Last weekend, I went to a Phish concert. I paid $67 to go to that Phish concert, and I didn’t even know Phish. For those who know me—an honorary Dutchman when it comes to spending money—this demands an explanation.
It began in Wyoming. I was hitchhiking down to Denver, and I caught a ride with a beater van and a large man with dreadlocks.
“Where you headed?” he asked.
“It’s your lucky day.”
We talked through the next four hours. He—Scott—was headed to a three-day Phish festival that weekend, where he would sell food and beer out of his van before each night’s show. That was his job. He followed Phish and a few other bands on tour, and the money from his concession van paid for his gas, show tickets, vehicle maintenance, and other necessities. Barely.
I had heard of Phish, but I hadn’t heard their music. Not more than a few songs, anyway. When I told Scott, he rummaged through a bag of cassettes and stuffed one in the tape player. Really—cassettes.
“Don’t bother listening to their studio albums,” he said. “Their live shows are where it’s at.”
Cheering came through the speakers, and then the band started playing. It reminded me of Dave Matthews, and that was a good thing.
“They’re a jam band, you know?” Scott explained. “Really improvisational, long songs—like six, ten minutes long. Back in the day you’d hear twenty-minute songs pretty often. They just get in a groove and go, trying out new things and playing around.” He rolled down the window and lit a cigarette. “They’ve been playing together so long that they can pull it off, and sometimes you get some really crazy stuff. But it still sounds good.”
The first track, I had to admit, did sound good. I found myself nodding to the rhythm, which was just funky enough to keep things interesting. We listened to the rest of the tape—both sides—as Scott told me more about Phish.
“There’re selling 26,000 tickets each night,” he said. “A lot of people—maybe most—are camping out for the whole weekend. You party all day, go to the concert, then party harder at night. It’s a really good community. Lots of hippies, lots of pot, lots of booze. Everyone’s friendly. You don’t get guys just trying to get laid at a Phish show—people go there for the music.” He looked at me. “You should go, man. There’ll be lots of people hitching in like you. You’d love it.”
I avoid concerts when I haven’t heard the band before. Being the only one who hasn’t heard a famous song is a buzz-kill. Everyone else screams out lyrics and cheers at their favorite parts, and you’re still figuring out if you even like the band.
“You know, I might.” The words came out as a surprise. But Scott’s enthusiasm was contagious.
“I’m telling you, man, it’s a great time.”
I ended up going. I brought a friend from Denver—who loved Phish already—to the last night of the festival. We showed up a few hours before the show started. The two of us walked through Shakedown Street, the pre-show open-air market filled with vendors like Scott, looking for ticket scalpers.
I had never seen so many dreadlocks in one place. Hippies milled about in flowing dresses, dirty jean shorts, Grateful Dead t-shirts. From folding tables and tailgate tents, more hippies sold artwork and tie-dye shirts, yak meat and homemade bongs, vegan burritos and rum-filled coconuts. People walked barefoot, beads threaded through their hair and bracelets covering their wrists. Energy abounded.
My friend and I found tickets for face value, and then we found Scott.
“You made it, man!” He gave us each a beer.
I grinned. “This place is great.”
“Tonight’s gonna be a good show. Never miss the last day. You’re gonna love it.”
Everyone was dancing, and I was, too. There were more than hippies, now: middle-aged men, old ladies, college students—and no one was dancing well. A guy to my left riffed on an air guitar; the people in front of me bobbed up and down like Oompa Loompas; a woman across the aisle did some cross between interpretive dance and drunken flailing. In a stadium of 26,000 people, I could count on two hands the people sitting down. Everyone else, at the very least, was bobbing heads or bending knees.
“What do you think?” screamed the girl beside me. She and her boyfriend had learned this was my first Phish show, and had they made it their mission to see that I enjoyed myself.
The band finished a chorus and dove into improv. The snare snapped off-beats and the keyboard matched accents with the bass. The crowd screamed, and glow sticks flew through the air. Down on the field, hands passed a massive beach ball toward the stage.
I grinned. “It’s awesome.”
In On the Road, Jack Kerouac writes, “I kind of liked him; not because he was a good sort, as he later proved to be, but because he was enthusiastic about things.”
Say what you will about jam bands and hippies—Phish fans have enthusiasm. More than the music, more than the thrill of seeing famous performers, I liked the concert for its energy. And I liked not just the concert, but the whole Phish community, and Scott, as well. They had all found something they loved, and they worshipped it without restraint. The dancers looked like idiots. Scott was next to broke. But they were happy—more than happy—and their enthusiasm carried me along with them.
Replace their god with mine, and they’d be far better Christians than I am.
NPR called Josh “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” after he wrote about his 7,000-mile, no-money hitchhiking journey through the United States. Since hitchhiking, he’s found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. He builds websites as the director of Branded Look LLC. Josh’s writing has appeared in places such as The Emerson Review, Front Porch Review, and Perspectives.