What’s so special about Hampton? I joined in a discussion about this topic a few weeks ago, and there doesn’t seem to be a simple answer to the question. For sure, as venues go, Hampton has a number of marks in its favor, but none seem to provide a slam-dunk answer to the question: Why does Hampton Coliseum enjoy such legendary status for Phish fans?
(Photograph by Erik Axdahl)
The first, and perhaps most obvious answer, is the venue’s unique appearance, particularly at night. The Mothership is quite the spectacle for fans both spun and un-spun when they emerge from an evening of mind-expanding music. It’s an Unidentified Flying Circus Tent which landed between the Chesapeake Bay and the mouth of the James river in 1970, and it’s been bringing entertainment to Hampton Roads ever since. Inside, though, it is a non-descript concrete oval that has few amenities with which to coddle the 21st century concert goer. It has none of the grandeur of the Fabulous Fox Theater in St. Louis, or unique charm of Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. Beneath its iconic exterior, Hampton Coliseum is just an arena.
It is, however, a general admission venue that provides an energy which Phish loves and has been encouraging more and more in recent years. This brings us to answer number two: The shows. Hampton Coliseum has seen some amazing performances, most notably in the Fall of 1997 while Phish was Destroying America. Those two highly esteemed shows received the box set treatment, as did the 1998 Hampton performances years before. Now, let’s be clear. The 1998 shows are enormously fun (does it get more awesome than Fish singing “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It?”) and the 1997 shows are musically amazing (the 11/22/97 “Halley’s” is one of my favorite jams ever). But both years are so loaded with phenomenal Phish that it may not be hard to name 10-15 shows from each that are as good or better. There are other terrific Hampton shows (12/18/99, the first set of 8/9/04) and some that are pretty rough around the edges (1/2/03, the second set of 8/9/04) but can we say that the Mothership has produced an unusually high concentration of epic Phish? It might be hard to make that case.
Of course, we can’t forget the Dead factor. Mention of the original jam band can be polarizing, but it’s impossible to deny the influence that The Grateful Dead have had on the Phish scene. Quite simply, the two groups share many fans, so of course the lore surrounding the “Formerly The Warlocks” stealth shows could spill over into the “Formerly Blackwood Convention” community. Since I’m not really a fan, I can only speculate as to how much the Grateful Dead’s history at Hampton has influenced the venue’s esteem in Phish circles.
Perhaps all of these things have influenced our view of Hampton, or perhaps none of them have. I’m not sure what exactly makes it a special venue for Phish fans. I do, however, know what makes it a special venue for me.
I’m not sure where I first saw the reunion announcement, but I remember not believing it. I scrambled to find confirmation, and watched, stunned, while an artist drew those familiar, multicolored shapes. That image reached backward in time and wiped away the tears that ran down my face during a “Squirming Coil” encore in 2004. It took me less than a second to decide that I would go. Having never driven farther than 10 hours from home to see Phish, I would fly for the first time in 20 years, travelling 1100 miles from Omaha, NE to Norfolk, VA. I would stuff my expansive butt into an economy seat and fold both arms in front of me for hours so as not elbow the regular sized passengers. I would rent a car, hop between hotels, drive back and forth from Virginia Beach to the Mothership, empty out my savings in the process, and do all of it travelling alone so that I could be there when Phish came back.
Entry on the first night took forever, with three gates letting people in three at a time in a painfully slow effort to avoid a crush. The crowd inched forward, past the floating, smiley faced boxes and leafless trees adorned with nests of red grass. Finally, though, I made it to a spot at the back of the floor, gazed at the mysterious, giant balls hanging from the ceiling, and tried to comprehend that Phish was about to play again. The electricity and the enormity of the ovation that greeted them was like nothing I have ever experienced, before or since. The first set was a seemingly endless series of ecstatic explosions; with the stage reclaimed, the band wasn’t quick to let it go. Musically, that set isn’t something that I go back and listen to. Emotionally, though, it was almost two hours of sustained elation.
The first set almost did me in, though. I was completely wrung out, physically and mentally, and by the time they played “Harry Hood,” I was collapsed in a heap out in the concourse, trying to assure security that I didn’t need medical attention. The exhaustion of my out-of-shape body had contributed to a deeper problem; I felt alone. The Hampton reunion took place during one of the darkest periods of my life. Coming to the shows solo and not being able to stay on my feet until the end made me feel as if the scene had passed me by. Phish may have been back, but I had no idea where I was.
On the second night I tried to pace myself to conserve energy, but letting go of outside distractions proved difficult. I again chose a spot at the rear of the floor, at times disappearing into a black curtain hung against the wall, keeping to myself and writing down the setlist. During the set break, though, a stranger asked me to watch his coat while he and his friend went for a drink. When he came back, we started to talk. He had been lucky enough to find a ticket for the night, but his girlfriend had been shut out. I told him that it was my 19th show, and he told me he had lost track somewhere around 100. We talked about the band sounding rusty but good, better than they had in years, and we made our calls for set two before sharing a grin about the “Rock and Roll” opener.
And that was all it took. One stranger reached out and broke the ice that surrounded me, and suddenly I was fully present in the moment, taking part in the show rather than observing it. I gaped as Trey filleted my senses during “Limb By Limb” and shouted approval for my first “Ghost” since ‘97. I felt deliriously happy and infinitely blessed. Back at my hotel, across the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, I wandered out of my room down the hall to find a drink. Walking toward me, serendipitously, was the very same fan who pulled me out of my shell a few hours before. We laughed and hugged, and without thinking twice, I asked him to come back to my room so I could hand over my ticket for night three. He had helped me find what I was looking for that weekend, and now it was someone else’s turn.
Phish has released two box sets of live music from Hampton. They chose it for their first run after the hiatus-ending New Year’s Eve bash, and selected it again for their return from the post-Coventry darkness. It’s obviously a special venue to the band, and by extension, it has become a special venue to me. You could argue that the event and not the place is responsible for my experience, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but it did happen at Hampton. That’s why I’m excited to celebrate the 18th anniversary of my first Phish show at the Mothership, where a stranger made sure I remembered how special this band and its fans are to me.