HAMPTON, Va. - There were smiles for miles Friday night at the Hampton Coliseum as psychedelic rock kings Phish reunited for the first of three sold-out concerts.
A giant smiling robotlike sculpture stood in the Coliseum fountain and greeted fans as they approached. Once inside, jam addicts beamed as they looked up at the ceiling and saw enormous colored globes suspended from the rafters.
After four years, Phish resurfaces
Mike Zaffuts, 29, of Rochester, N.Y., was so excited to enter the legendary arena, he spun around three times, pumped his fist in the air and yelled “Boyeeeeeee!”
“It’s amazing,” he gushed, still looking around and soaking up the atmosphere. “It’s been a long, long time. And this seems like a perfect vibe.”
When the band stepped on stage about 8 p.m., guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell grinned from ear to ear.
And what did the band choose to play as its first live tune after more than four years in oblivion? “Fluffhead,” a multifaceted jam that ended with a cathartic, euphoric solo by Anastasio. A few songs later, the band juiced the energy in the room with the crowd favorite “Chalk Dust Torture.”
Near the back, Jason Flager - a 30-year-old “Phish head” from New Jersey - was dancing ecstatically, playing air guitar and bouncing nonstop.
“Smokin’! Unbelievable!” he said. “They haven’t sounded this good in, like, 10 years.”
If early Friday is any indication, Phish and its loyal fan base are back in a groove.
Local promoter Ken MacDonald said he was around the Coliseum during the band’s rehearsals earlier in the week. “They were focused and intense,” he said. “There was very much a work ethic. The rehearsals were very organized.”
But when the band walked on stage to a deafening roar from 13,800 fans, it was clearly time for play, not work.
“This is the happiest place on Earth right now,” MacDonald said.
Earlier in the day, all was not always sweetness and light. Traffic on Mercury Boulevard was creeping by 4 p.m. Fans stood at the Interstate 64 exit, pointing an index finger skyward to indicate that they needed just one ticket. Some had cardboard signs that read, “$500” and “Looking for a dream.” Tickets were nearly impossible to find.
And though the police presence wasn’t immediately evident, busts were taking place.
Ryan Collins of New York looked on as cops appeared out of nowhere and handcuffed a young woman, apparently arresting her on drug-related charges.
“The city of Hampton is loving this,” he said, as watched the woman hauled away. “The restaurants and grocery stores are happy, and the government is making money by charging people (with crimes). All sides of the economy are benefiting.”
Before he could finish his sentence, he saw another man being led away by plainclothes officers.
Mostly, though, the scene was peaceful.
Parking lots around the Coliseum were a labyrinth of cars from as far away as California and Florida. Fans lounged in lawn chairs as the sun eased back in the clear sky. Many sipped beers. A few broke out charcoal grills.
Strolling through were people in patchwork pants, capes, wraparound or aviator sunglasses, dreadlocks and T-shirts with clever references to the band’s lyrics. A sweatshirt with the word “Melt,” for example, divided vertically by a front zipper - a reference to the Phish favorite “Split Open and Melt.”
Erik Zinger came in a homemade antelope costume, a nod to the tune “Run Like an Antelope.” The Philadelphia resident was hoping that his get-up would help him score a ticket. He held a sign that adapted the song’s lyric: “Set the gearshift to the high gear of your soul; sell me your extra, so I can get out of control.”
Zinger said he was glad that the band was back, even if he didn’t get to see Friday’s show. “I went to the last show in Coventry (Vermont), and I was thinking, ‘There’s no way this can be the end. It can’t end like this. It was a disaster. ... They lost their mojo. I’m sure they’ve got it back by now.”
Matthew Perry of Little Rock, Ark., was in a deer stand when his sister-in-law scored tickets online. The 27-year-old construction manager took unpaid days off work to go to the show. He and his friend Jacob Slaton, 27, drove 15 hours without stopping.
“We had plans to stop near Knoxville (Tenn.), just camp out, but we were feeling the drive,” Slaton said. “Everything was good ... pulled into Virginia as the sun was rising over the turquoise mountains. It was beautiful.”
Despite the general mood of euphoria, some said the vibe was a little more relaxed - possibly more mature - than in the earlier era.
“People have jobs now, they’re more responsible,” said Seth Evans of Richmond. “It’s a little more tame.”
Maybe so. But the energy in the Coliseum was anything but when Phish flexed its improvisational muscles.
Matt Hobbs from Wisconsin danced like a whirling dervish as the band rocked on stage under rays of blue light. It was his 114th Phish show.
“I almost got a tattoo that said, ‘113,’ ” Hobbs said, “but I knew I’d be here someday.”