Life Lessons From the School of Phish
Life Lessons From the School of Phish
Folks are getting rowdy at the Phish show. Or outside the Phish show, to be exact. It’s the first of the jam band’s two sold-out nights at Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheater in late October, the third stop on their fall 2018 tour, which culminates in a four-night run in Vegas on Halloween. I’ve been lingering near the entrance to the outdoor venue long enough to see the crowd swell from a smattering of die-hards in tie-dyed shirts to a throbbing mass of baseball-capped frat boys and fleece-wearing beer dads. With a total capacity of 6,800, Ascend is a relatively small venue for Phish, about a third the size of the next largest spot on the fall tour. But that hasn’t quelled anybody’s enthusiasm. The crowd definitely skews white, male, and dude, but not all Phish fans—or phans; I’m told they add “ph” to everything—fit the mold: there are families with young children, even babies, and women (and men) in sparkly skirts and animal costumes sporting homemade accessories in homage to the band. At shows, drummer Jon Fishman usually wears a muumuu with a red donut pattern (in 2016, the donuts became outlines of Bernie Sanders’s head). Around me I see the original, apolitical pattern on hoodies, tank dresses, and even a onesie or two.
Showtime is 7:30 p.m., but the crush of people outside means no one’s getting in with any expediency, and though it’s now closer to 8, the band still hasn’t started. Maybe they never start on time. But here’s what’s weird. No one appears to be angry about the long wait to get in, the crowding, the apparent disorganization. Hopefuls signal their need for “a miracle”—a free ticket from someone with one to spare—by standing outside the venue, a finger politely raised. Behind me, two guys placidly drink their beers, talking about which shows they’ve seen on this tour, and which they’re going to hit next. Locations and highlights are thrown about: “I’m driving to Vegas.” “Will you be in Mexico?” “Hampton was lit.” “I can’t wait for MSG.”
Next to me are Janene and Seth, who have their two-year-old son, Zander, with them in a stroller. “He loves the show,” Janene tells me. “He dances and has a good time.” The couple met in college, went together to what was the second or third show for each of them back in the late ’90s, and have been to almost 100 since. “It’s so different having a baby with you,” says Janene, as Seth shrugs. “To me, anyway,” she clarifies. “This is how we travel. We go and see Phish.”
We’re still outside one of the entrance checkpoints when the band starts playing. I wait for the groan of displeasure—What the hell is taking so long, GET ME IN THERE NOW!—but instead the crowd around me just starts to move, a collective organism brought to life. Everyone’s dancing as they wait. A row of discarded beer cans, water bottles, and plastic drink cups rest on a ledge nearby, their owners already inside.
If you grew up anytime near the ’90s, you’ve probably heard at least one Phish song. Formed in 1983 at the University of Vermont, the band consists of four guys who are now in their 50s: guitarist and lead vocalist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, drummer John Fishman, and keyboardist Page McConnell. My own first experience seeing the band came in the early ’90s, when I was a teenager in Alabama attending the H.O.R.D.E. Festival; Phish appeared along with Widespread Panic, the Spin Doctors, and Blues Traveler. Their music was wide-ranging and genre-bending and a little bit all over the place, incorporating everything from epic storytelling to inside jokes, lengthy piano solos, and even the occasional Jimmy Buffett–esque musical riff. It seemed freed from the rules, able to be whatever it wanted to be. That, I guessed, was the point.
“It’s hard to put into words beyond ‘the jams are just so good,’” explains Mashable news editor Marcus Gilmer, who’s been a fan since the mid-’90s. “But the exploratory nature of the improvisation, when all four guys are clicking, can lead to some amazing, soaring music that transcends just about any other band’s live performance. If you’ve never listened to the band, you’d be forgiven for wondering what the hell they’re singing about. But that speaks a lot to their humor and how they don’t take themselves too seriously.”
