I have taken basically two weeks off from training, mostly to go on vacation. This is a rare non-triathlon related blog post, but it was such an awesome experience I had to write it up and put it somewhere. The mentioned “Prison Chronicles” will begin next week. To satisfy blog purists, there is a race in here.
A Phish festival is not a multi-band event with multiple stages. It’s just Phish. For three days. And it is awesome. My first festival was 1997, but my second one was Coventry. 40.5 hours living on a road, cops with shotguns turning us around, not getting in. Enough of that. This weekend was a redemptive experience. Less than three hours from my house, excellent weather, venue that can handle large crowds, looks to be a good time.
My friends Matt and Dave were working the festival as volunteers, so I had to camp solo, in a campsite almost exactly a kilometer from the front gate. They were on duty from 6pm Thursday night to 8am Friday morning, then they’ll need sleep, so I am pretty much on my own from my arrival Thursday 3:20 until late afternoon Friday. Not terrible, as I can navigate the festival crowd and find things to do, but I am getting bored quickly. People are just setting up, and the community vibe isn’t off the ground yet.
Then the phone call comes that completely changes the trajectory of my festival. It’s Matt.
“Hey, there’s some guys here doing balloons as part of the art installations. I told them you were here and they could use some help. You want to come over?”
A minute later, I get a text with a phone number and this name:
Holy balloon legend batman.
For those of you not into the balloon world, this is like being a guitar player and getting an invite to go jam with Joe Satriani. Not only was Addi’s book on balloon hats my first resource in balloon world, you may have seen him on TLC in a show called “The Unpoppables.” It ran for six episodes, and was a “reality” show (a term we all need to look at with suspicion) about doing balloon installations. Think Ace of Cakes, but with latex.
I call up right away, and I’m invited over to the big warehouse on site where the balloons are being made. It’s in the same building with the volunteers, but I don’t have a yellow wristband indicating that I’m allowed in that area. I am a regular old paying customer. I have found however, after years of visiting hospitals, that if you just walk like you know where you’re going and you belong there, there is a higher threshhold needed for someone to stop and ask you if you are lost.
I arrive at the building, and there’s someone in a truck that directs me to the right bay. The guy in the trucks happens to be the artist who is going to be working with balloons too, doing spray paint. I don’t know if graffiti is still the right term. He is awesome. His website is here. More on Cern’s art later.
I walk around the corner and I see Brian Asman. Brian is another one of the Unpoppables from the TLC show. The third balloon artist there is Sean Rooney, whom I had not previously known. Sean is not only a balloon designer, but a great street performer.
I introduce myself, and get right to work doing some basic twisting. I was excited to be able to help out, but also terrified because my skills and speed are lacking, especially compared to these pros. I even struggled to mouth inflate 350s, which is unusual for me. (Balloon people know what this means. I can’t do a 260 at all.) Some inside lattice work and some geos around the “legs” of the sculpture, I can handle this. I didn’t work as fast as the other guys, but I was able to save them some time. Great conversations with Sean about theology, storytelling, culture, etc.. Like a lot of people I meet in these settings, Addi and Brian are also a bit surprised to learn of my primary vocation. I’m a bit laid-back for the image.
Here’s me with Brian (foreground) and you can just make out Sean in the back.
It’s getting to be about 10pm Thursday. The festival grounds are open to early birds, and the wacky stuff like the giant pinball tent, the ferris wheel, and some other things are going. Food stands are running. We venture out into the grounds to get something to eat, and I do my best to try and give them a sense of the vibe at a Phish show. We scope out a general area to put up the sculpture, and call it a night. They return to a Bates-style motel, I go to my lonely campsite with the cold, and my neighbors whose car stereo is dj’ing until 3am. At least it was good music.
Friday morning, I’m up early, having barely slept, and still well before Matt and Dave will be off their shift. Of course, as soon as they are, they will be sleeping most of the day. I wander to the grounds after a gourmet breakfast of pop tarts and coke zero. The balloon crew had to run to home depot when it opened, and got to the grounds by 8:30. Back to work.
The initial large sculpture came together very well, and by early afternoon it was time to take it out. The sun was very strong, and we did want to delay installation as long as possible, since it was after all, a three day event. We conferred with Russ, the creative director for all Phish’s festivals going back to Clifford Ball in 1996. Russ is one of those people that when you are in the same space as him, you just know he is the coolest cat around. I describe him as looking like Greg Allman’s godfather.
