s Tahoe Tweezer, Nassau Roses, Prague Ghost, Baker’s Chalkdust, Hampton Halley’s, etc. And after this, there is Alpine Valley Ruby Waves.

It takes a while, though.  About 4 minutes in, the exploration begins, but this on its own doesn’t necessarily mean much.  We’re in bliss Phish for a few minutes until the tempo increases gradually and finds its way to a mellow rock groove.  Eventually, there’s a shift toward a trampoline reggae hop with hovering plinko. This is the time where I start begging the question, “is this still Ruby Waves?”  The reggae section morphs into a heavy, dark riff and the crowd explodes into one of the longest and loudest collective roars I have ever heard or participated in. Just when we think we’re being let down, Phish vaults us into space on a series of galactic effects I’m not even sure they knew they had up their sleeves.  This right here is an improvisational magnum opus and I lack the musical knowledge and expertise to aptly explain what is happening, but I know it is meaningful, lasting, and important in the world of Phish. The back end combines all of the prior elements into a cacophonic yet gentle culmination.

As we’re rolled without pause into Twist, I hear someone over my shoulder tell his friend that Ruby Waves just went nearly 40 minutes.  We will find out later that this, only the 3rd take on Ruby Waves, is the 7th longest jam of Phish’s 35+ year history and the longest of the 3.0 era.  But right now, we’re offered a much-needed breather with the chill sequence of Twist, Steep, and Swept Away.

Our heros are quick to crank things back up in an earth-trembling Death Don’t Hurt Very Long, a version so ridiculous that Fishman lets us know he caught Trey drooling. Trey owns this completely as he segues via speech into holy Icculus. Oh, cool, Phish. We’ve just been completely obliterated over the last few hours and now you hit us with the first Icculus in over 200 shows and almost 6 years and only the 29th performance ever. For anyone not in touch with this whole Phish thing but still reading, Icculus is a big fucking deal. I guess Phish just doesn’t want any of us to make it out alive tonight. Or maybe they want us to make it out more alive than we’ve ever been. Trey implores us to READ THE FUCKING BOOK!

Reading the Book

Speaking of songs only played 20 or so times, the ballad of Buffalo Bill births its way out of the great and mighty Icculus.  Trey gives a joking “goodnight” and asks us if we’re worried, seems fully aware of what they are doing to us tonight. He implores us not to worry before hitting us with an “Icculus Reprise” and one last plea to Read The Fucking Book!

And then, in a fashion all too perfect for this night of long unseens and rare birds, the most performed song in the band’s history: You Enjoy Myself, or YEM. Of course, this is no normal night, so why would we get a normal YEM? A few minutes into the jam segment they throw the first Catapult in 5 years and 191 shows (and only the 34th performance ever, vs YEM’s 613) into the middle of the jam. Because why the hell not? Yea, it makes complete sense to throw a song a lot of Phans have never heard and will never hear live into the middle of one we all know by heart. That’s just not enough though, because this is Alpine Fucking Valley N3. Following the Catapult lyric “there ain’t gonna be a wedding” Trey tells Mike there will be a wedding. He tells us he met a couple the day before and that the dude said he’d propose to his girlfriend tonight if Mike sings Contact. So, ya know, Phish plays Contact and alters the courses of this couple’s lives, capping it off with a Bridal Chorus tease before bursting back into YEM. A razor sharp vocal jam concludes this indescribable set and I look down at my watch to discover this thing has gone on nearly 2 full hours.

Boy. Man. God. Shit.

Let’s help some people get engaged.

It doesn’t matter at this point what happens during encore.  They give us one more refrain-laden chance to sing along with More before presenting us the Tweezer Reprise we were left without on N1.  The hill is rumbling as glow sticks add color to the starlit sky. There is no better way to end this night and this tour than one last step into the freezer.

After we knew what we were in for —

And liked it.

We make our way up the hill and back to our car at a complete and utter loss for words.  What has taken place is not something that words have the power to accurately describe. It was a shared feeling that can never be exactly replicated but will never be lost or forgotten.  Island Girl sure picked the right run of Summer Tour to get herself to. We all just paid witness to and took part in Phish history. There is no debating the significance of this show. It contains everything a Phish experience can contains and in abundance.  And though it is not the conclusion of 19 in 19, it is a fitting end to the consecutive 3 week portion of the series before a 6 week break before Dick’s.


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