Phish’s popularity isn’t just about the music, though. From the beginning, their marketing genius was also in allowing fans to record shows for noncommercial use, a tradition pioneered by their de facto big brothers, the Grateful Dead, from whom they also inherited a kind of free love, one-for-all/all-for-one vibe; having festival-like concert-adjacent parking lots where you might obtain anything from T-shirts to LSD; and a vibrant, improvisational essence, so different from the many perfectly nice albums recorded in studios and executed the same way onstage each time, the mass-produced baked goods of the music-going experience. As with the Dead, you had to see, or at least hear, Phish shows live, because each performance was a little bit different—there was a sanctity in this around which everything else flowed. That meant every single tape, and then CD, was desirable, which led to a secondary community, in person and eventually online, for seeking out and sharing and trading recorded shows.
“We don’t want to become caricatures of ourselves, or worse yet, a nostalgia act.”
Then, in 1995, Jerry Garcia died. While the band formed by the remaining members, Dead & Company, played on, Phish in many ways assumed the mantle of their forefathers, albeit with their own unique energy. In August 1996, the band held their first weekend-long festival, The Clifford Ball, on the site of a former Air Force base in Plattsburgh, New York, a small town about 300 miles north of Manhattan and just an hour from Phish’s stomping grounds of Burlington, Vermont. Seventy thousand people came, making it the largest single concert by attendance in the US that year. MTV did a documentary about it.
The band toured heavily through the late ’90s. But after 17 years of playing together, they were due for a break and took a brief hiatus in 2000—inspiring what may be the most cringeworthy New York Times headline ever, “Phish Phinishes an Act, Bidding Phans Pharewell.” By New Year’s Eve of 2002, they had reunited, but two years later they were ready for a real breakup: in the spring of 2004, Anastasio wrote a letter to fans in which he explained, “We don’t want to become caricatures of ourselves, or worse yet, a nostalgia act,” and declared Coventry, the band’s seventh festival, their final show. It was held in August of that year at Newport State Airport near Coventry, Vermont, and perhaps appropriately, it was a total disaster. The concert field had flooded following a week of rain—the stage may or may not have been sinking—and after about 20,000 people got in, subsequent vehicles were turned away. Not to be dissuaded, fans parked wherever they could find a spot, including on highway medians, and hiked in. Despite the apocalyptic conditions, an estimated 65,000 people were present for the band’s tearful finale. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, but it was so bad,” one told me. “They definitely needed their break—you could see it.”
This, you might say, was the band’s midlife crisis point. In 2006, Anastasio was arrested for driving while intoxicated and found in criminal possession of Vicodin, Percocet, heroin, and Xanax; he was sentenced to 14 months in a court-ordered rehab program. While he was in rehab, the seeds for a reunion were planted.
In March of 2009, an older, wiser, cleaner Phish returned for three shows at Hampton Coliseum in Virginia—a venue fans call “The Mothership” because of the band’s longtime love for it and its resemblance to a spaceship—and then officially reunited. Phish now tours on a limited schedule of, say, 50 shows a year, selling out arenas while also allowing themselves time for their own smaller, solo projects. Like much of their fan base, they’re now bona fide grown-ups with children of their own, but the music is basically the same. Author and journalist Kate Spencer has seen more than 100 shows since 1995 and finds this consistency deeply comforting. “I know anytime I see a Phish show, there’s gonna be a glow-stick war,” she says. “The songs are constants—they change things up, but there are rituals in the songs. In ‘Wilson,’ there’s a call and response, in ‘Reba,’ there’s whistling, there’s a dance to a song called ‘a Meatstick.’ It’s stuff I’ve been doing so long.”
Still, within that established structure, there’s room for change. You can’t help growing up.
“When I was in my teens, I was in giant patchwork pants and crystal necklaces, and the need to prove myself as a fan has kind of gone away,” Spencer explains. “Now I just feel more secure in who I am. We’ve evolved and we all still feel passionately about this thing.”