The giant mushroom is going to need several sections of conduit pounded into the ground to anchor it. A bunch of volunteers are rounded up from the WET (work exchange team) crew, and we carefully take it out of the warehouse, and head toward the main grounds. Immediately people stop and stare, take pictures, and start to follow us. At the site, we all hold it so they can measure where to put the conduit legs.
Russ says “ok, let’s walk it around.” We don’t have a clear plan on what that will look like, but wandering around the grounds is what everyone will be doing, so why not 14 or so guys with a giant psychedelic mushroom?
At almost the moment we started to move, the marching band began playing. Yeah, Phish hired a marching band, a really really good one, for the weekend. They started a sort of parade that went toward the bridge over the track by the main gate. We followed.
People were running underneath. It was very well received. When the band took their spot on the steps, we halted. I said “CAROUSEL!” and we started spinning it, then changing directions. Trombones came down to play into it. Eventually, we took it up over the band and they did part of their set under it. Crowd was nuts. Everyone that comes early expects something cool to happen, and this was it.
We finally install it, after some repair work, which I got to help with. Basic stuff that I could handle, and we were trying to work fast. Once it was planted, people could climb under it and stand inside. It looked like this:
Some other pieces that Addi worked on came out, and Cern added his awesome paintwork.
By the time I got out to the breakfast vendors on Saturday, the lines were ridiculous. I had to settle for a gatorade and a clif bar, and head over to the track for the Runaway Jim 5k.
I wasn’t going for a PR or anything, but I was slower than even I expected. I finished after the guy dragging a vacuum, the one spinning for the first half mile, and the sousaphone. But in the same shirt I wear for every race, there were doughboy cheers all around the track.
After the race and some lunch, I check in with the artists. The dangly bits on the balloons invited a level of interactivity that was unanticipated. Most of what was put up is now gone, including the mushroom. A new piece that is less static is there, with many faces for Cern to paint. The mushroom is back in the shop for repair.
This is where the first seeds of the final project get planted. I suggest we turn it over, and fill it will loose balloons, like a giant bowl, then find a way to get it up front to dump on the crowd. This was the direction we started with.
By Sunday morning, I get to the shop and the mushroom is being basically sewn up with many rounds inside, as a balloon release cage. I look at the body. It’s clear. It needs to be a fish. It’s already somewhat a fish. Sean and Brian add fins and a tail, and I tell them we need three eyes. Why not some clear link-o-loons with helium for the bubbles too?
Oh yeah, did I mention Cern does body painting too? She was a sweetheart.
By the time the last globe was painted, it looked like this on one side.
A couple hours before Sunday Set I, we need to get the fish out on the lawn and get the eyes painted, then try to hang it.
Hanging turned into a no-go, so it sat on the ground until the set started.
Russ told us to try to get it to the back of the crowd around the third song. I was waiting for the energy to pick up to send it out, and I didn’t want to go during Forbin narration. (I’m there as a Phish fan first, balloon guy second)
We march it out with about 8 people under it, and Brian leads the way, parting the crowd like the Red Sea. The fish “swims” around the back area a couple times, and then we stop for a few kids. Sean says “bounce it!” and we do, and I lose my handle, and I know it’s gone. We wanted to release it, we just didn’t know when it would happen.
It gets carried through the crowd toward the stage at record speed. I couldn’t believe how fast it got there. People up front report that it appeared out of nowhere. The band seemed to pause the jam to watch what was happening. And then, what we hoped would happen, happened. And there is AMAZING up front video of it.
And the fish was no more.
I’m glad we didn’t dump out a big bowl, because at the opening of the second set Sunday night, enormous bouncy balloon balls were launched from backstage for the cover of AC/DC’s Big Balls. Awesome as our piece was, it would have been tiny in comparison. Instead, a random mutant sea monster making its way through the crowd, appearing to attack the band, and getting eviscerated, was awesome.
I am thrilled to have been a part of it. As a fan since 1992, first show in 94, first fest in 97… and a balloon art fan boy if such a thing exists, this was the most excellent merging of my interests. And it all began when Matt went to check in for his shift and said “hey guys, I know a balloon guy, and he’s here. Can he come over and play?”