The famously freaky planet Phish revolves back into Hampton Coliseum's path next weekend, bringing with it a comet trail of fans who love improvisational rock and a sense of far-out fellowship.
Phish, the legendary improvisational rock band led by guitarist and singer Trey Anastasio, kicks off its fall tour with three nights at the Coliseum Friday-Sunday, Oct. 18-20. The shows are to be the group's first concerts at the building since 2009.
Followers are ecstatic.
Harrison Day, a 34-year-old graphic designer from Summerfield, N.C., looks forward to extending his perfect streak. He's attended every Phish show at Hampton since 1997 and he has tickets to all three of the upcoming Coliseum gigs.
"In Hampton, there is an aura about the room," Day wrote in an e-mail. "Stakes rise with playoff intensity. The wave circulates around the old hockey rink before the show, thoughts of its previous history running through its halls. And then there is the difficulty in securing tickets to add significance to the occasion.
"Phish love the older venues that still capture the pristine sound," Day wrote. "The Mothership is about as good as they come."
The Mothership, as fans call the Coliseum, is considered one of best places in the nation to see Phish, a band that started in 1983 at the University of Vermont. Day and other fans say the 43-year-old room sounds surprising good, especially when packed with 12,000 gyrating Phish fans.
In the days before Internet file sharing, fans would trade cassettes of shows, following a pattern started by the Grateful Dead's loyal following.
"There are certain things about the tapes," Day said. "Some of the best sound quality tapes came from Hampton. That's what draws me back. The band takes it to another level there. They know the history as well."
Despite the reputation of Phish fans for drug consumption, bizarre attire and no-holds barred partying, some of the group's most devoted listeners dissect the band's concerts with a sort of scientific fervor.
Hampton resident David Kleinman is an English professor at Thomas Nelson Community College and a Phish aficionado. He's seen the band 88 times and has written about the group for Jambands.com.
Kleinman, 35, traveled to Chicago this summer to see the band and he was surprised to read some negative feedback from fans online. "Some were pretty harsh in their criticism," Kleinman said. "There was a lot of talking smack."
What did the Phish heads find upsetting?
"One of the main things, was this talk about Trey 'pulling the rip cord,' when a jam is starting to develop," Kleinman said. In other words, Anastasio was accused of ending an improvisational section earlier than some fans would have liked.
"They always blame it on Trey," Kleinman said. "I've always seen him as the leader of the band, but once they're on stage, I'm not sure how much of a leader he is … On stage, there's all sorts of communication that we can't pick up on."
At one Chicago concert, the band invited two people from the audience on stage who had been brandishing a sign reading "Poster Nutbag The Right Way!!!" The phrase was a reference to a part of the Phish tune "Harpua."
It turned out that the couple were actors from the Second City comedy troupe, but the audience wasn't initially in on the joke. Phish, it seemed was using its twisted sense of humor to poke fun at its own overzealous fans.
"It seemed they were making a comment to all these critics to let it go," Kleinman said. "The idea that a fan would know better than the band what's the right way rather than the wrong way to do a song. Phish fans feel a sense of ownership, but at some point you have to take a step back and check yourself."