Shows are one thing, festivals still another. The latter are rare multiday experiences in which fans camp out together, the band plays numerous sets (including “secret” 3 a.m. ones), and vendors, official and otherwise, provide food and drink and clothing and more. As with the Dead, and despite Anastasio’s sobriety, there’s long been a fairly anything-goes drug scene—with substances ranging from weed to MDMA, nitrous to LSD—associated with Phish’s music.
Regardless of whether they partake in those substances, fans plan for the festivals for months, taking off work and traveling from afar for the chance to again be immersed in this thing they love, or to experience it for the first time. Imagine a temporary small town sprung up around the music: no one wants to miss out on being a citizen of that community.
Earlier this year, Phish announced its 11th festival, Curveball, to be held at Watkins Glen International, a raceway in New York’s Finger Lakes region, in August. Tickets started at $250 for general admission for the three-day event, skewing higher for various camping and parking passes. In the lead-up to the festival, I joined the private, 11,500-member Facebook group “Phish Chicks,” which Bethany Barker, a technology consultant based in Virginia, started in her basement in February of 2017 as a way for women to connect in the otherwise male-dominated jam-band space. Online, people shared photos of their neatly packed cars and what they’d be wearing, asked for tips about the best snacks to bring and what kind of shoes to wear, and posted their favorite song lyrics. The excitement was palpable, nearing a fever pitch. This was the moment everyone had been waiting for. The last festival, Magnaball, had taken place three years ago.
But on the night before Curveball was to start, the event was abruptly canceled by order of the county and the state health department, the water on the festival grounds deemed unsafe due to recent flooding in upstate New York. Despite New York governor Andrew Cuomo having declared a 14-county state of emergency earlier in the week, hundreds of people had been allowed to camp out; they now had less than 24 hours to leave. Thousands were still on the way. When the announcement came through, I was still sitting at my desk, but I couldn’t believe it either: the next morning, I was supposed to be covering the festival for Topic.
Riveted, I watched the aftermath play out on Facebook. It was not unlike a death. People wept, got extremely wasted, and at least one couple got engaged. Some headed to other nearby shows or planned impromptu parties, hoping to soothe the pain. They boosted one another with song lyrics: “Surrender to the flow,” from “The Lizards,” seemed especially appropriate. They were sad, but most of them weren’t angry, and they certainly weren’t angry with Phish. “Know that we are as heartbroken as all of you,” the band wrote on their website. “We are standing back here behind the stage, at our party that we’ve been planning for over a year, and we have been told that it won’t happen. There’s just nothing we can do.”
Well, there was something: The band refunded tickets and offered free access to webcasts of their next three shows, held over Labor Day weekend at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado. They also launched a Curveball merch store, with proceeds going to flood relief and recovery. (The weather in the Finger Lakes had caused extensive damage to buildings and infrastructure, but luckily no reported deaths.) Much later, someone posted that she’d “finally spent her Curveball refund” on a giant floral leg tattoo that said “Curveball 2018.”
It wasn’t that the loss didn’t matter; the loss mattered a lot. But the ritual of touring with Phish precludes hating Phish. There will be another show; there will always, God willing, be another show. I checked in with Barker, whom I’d been planning to meet at Curveball. “We had just set up a tent and camp was good to go,” she told me. “They announced that it had been canceled. We were in disbelief. There were a lot of people crying.” Another fan who was there tells me, “There wasn’t a single moment where my friends didn’t have perspective. We know, Syria, Palestine—but we were all so bummed out.” The word Curveball, she says, still makes her nauseated.
I got in touch with Barker again a couple months later, after the band’s run in Hampton, to tell her that I’d be in Nashville. She wouldn’t be there, she said, but she passed along some advice: “Be ready not to be prepared for anything! Have feelings about each song! Relate to them any way you can! Take in the lot scene!” She left me with a song lyric: “Whatever you do, take care of your shoes.”
