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Catching Phish in Their Natural Setting
Just like with other, more mainstream holidays, there are rituals that I and other fans follow when going to see Phish, the four-piece group from Vermont that has become the most popular jam band in the world since the Grateful Dead.
An early arrival is a must: For the band’s sold-out shows at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts on July 8 and 9, the parking lots opened at 9:30 a.m. — for a 7:30 p.m. show — for tailgating and sampling “the tastiest bean burritos” and other party favors. I once asked a vendor about their burgers, and a woman standing nearby told me that, “they’re pretty good — if you like charred animal flesh.”
“I’ll take two,” I said.
The tailgating culture serves another purpose: by the time people stroll into the venue, they are adequately fortified to be conduits for the unmistakable energy of a Phish show.
Don't confuse this experience with the electronic dance music festivals that have become the party of the moment (as well as infamous for the fans who have died at them). Sure, Phish fans have been known to dance a little bit — scratch that, a hell of a lot. But there is also something more there: the band's lyrics and signature jams can be a three-days-in-the-desert sort of weird one minute and the next, convey an urgent plea to hang on to your youth and your friends when it comes time to look for a paycheck. As they say in one of their most-loved songs, "Chalkdust Torture": "Can't this wait ’til I'm old?/Can I live while I'm young?"
That’s the reason I can’t get enough of this band. It's why you could probably find people selling bootleg T-shirts repping every song in Phish's catalog, and why fans plan their summers around tours. Phish fans don’t just see one show; they're season-ticket holders.
And just as the Dead enjoyed a strong following among Jews — a 1999 essay in the book, Perspectives on the Grateful Dead, was titled "Why Are there so Many Jewish Deadheads?" — so, too, does Phish.
There are others who have tried to explain this connection. The headline of a 2011 Huffington Post article read "Phish and Judaism: Going to Synagogue at Madison Square Garden,” and a 1999 Salon story stated, “Ask any teenager growing up in a ‘Jewish suburb’ (most major cities in North America have at least one), and they’ll tell you that a disproportionate number of Phish fans are Jewish.”
In order to hear it for myself, I set out across the Mann parking lot on an entirely unscientific fact-finding mission to determine what it is about this foursome that has me, Matisyahu — who has previously described his musical roots as coming from touring with Phish — and other Jews celebrating their performances like it’s the fourth night of Chanukah.
No one I spoke with at the show mentioned that their fandom stemmed from the band having two Jewish members — bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman — or because they have been known to cover “Avinu Malkenu” and “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.” They instead talked about the sense of community that exists at shows, how everyone seems to perk up at the same moments and launch into a communal dance that appears almost choreographed, how it’s common knowledge that when guitarist Trey Anastasio yells, “Play it, Leo!” that Page McConnell is about to tear into a solo on the keyboard.
I first saw Phish in 2004 at Deer Creek Music Center in Indiana. Two friends — who, yes, just happen to be Jewish — and I were heading into our senior year of high school when we journeyed from St. Louis in the back of a white Isuzu Oasis. The parents who drove us were taking my friend’s younger sister and her friend to a Native American reenactment. As we approached the venue and saw farmland become a modern-day Haight Ashbury, the looks on their faces said it all: “Who gave the OK on this?”
But we survived, and I came away eager to both hear the band take more musical risks live and to interact with the revelers in the lots or campgrounds outside. (Unfortunately, the band broke up for five years after that tour.)
When my editor emailed me telling me he had secured press passes for the sold-out first show in Philadelphia, I threw my hands in the air and did a little jig at my desk; it’s a good thing my cubicle is roomy. Unlike that trip a decade ago, there was no apprehension among fans before the first night at The Mann despite a forecast of heavy thunderstorms. No one complained about a two-hour delay and an exodus of fans from the lawn into the pavilion. Instead, there were only jokes about what songs Phish might open with and stories of past shows. (It was the first time the band had played in Philadelphia since 2009 and at The Mann since 1995.)
“Crazy stuff happens at Phish shows when I wear my kipah,” said Yerachmiel Shapiro, an Orthodox rabbi from Baltimore. His seats were on the lawn but he had been sitting in the pavilion when a security guard approached him to get him to move.
“I said, ‘I’m really sorry. Can I wait till the song is over and then I’ll go?’ ” he recounted. But the security guard was not interested in his answer. “He said, ‘See this section, this is all for you. Go sit there. Shalom.”
Shapiro, who was given his ticket for free from a stranger outside the show, said that good vibes come standard with Phish.
Unlike Shapiro, who has seen Phish for years, there were other fans wearing kipahs and attending their first shows. Then there was Will Schwerd, a New Yorker who became religious after meeting a rabbi at a Phish festival in his home state four years ago. He has since started Phishalom, a nonprofit organization that sets up a tent outside shows and offers kosher food and drinks. He recalled a show in Saratoga, N.Y. in 2013, when his group had about 100 people at the tent.
“Get this — it was the Friday night show. They all stayed back. They heard us singing. They did not use their tickets but stayed back to sing and create Shabbat with us,” said Schwerd, who is a college student in Binghamton, N.Y., when not on tour.
Lieb Meadvin, a math teacher at Torah Academy and friend of Matisyahu, has observed the Jewish following on both Dead and Phish tours — and, as he’s more a fan of Jerry’s band, he has “only” seen Phish 20 times.
On Shabbat, “As I became observant, I made a progression of first just going to shows and meeting someone there — they would carry my ticket. Then I eventually stopped going Friday night; then I eventually stopped going to shows on Shabbas all together,” said Meadvin. On Saturday nights, he will go if the show starts after sundown or sometimes just catch the second set.
But not all Jewish phans, as Phish aficionados are known, are observant. Meadvin sees a common motivation that cuts across the various streams.
“It’s the community — I think that’s why so many Jews come to these things. There’s a natural inclination for this type of community. And if they’re not finding it where they live or they’re not finding it in a Jewish community, that’s what they’re searching for, so they come here,” he said.
Among some of the less observant Jewish phans —myself included — the indoctrination happened at overnight camp. I remember counselors at Camp Sabra in Missouri playing music with these strange sounds and someone singing about a “land of lizards” and wondering, “Is this what the DARE officer was talking about?”
Years later, no longer counselors and campers, we would see each other bobbing and doing a little two-step at concerts and talk about that 20-minute jam from the night before. By then, I had long since realized that the shows were about more than just drugs. They are — well, to be honest, guitarist Trey Anastasio says it better than I do in the song, played on the second night, “Run Like an Antelope” — about setting “the gear shift to the high gear of your soul.”
Or as Gordon, the bassist who grew up attending a Solomon Schechter Day School, put it during the opening lyrics of the first night encore, “Possum”: “I come from atop the mountain, baby/Where the people to come to pray.”