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Holding Fast to the Collective Joy of Music Festivals Amid an Uncertain Future for Live Performance

Photo: Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

For the past two weeks, our series on summer music festivals has uncovered the interplay of festival fashion and music and examined festival subcultures. But we’ve so far overlooked an essential reason that people attend music festivals: to experience transformational joy.

Earlier this summer, it seemed as though the pandemic was waning and live music was coming back. But now, as we head into the fall with the Delta variant surging, the fate of live music is once again in question. Caught in this limbo, we thought it would be a good time to get nostalgic and reflect on joyous festival moments as we dream of a less anxious future for live music.

This week’s episode features seven stories from listeners about their most surprising and wonderful moments at festivals past. The first comes from musician and producer Dave Harrington of the band Darkside, who was once helped out of a musical rut by a Phish festival set:

I was working in a studio with Nick Murphy, a.k.a. Chet Faker, and that whole week I’d been trying to get this guitar solo together. I just kept hating everything I was doing. And I was just like, Oh my God, guitar solos, are they even a thing anymore? I was in the middle of an existential crisis about the nature of a big guitar solo.

A friend of mine offered me tickets to go see Phish at Madison Square Garden on the 11th night of the Baker’s Dozen, a sort of festival-like run of 13 shows in summer 2017. I had really no expectations, and I didn’t have a lot of connection to Phish.

But I remember specifically at that show, there was one very long jam; it was late in the set. They begin to ratchet up the tension. There’s a sense that they’re building to something, with faster notes, a repeated motif in the solo. And it’s this feeling of going up and up and up. Suddenly, everything kind of coalesces and ratchets, and everyone’s kind of flying. And then in this one moment, [Phish lead guitarist] Trey climbs up the fret board. He hits the highest note, like, SQUUUUEE! And then Fishman smashes, and Mike and Paige smash. It’s as if the lighting guy, Kuroda, put all of his palms and his face on like every button, and everyone in the crowd goes Ahhh! at the same time. And it peaked.

It was like this pure moment of collective experience because everyone in the stadium knew it was coming and felt like they had also built it together. It’s a musical wandering; that’s what allows for the delivery of a great moment. You have to take the journey, and you have to go on the wander. I went to go see Phish at Madison Square Garden. I saw Trey lead the great revival meeting with his guitar. And then the next morning, I woke up early. I went straight to the studio before Nick was there — plug in, get a tone, and take the guitar solo.

This story has been condensed and edited for clarity. Listen to this and six other stories in the final installment in our summer festival series, then share your own in the comments below or on Twitter.

What’s Your Best Festival Moment? Listeners Swap Stories