Another Phish tradition is the light show that’s coordinated for the music, something for your eyes to experience alongside your ears, designed by longtime lighting director Chris Kuroda. Inside the amphitheater in Nashville, as the band plays, I watch vivid streams of color flit across people’s faces, revealing expressions ranging from reverent to euphoric. There’s a lone guy twirling around and around at the back of the lawn. Kids on blankets play with light-up balloons and glow sticks. A woman in a skeleton costume dances by herself. If I had to guess, I’d say at least half the adults here are on some kind of substance, but the rest might just be high on the music.
There’s a concrete walkway that separates the seated area below from the lawn above. You’re not supposed to stop here, but that’s exactly what people are doing, dancing in place until they’re given the boot by security. Then they shimmy down the path to another spot. I’m reminded of that auditorium scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas: everyone dancing and doing their own thing, but forever linked through the music. I slump my own way down the path and do another loop along the back. Beyond the line of guys waiting for the Porta-John, past the gates that enclose the amphitheater, I see people seated atop a high concrete wall, watching the show from afar. Later, I head over to meet them. They’re a group of friends from Nashville—Neil’s been to 100-plus shows; it’s Stephanie’s first—and they couldn’t get tickets. Cody, Stephanie’s husband, has been seeing the band since he was 15; he counts this as his 34th show. Here’s what’s different about Phish, he tells me: If you go over to the nearby parking lot where people who travel with the band set up tents and sell food, beer, T-shirts, and various other accoutrements—if you go over there and tell them you’re trying to see Phish for the first time, even though it’s a sold-out show, someone will give you a ticket for free. That’s how much they love the band.
Nearby, a no-frills paper sign hangs on a chain link fence indicating the lot location: It says “SHAKEDOWN ST” written in blue marker; an arrow points the way. The name is from a Grateful Dead lyric—“Nothin’ shakin’ on Shakedown Street, used to be the heart of town; Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart, you just gotta poke around.” In fact, there’s not much shakin’ on this Shakedown Street either, since most people are over at the amphitheater, still watching the show. But a few vendors are hanging out. Ty, 24, has a blond beard, a tie-dyed shirt, an array of Grateful Dead rings on his fingers, and a rainbow-painted van that he’s been following tours in, vending jewelry and other items, since he was 17. “Originally why I got entranced was the music,” he says. “It was unlike anything I’d heard, and what it represented: Do whatever the fuck you want to do, and if anyone tells you different, fuck them … with peace and love, but fuck them!”
The next morning, I dig deeper into phanhood. I spend a few hours on the Phish Chicks Facebook page, where I’ve asked people to share stories about why they love the band. One of them talks about how on the second to last night of the “Baker’s Dozen,” the 13-show run Phish did at Madison Square Garden over 17 nights in 2017, she went into the ladies room, where the Eagles’ “Take It Easy,” was playing. Suddenly, she writes, the entire room erupted into song, “WITH HARMONY, with pure joy.” Another explains, “If I had to title my journey with the boys, I’d call it ‘the art of letting go’ because that’s what their music helps me do—Let go of whatever is happening in my life and get back in tune with my authentic weird self. It revives my soul!! I’ll never stop seeing them; Nobody else does for me what they do.”
Fortified, I close my laptop and head out into the sunny, clear Nashville day. It’s perfect weather for an outdoor show, but once downtown I learn there’s a problem with the Shakedown lot. Or, actually, the Shakedowns. There are three of them: The one I visited the night before, about a seven-minute walk from the concert venue; the one in a parking lot two minutes away from the venue, which people keep getting kicked out of because the parking lot owner doesn’t want them there; and a third one in another lot before you even get to the venue. This has the effect of dispersing the crowds, making each Shakedown something less than itself. But the spirit prevails. At the lot nearest the amphitheater, I introduce myself to two women sitting in folding chairs near a car, drinking beers. Tara (not her real name), 25, wears a cap with an American flag pattern, a marijuana leaf in place of the stars. Brooke has on a mauve wig and a crop top featuring the Fishman donut pattern. She’s 29, lives in Asheville, North Carolina, and supports herself through her Etsy shop and on tour, where she sells things like the sunglasses she’s wearing—they say “PHAT JAMZ” in beads across the top. “She makes her money she lives off all year doing this,” Tara says.
