The Gorge

Like the Hollywood Bowl, the Gorge Amphitheater in George, WA is one of those notoriously iconic concert venues that any real music fan just has to experience. Somehow this spot – in the self-professed “middle-of-nowhere” (see The Gorge’s movie trailer here)  – has drawn sold-out crowds for some of the biggest touring acts out there.

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The Gorge first opened in 1985 as a small 3000-seat amphitheater smack-dab in the middle of arid central Washington’s grape-growing country. A handful of years later, the seating area was expanded to hold 27,500 people, and the virtually unlimited camping space that surrounds the venue was added.

While the amphitheater’s substantial capacity alone might be enough to establish its notoriety among serious music fans, the dramatic geographic setting is The Gorge’s most distinguishing feature.

Situated right on the edge of the Columbia River Gorge, the stage appears to hover precariously above a steep-walled river canyon whose sandstone cliffs provide a stunningly dramatic backdrop. Shows begin before sunset, so the constantly-shifting patterns of light and color characteristic of northern summer sunsets become part of the performance. All seats are “general admission,” and, thanks to the steepness of the main lawn, all of them afford great views of the action. You can pack in sardine-style for the up-front-and-center experience or hang out up high on the spacious and danceable upper lawn zone – and your experience will be radically different depending on the vantage point you choose.

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My visit to The Gorge centered around two back-to-back Phish shows. In the words of Wikipedia, Phish is “a U.S.-based band known for musical improvisation, extended jams, blending of genres, and a dedicated fan base.” Many people consider them to be the rightful inheritors of a scene that once belonged exclusively to the Grateful Dead. Like their predecessors, they’ve received very little radio exposure. Their fame comes from their live performances, which are generally unplanned high-energy rock/jazz/funk/bluegrass/psychedelic romps through both their musical catalog and the whole of the rock and roll canon. Because every performance is unique, people often go to more than one show – and in many cases, fans (called Phishheads, of course) “go on tour” and attend every performance for the duration of the season.

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This venue’s camping scene is particularly conducive to the Phishhead lifestyle, and it made for some particularly stellar people watching. Because my companion and I arrived to claim camp spots at about 4pm for the Friday night show, we proceeded to sit for almost two hours in a line of cars several miles long just to gain entry the camping zone. Only one two-lane road accesses The Gorge’s remote location, so when 20,000 people descend on it at once, traffic jams result. Thankfully, enough people were roaming around distributing beer and chatting up the drivers of the waiting vehicles that the atmosphere stayed light and the time passed quickly.  We camped in the “standard camping” area, which meant we parked on a lawn with a few thousand other cars and some porta-potties, but apparently The Gorge offers a variety of more “upscale” camping options (like bigger spaces and wall tents) as well – in case sleeping amongst the riff-raff isn’t for you.

The Gorge is run by an enormous company called LiveNation, which merged with the entertainment giant Ticketmaster in 2010. Together these companies own substantial shares in many music venues – some would say they have a corner on the market – and for this reason their merger met with quite a bit of opposition. As I plunked down $100 for the privilege of parking my car on a lawn and another $55 per ticket per night to sit on a patch of grass, I couldn’t help but think about my contribution to this monopoly. While in some ways the scene was reminiscent of Woodstock, the irony of the giant corporate machine behind it all was inescapable. I wondered how many other people were thinking that very thought as we joined the 7pm line of fans processing from the campground past the general store (where ice is sold out of truck for $6/bag), through the security clearance checkpoint and onto the lawn.

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The shows themselves were amazing – long, intricate, high energy, synergistic, and totally imperfect. Spontaneous creativity is what folks show up for, and it was delivered in spades. Of course, when a piece magically begins in one place, detours through three other songs and a host of solos, and somehow curves back around to its starting point, it comes with a few sour notes and missed cues along the way – not that anyone seems to care.  It’s not because they aren’t paying attention – they are; very carefully, in fact.

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Phish fans don’t mess around.  They know all the lyrics, all the changes, and all the hooks. They appreciate subtle guitar-riff references to obscure songs and they participate in choreographed tossings of glow sticks. They clearly love the improvisational uncertainly and accept all that it encompasses. This includes costumes (I saw men in sequined dresses, women in masks and capes, and a whole hoard of people wearing ocelot-print footie pajamas), mind-enhancing chemicals, and a whole lot of twirling, shaking, and air-drumming. They’re united in celebration and silliness for a few hours…and then they go back to their everyday lives.

Sunday morning people started moving out of the campground at 6am. The procession of cars was fully formed by 9am, and the line of brake lights was almost as long and slow leaving the campground as it had been entering it on Friday afternoon.

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Not so different from a pilgrimage to Mecca, I thought, or a Christian shrine in the Middle Ages, or any religious structure on high holy days.

Call it blasphemy if you will; I call it the allure of collective communal experience.

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