Digging up the past: Phish storms ASU

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The Appalachian Online

Meredith Warfield

Twenty years ago Sunday Appalachian State University welcomed the four-man band known as Phish to a sold out show in Varsity Gym, an event that set more precedent for chaos than any concert in the history of the university, said University Police Capt. Larry Foster at the time.

Phish – fronted by world-renowned guitarist Trey Anastasio – formed in 1983 in Burlington, Vermont, and are noted for using improvisational style and mixing elements of rock, jazz, funk, bluegrass and folk into a genre of music that is their own, yet often defined as “jam,” according to www.phish.net. In 1988 the group began touring outside of Vermont, and by 1994 they had established a loyal following, selling out at major venues like Madison Square Garden.

Among the band’s 46 dates on the 1994 fall tour, Appalachian was one of the many stops at college campuses. As Boone’s sold-out Halloween Phish show approached, so did the faithful Phish followers, many of whom did not have tickets. Dave Robertson, Appalachian Director of Student Programs from 1985 until this past summer, estimates at least 50 Volkswagen buses caravanned into Boone and wandered the downtown area looking for somewhere to park and camp the day before the show.

“I didn’t know they had that big of a loyal following,” Robertson said. “But they did, and they came here in droves.”

Randy Kelly, who was at the time and still is program coordinator of Appalachian Popular Programming Society, said he remembers a report of vehicles from 27 different states parked along Rivers Street.

The day of the show was supposed to be a normal Wednesday for students, but campus had unexpectedly turned into a festival. Vendors had obtained permits from the vice chancellor to sell merchandise on campus, which ended up meaning drug paraphernalia was being sold on Sanford Mall, Kelly said.

With all these unexpected travelers, the university had been “naive” about the potential of illegal activity, Kelly said.

“Faculty would leave campus for lunch and come back to find their parking spot had turned into a Phish tailgate,” Robertson said. “These were clearly not Appalachian students.”

Unbeknownst at the time to University Police, Nitrous oxide, a gas, that when inhaled, gives a euphoric high, was being sucked out of balloons on Sanford Mall.

“We thought they were blowing up helium balloons,” Robertson said.

It wasn’t until the show started that one of the student employees informed him that these balloons were actually filled with “hippie crack.”

Once it was time to take tickets, Kelly, Robertson and student employees began doing so in an orderly fashion through the four double doors at Varsity Gym, which were propped open. At some point soon after this began, Robertson realized how enormous the crowd was. Surely, he thought, not all of these people had tickets to the show.

Then, someone in the crowd shouted and at once the herd stampeded the open doors. Kelly and Robertson scrambled to pull the doors shut, but not before 150-some freebies had charged in, an obviously preplanned incident the two later coined as “the bum-rush.”

“Suddenly they were outside, and we were inside, and that’s about when we looked at each other and knew that we really weren’t quite ready for this,” Robertson said.

As police officers and employees regrouped to continue taking tickets, this time through just one well-guarded door, the remainder of the large crowd sought alternative ways to sneak in.

On the south side of the gym, a 15-foot human ladder managed to remove a window and climb atop each other’s shoulders to jump in. This was quickly noticed and put to a halt by officers, Robertson said.

Then, as the band members entered the stage, the commotion began to settle.

“Once the music started, the crowd could not have been more laid back,” Robertson said.

The year 1994 has been said to kick off a chapter of memorable years for Phish, according to www.phish.net. The band’s first live album, “A Live One,” was compiled from recordings of that year, which was later certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.

In turn, the group’s setlist at Appalachian was consistent with the expectations put in place from preceding shows of that year. After the second set clocked out the show at over two hours, the band came back on stage for a four-song encore, three of which were played acoustic.

Before beginning an encore cover of bluegrass song “Nellie Kane,” Anastasio expressed his affinity for Boone to the crowd.

“I don’t know how many of you know this, but we all live in Vermont,” he said. “It’s a similar kind of feel, the mountains and everything. It’s really nice to be here – it kind of feels like home.”

In addition, drummer Jon Fishman played his first-ever bass solo during this “Nellie Kane,” performance, as noted by Anastasio on stage.

In retrospect, Robertson notes that, although there was chaos and at times the potential for someone to get hurt, the Phish crowd was never violent, just very eager to see the show. Appalachian Student Programs now checks a bit more thoroughly with the background and crowd reputation of a band before booking them.

“We would’ve done Phish again had we ever had the opportunity,” Robertson said, noting that as the band has become more popular, it has grown more expensive to book.

Phish is still touring today and released its newest album “Fuego” this past summer.

For Appalachian’s fans, Charlotte has been the closest venue to see the band in recent years, but perhaps Robertson’s words give a glimmer of hope that Phish could return to campus in the future.

Story: Meredith Warfield, A&E Editor