The two of them met, obviously, while going to Phish shows. “It’s super fun, there are a bunch of girls we’re tight with,” Tara explains. Sure, they have some complaints about the crowd here being extremely dude-dominated, and they warn me not to put any drink down in a crowd—“There are a lot of stories about people getting nonconsensually drugged this summer, it seems like,” she says. I press for more information, but they don’t have specifics: “I guess it’s just because of the internet, you hear it more.” In any case, they love the music, the vibe, and the chance to cut loose with their friends, who are otherwise scattered all over the country. “All my good friends, I met through Phish,” says Brooke. “The more people you know, the better drugs you get,” Tara adds. I ask about the drug scene: Is it really overwhelming, or just kind of a side thing? “If you want anything, you can get it,” she clarifies, “but if you don’t want it, you can’t get it. We don’t have any idea where to get stuff like opioids. The stuff that I like is more fun.” And not everybody’s doing drugs, she explains: “There are also a lot of people who are like, I have to be at work on Monday.”
I wander toward the edge of the lot, where I’m introduced to Boogie and Leroy. Boogie looks and talks exactly like Joaquin Phoenix might if he were acting in a Grateful Dead biopic; Leroy has on colorful knee-high socks and boasts a peppy energy. “How did you end up on tour?” I ask them. “I was hiking the Appalachian Trail, and I met this guy, and he was like, ‘Have you ever heard of Phish?’” Leroy says. “I was like, ‘No, man, not at all.’ And he said, ‘They’re playing in Virginia.’ We’re in Georgia, it’s 1,800 miles away. He’s walking to see them and asks, ‘Do you want to go with me?’ I said, ‘You have 1,800 miles to convince me.’ It was the most epic summer of my life.” This was two years ago, and Leroy hasn’t looked back. “It was the camaraderie of the people. The music is incredible, but just that family aspect, everyone takes care of each other.”
Boogie’s obsession with following jam bands started with his dad, who did security for the Dead in the ’70s and was bringing him to shows from the time he was three years old. “It was always about being a ball of light, smile, be kind,” he says. “That’s why we’re so grateful that even though Jerry’s gone, Trey, he’s a good player.” Boogie’s got his own kids now, toddlers named Mercy Winifred Pooh Bear and Memphis Lee, who are “the princess and prince of the lot.” He and his wife run a food truck called the Ragin’ Cajun, and they travel across the country with the surviving members of the Dead and Phish, part of the subgroup of unofficial vendors who’ve linked up with the bands they love, to make a living by following them. “I’ve taken my kids across the US 16 times, from Washington to San Diego to the Keys to New York, Massachusetts, and Maine,” Boogie says.
“People think we’re lazy burnouts, but I have a college degree,” adds Leroy. “I don’t see the passion in that. You should do what makes you happy.”
“Hey, has anyone given you a pin?” Boogie asks. I shake my head, and after some deliberation, he and Leroy present me with a “Stealie,” the classic red-and-blue lightning skull icon of the Dead. “Make sure you tell them that came from Leroy and Boogie,” they instruct me. I nod, trying to figure out where it should go. “You should always put it on your jacket,” Boogie says, and a woman who’s been sitting with us pipes up: “It’s your pin, honey, put it wherever you want to.” Boogie gives me his phone number so when I’m done with this story, I can call him and arrange to come on tour with the Dead. I can’t say part of me isn’t tempted. “You’re a ball of light, and you bump into him, you bump into me, you take some of that light and you move on,” he’s saying, and it’s time to do exactly that.
