Flashback: Phish’s Camp Oswego, July 17-18, 1999

In the summer of 1999, amid an extensive tour, Phish held a two-day festival in the small town of Volney, NY at the Oswego County airport. While reliable numbers are not available, somewhere between 15 and 20,000 attended the two day show, arriving a full day early in some cases to enjoy the scene that set up on the tarmac for a mere 60 hours, before the band moved towards the Midwest and the end of the tour a week later.

Phish had played three prior festivals at the end of large tours, but never a festival during a tour. The result were two memorable nights amid the most unbearable heat and humidity, leaving fans with a lasting memory of guests sitting in with Phish and an “Icculus” for the ages. Editors Pete Mason and Tim O’Shea attended Camp Oswego, albeit separately. Below is their look back at Camp Oswego, 15 years later.

Art by Pete Tschudy

The Ride in and Arrival

Pete Mason: I happened to have no issues with arrival, and managed to avoid nearly all traffic. I was living in Syracuse, taking summer classes at SU, and proceeded to leave the day before the festival starts, on July 16th, a Friday. We left around 4pm and were at the gates by 5pm. Syracuse to Oswego is about 45 minutes, so getting to the festival, without much traffic, was a pretty nice start to the weekend. We camped about one car length in from the tarmac, about a five minute walk to The Green, where there was a wall of payphones and place to leave messages for friends. Ah, the days before cellphones.

This was also the last time I encountered little to no traffic arriving at a Phish show. 13 hours for Big Cypress was a comeuppance in a way, for dealing with no traffic getting to the Oswego and Lemonwheel festivals

Tim O’Shea: The two hour drive started off just fine with all parties wildly throwing out predictions and wishes for the weekend.  Beeps and head nods from other like-minded cars on the road were aplenty and increased in frequency the closer we got.  Towards the end of the two hour drive, as festival traffic began to pile up and the sun was at its peak, the bus’ engine temperature began to skyrocket.  In an effort to prevent it from overheating and making sure we had a ride back on Monday, we actually wound up pushing the bus for the last half hour of our journey through the stop and go traffic with the engine off.  What better way to get stretched out for long weekend of music than with some cardio and light weights?  It would certainly not be the last time all weekend that heat played a factor.

The Heat

TO: For anyone who attended Camp Oswego, the first words out of their mouth generally have something to do with the ridiculous temperatures that weekend.  To say it was a dry and steady heat would be doing it a disservice.  Roasting and oven-like are two of the words that initially come to my mind.  Shade was at an ultra premium and there were constantly long lines for the few communal water spigots.  If you weren’t staying hydrated, you had no chance. In addition to the blazing temperatures, discovering this communal atmosphere and something that was way bigger(and more fun) than just myself really resonated with me since this was all so new at the time.

PM: The heat was unbearable, oppressive and constant. It was humid and well into the 90s. There was no relief either. We had 3 tents among myself, Madison and Dave. No tarp, no EZ-Up, nothing. Not that that would have helped either, but we did find solace in the air conditioned car, only to walk out into the heat moments later. Hydration was key, and led to little drinking of alcohol that weekend. It was just too damn hot to do much of anything but see Phish, just as the sun was getting lower in the sky and started to cool down.

A week later, I attended Woodstock 99. The weather was almost as bad, but the result of patrons who had to deal with the heat was far different. At Oswego, people were misting you as you walked by, offered water to strangers, my friend Madison used a Supersoaker to hose down random passersby, with a reaction of ‘Whoa WTF?!’ followed immediately by ‘Ah, that feels great! Thanks!’ At Woodstock, it was pure hell. Little running water, expensive bottled water ($4 even then was highway robbery) and patrons were not as kind as you would find at Phish. More than a few late 90s bros found their way to the front of the drinking line without waiting, didn’t take care of their neighbors and more or less let the festival community and vibe go to shit. Phish fans took care of one another – that was my big take away from the two weekends, and one that drew me into the Phish community.

Oswego inspired art by Albert Sohn

Day 1 Music

PM: I honestly recall little of the show on the 17th. Two sets, and all I can definitively remember was Son Seals sit-in, which made me wonder if the other guests at The Green stage were going to sit-in the next night. “Down with Disease” was solid, but I was still somewhat new to Phish and hadn’t yet enjoyed the long jams. Beyond that, I became a fan of “Squirming Coil” in the encore. I blame the heat and adult beverages.

TO: While my memory certainly isn’t pristine as it pertains to all the music that weekend, there are certain moments and images that still resonate strong.  I remember baking in the sun (literally) as the first night’s sunset was accompanied by a scintillating Tweezer jam and hearing the first of many, many Character Zeros to end the first set.  I remember legendary bluesman Son Seals gracing the stage in the second set for ‘Funky Bitch’ and being amazed at how well he was able to manage that Phish song.  

Day 2 Music

TO: I remember being delighted at the Del McCoury sit-in the following day and feeling a real strange sense of pride as I danced along to ‘The Meatstick’ in the Guinness Book of World Records attempt that was in vain.  And above all else, I remember a mind bending ‘Piper’ in the third and final Sunday set that I still consider one of the best ever played which seemed to seal the proverbial deal for me.  Throw in a hilarious ‘Smoke on the Water’ jam/banter and the ever whimsical ‘Icculus’, and you’ve got a set for the ages.

PM: I could write a book on the music from Sunday, but I’ll keep it short. Set 1 was pretty solid, with the sun setting and a ‘Punch’ opener. I was still a noob back then, so “Farmhouse, Water in the Sky, Bathtub Gin” were all familiar and made me happy. I was far more focused and rested than the night before, and recall a great deal of the show to this day. When Del McCoury and sons came on stage, I smiled because I sort of predicted that, heard a bunch of bluegrass songs, which I credit to my initial interest in bluegrass music, and a sweet ‘Reba’ that was a highlight of the set for me.

Second set was fun because “Jim > Free” meant more music I knew, then finally, this ‘Meatstick” song that I had heard about, which had a dance. Complicated music interests me, and dancing to such music was just feeding the addiction. I danced around with what I thought was the Meatstick dance and loved every second. The rest of the set I was just smiling like I never had before.

Third set, which I had no idea was happening – I thought second set was it – started out with more music I knew, “My Soul > Piper”, the latter of which went on for a while, and had the slow start. “Caspian” was kinda cool to me back then, and then shit got weird. “Wilson > Catapult > Smoke on the Water > Icculus” and “Quinn the Eskimo” were pretty mindblowing, for the banter alone. Whatever was going on onstage, I wanted more of. Fluffhead finale and Hood encore as we walked back to the car, beating all traffic, I was in my apartment by 2am, learning of David Cone’s perfect game earlier that day.

Takeaways from the Festival

PM: Oswego was simply the best Phish festival experience I have had, after Big Cypress of course. It was the right time and place for me, right mindset, friends, and music, all in one place. I go back there every so often and find that same giant smile, every time.

TO: 111 shows later, I guess you can say I took a shining to this band and all they can deliver.  But for me, Oswego will always hold a special place in my heart not only because it was my first Phish festival in my first string of shows, but because it was my first large scale festival of any kind which opened my eyes to a whole new way of experiencing music.  After Camp Oswego, I knew what I wanted to do every summer for the rest of my life.  And how to do it in frying pan-like conditions.

Download both nights of Oswego here (July 17/July 18) – recording by Lenny Stubbe

Watch the fan documentary ‘A Trip to Oswego’