Outside the amphitheater, a small group has formed; they’re peering through the grates of the fence and listening to the sound check. I walk over and introduce myself to Jen, who’s carrying her baby in a sling, and Sal. Now married, they were high school sweethearts in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and they’ve been seeing Phish since 2003 and listening to tapes in their cars before that. They’re in a new time in their lives, but they still connect with the band. “Now that we have her, it’s like a whole new world of Phish,” Jen says. “Some people look at us with a baby at a show and are like, ‘Why are you going to the trouble?’” Sal adds. “I’m like, ‘Don’t eat doses and it’s pretty easy to take care of a kid while you watch a concert.’” “We want her to be the kind of music lover we are,” Jen explains. I ask how things have changed since they started going to shows. “Musically, Phish evolves, they grow together,” Sal says. “I think their jamming is on par with their entire career. I’m here for the improv, I want to see them take risks.” The guy next to us, Jim, from Michigan, gets in on the conversation. He’s been listening to Phish since high school, and he wonders if there’s something weird about him, the way his brain works, that the music doesn’t sound right unless he’s had two or three hits of weed. “You’re probably not alone,” we tell him. “Why Phish, though?” I ask. “They’re the best musicians,” he says. “It’s not even close.”
Look, it’s hard to explain why you feel a connection to music, and even harder when you’re high, but Phish fans are adamant about a few things. One is that people find each other through the band. “I’ve talked to five different strangers since we’ve walked up here,” Sal says. “Any concert you go to, it’s the nicest people you’ll ever meet in your life,” says Jim. Another is that the ritual of following Phish, whether it’s on tour for a summer or simply going to whatever shows you can, creates a way of life, a format to contain the things you feel are important. Sal and Jen have planned their vacations around Phish tours for 15-plus years. “We’ve seen shows in 38 different cities in 20 different states, places we never would have went to, but Phish brought us there,” Sal explains. They almost always start the year with the New Year’s Eve shows at Madison Square Garden, though they missed the last one because of the baby. “Sooner than later, she’ll be there,” Jen says. “If anything, she’ll just have memories of her crazy parents bringing her to shows.”
Sound check over, fans are starting to gather at the entrance to the venue. It’s still early, but they’re hugging each other and saying hello, old friends getting ready to do this thing they love. Hillary from Ohio has on a blue wig, a green-and-blue boa, silver leggings, and a funky skirt with a sequined lining. She tells me she has a “Phish closet” and makes all her boas herself. We run into Laura, 32, who’s wearing an orange cactus-print tank dress—she saw the design on a pair of Mike Gordon’s socks and had the dress made out of a stretchy spandex material to match. “I have like 20 of these in different patterns,” she says. Laura and Hillary met in Alpharetta, Georgia, this summer. The thing with Phish shows is, you keep seeing the same people, sometimes without even looking for them.
Laura’s got another friend with her, a dark-haired guy whose name I don’t catch, and they wax rhapsodic about the band. “You feed off the energy of the crowd, and the crowd feeds off the energy of them in this unique way,” he says. “They’re nerdy middle-aged men goofballs who have this incredible following, and also, look at this community! I like to say, ‘I like my Phish friends in doses, on doses’—like in doses, a few times a year, and on doses, like … on drugs!” Laura and her friend hug. “We are a family and we love each other,” she says. “We travel all around! We see new cities and towns! As long as Phish is playing, we’ll do this.”
Nellie, 38, who saw her first show in ’94, joins us. “I really got into them in ’97—I’m in my late 80s in terms of shows,” she says. Laura adds, “The band grows, we grow, we change, they go through things, we go through things. They still play their old songs and new songs, and they cover so many songs. I can’t think of a cover that they don’t do better than the original!” Nellie laughs: “I disagree! You think they’re better than the Beatles?” “The Beatles sucked live,” Laura retorts. Nellie is dressed up in a fur jacket, high-heeled booties, and a floral skirt with a crop top. I ask about her outfit. “I work in fashion. This is how I dress in normal life,” she says. “This is who I am. It’s totally OK. This is a place where you can be who you are.”
I stop and talk to Torry, who’s sitting on the steps with his friend Mode. They’re drinking coffee and patiently waiting for the doors to open. This is Torry’s second show and Mode’s first. “She’s nervous,” Torry tells me. “I’m excited,” she corrects him. “I’m open to anything.” I ask whether they’ve experienced a sense of community here, and Torry laughs, “I was just telling Mode—she’s like, ‘You’re the only black person here,’ and I was like, ‘This is the one time everybody just comes together.’ It’s like every emotion when you’re having the best day ever. If every day could be like this …”
“The world should be a Phish show?” I offer. “Absolutely,” he says.
The lines into the amphitheater are getting long and the sun is setting. I run back over to the Shakedown to see if the vibe has changed. A guy waves some joints in my direction, asking if I want to buy—but I shake my head and he moves on. I’m reminded of what Tara told me—you can find whatever you want, but not what you don’t want. I strike up a conversation with Todd, a guy wearing a pink button-down and a cowboy hat topping his long hair. He’s here to see the show with his brother and some friends, but his whole family is hanging out in the Shakedown pre-show, including his mom and dad, who are in from Athens, Georgia, and a cousin who lives in Nashville. They credit their friend Dan, who appears to be wearing two hats, with bringing everybody together. “We met because of the music,” says Todd. “It’s like, without the band there would be no Phish family, no connection with each other."
Phish fans love talking about Phish almost as much as they love seeing Phish.
Dan comes over to talk. “First and foremost is the music, but the community we’ve met, I come here to see as much as the music,” he says. “I’m 48, and I started with the band at 21. I’ve dedicated my entire adult life to this band. I wait for the tour—that’s my vacation. Sometimes I wonder if I regret that, but then I realize, I don’t. Where are we going next? I can’t wait.”
I return to the amphitheater, and this time there’s a long line instead of a massive clump, and it goes faster than I would have imagined. Once inside, I walk around the lawn, passing people holding balloons and glow sticks, just like the previous night. There’s an intense herbal smell, and smoke wafts around in the sky, lit by the stage lights. There’s a full moon tonight, but it’s shrouded in fog, and it’s colder than last night. People stand around waiting, wrapped in blankets. Then the music starts. A guy in a sequined cape and hat waves his arms around. People toss plastic donuts in the air. “The ocean is love,” sings Anastasio. This is “Soul Planet,” a song that’s been widely derided, even by fans, for its goofy lyrics, but everyone’s grooving, either in on the joke, or just loving it purely. This is the other thing about Phish: you can be just as earnest and dorky as you want to be. After all, this is a band that often plays the intro to The Simpsons, and in response fans are supposed to yell “D’oh!” at the end of the song. “The thing about going to shows for me,” says Gilmer, “is that it’s one of the few places I feel totally free to dance around like an idiot and enjoy myself because everyone is, and there’s no judgment.”
In the days that follow, I do interviews with more Phish fans. Some, like Wendell and Rob, are people I met at the concert. Others I find online, through Phish Chicks. I’ve long been aware of still others who are fans—like Jen Carlson of the New York City news site Gothamist, who got into the band back in ’91—so I reach out. Every time I talk to someone, they suggest another person I should speak to. My scope spreads, my notes become unwieldy. Phish fans love talking about Phish almost as much as they love seeing Phish. There’s a whole lot of overwhelming love, and so many rituals: What people wear. Whether they pregame a show with coffee or beer or another “dose” (what that consists of varies, too). How they keep track of the shows they’ve seen and songs they’ve heard. Phish.net, Rob tells me, “will generate your stats and give you a breakdown of gaps between songs and the song you should have heard that you haven’t, and your most overplayed song.”
John Del Signore, also of Gothamist, has been seeing shows for 25 years, despite an initial aversion to Phish fans in high school that he still hasn’t completely gotten over: “I’ve had this experience so many times, walking in to a show, like, ‘Why am I here?’” he says. “There’s a certain degree of debauchery associated with the band and their fans, which has faded somewhat as the fan base matured, but people were really getting ripped, and a certain percentage would be wearing patch pants or be white kids with dreadlocks and it was like, ugh. I would feel uncomfortable, but the lights would go on, the music would start, and I’d be like, ‘Cool.’”
For others, there’s no question that they consider a Phish show a religious experience. “It’s my church,” says Wendell, 43, who’s been to 223 shows, attending his first at the age of 17. “It’s what I look forward to doing more than anything in the world. It brings me all the pleasure and joy I need to sustain me through the rest of life.” Wendell’s younger brother and sister are big Phishheads, and so is his brother-in-law, Rob, 40, who’s seen 40-some shows. “It’s the area of my life where I can enjoy and have fun and dance away my troubles,” Rob says. But maybe the family’s best Phish story involves Wendell’s daughter Avry, who’s 20. She went to shows as a baby, and started listening again in college when she’d feel homesick. Wendell brought her to her first show as an adult when she was 18—it was a magical experience for both of them, getting to experience this thing they loved so much together. More recently, they both saw the band play in Albany. Avry then left to return to school, or so they thought. “We got home, and my younger daughter was on her phone, asking, ‘Why is Avry in Delaware right now?’” he says. (He knew immediately: She was going to see Phish in nearby Hampton, Virginia.) “I shed a single tear! I was proud.”
Friendships and romances form at Phish shows, the names and dates etched in memory: Katie, 32, met her boyfriend at Chula Vista ’14, and fell in love with him at Wrigley, ’16. At the time, she was living in Colorado and he was in Michigan. “Phish is really the only reason that our relationship worked long-distance,” she says. Almost a year ago, they moved in together. Subcommunities spring up, too. Where Grateful Dead had the Wharf Rats, Phish has the Phellowship, a sober group that meets for support before shows, during set break, and afterward. They have a table at each venue where a few people are stationed who will sit or talk or dance with you, a safety net against using. Will, 26, was introduced to the group through a counselor at a rehab program. For him, shows used to be about getting wasted; now, he says, “I’m strong enough that I don’t always need to go to the meetings at set break, but the thing is, these are my friends in the Phish community.” He adds: “Now I just half go to see Phish and half go to see these best friends I have.”
There’s even a Phish journalist listserv called “Journophish,” which Carlson and Del Signore are part of; members email back and forth about band-related content and to arrange meet-ups. “I gotta say it’s been emotionally profound,” Del Signore confesses. “I can’t think of any other band I have paid so much attention to and seen play live so many times though the course of my adult and young adult life. Now I’m 43, and the band is much more mature, Trey has had a successful recovery, and it feels like a gift at this point. It feels like everyone seems really aware of how rare it is.”
The band seems to know this, too. In a 2014 PBS NewsHour program pegged to Phish’s 30th anniversary, Anastasio talked about how lucky the musicians feel “to be part of such a loving community, and that means the audience as well as the band members.” He may not know fans by name, but “I have, as strange as this sounds, relationships with people who stand like ten rows back and dance,” he explained. “It sounds weird, but it’s the dead-on truth.”
Maybe it sounds weird, but that doesn’t take away from how real any of it is; how seriously, even in moments of joy, fans take the music, the band, and the overall experience. You can take try to deconstruct the magic—Phish’s word-of-mouth-based popularity; their improvisational talents and creativity; the way the music pairs so well with mind-altering drugs; the way they supported the taping of shows and trading of tapes early on, creating a culture of sharing even before the internet; the way they speak to their audience and ask their audience to respond; the inside jokes and private terminologies through which you can learn and feel a sense of belonging. In some ways, though, all this dissection ignores the point, which is something much larger, the sum of so many parts.
I keep coming back to the idea of structure, and how traditions give us a foundation that lets us feel both stable and free, providing a space in which we can do just about anything while still feeling most ourselves. Fans have grown up with this thing, and yet it keeps them young, even as they, and the band, get older. You can define your life with Phish, or you can dip in and out as you see fit; either way, phanhood grants a sense of continuity, a social-spiritual home in a world of chaos. And isn’t that exactly what a ritual is supposed to do? “You kind of find you go and nothing has really changed,” says Carlson. “You feel the same about this band, they’re playing the same songs, you reenter the space of the show. It’s this lovely thing to have loved this thing for so long, and still have it exist.”