- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2004

Phish fans hiked as far as 15 miles down a gridlocked Interstate 91 to a remote airfield in Coventry, Vt., where the peripatetic jam band played its final show last weekend.

The single-file scene looked like a mass exodus of refugees from a Third World country, reports Josh Baron, executive editor of Relix, an independent magazine that covers grass-roots bands.

“People were being turned away,” he says. “It was unbelievable.”

Among the estimated 70,000 fans who made it to the rain-soaked grounds of the Newport State Airport for the band’s farewell festival, there was “sobbing, crying, hugging,” Mr. Baron continues. Phish concerts and their attendant subculture have been “a common ground for people — this is the only place they saw close, dear friends.”

Back in Burlington, Vt. at Nectar’s restaurant — the state university haunt where Phish got its start in the mid-‘80s — the long goodbye continued for days after the last note sounded Sunday. The place was buzzing with Phish-related activity, with fans signing a giant postcard (to be delivered to the band) and reminiscing over the house specialty, fries served in gravy.

“We’ve just been mobbed here,” says Nectar’s general manager Chris Machanic over the phone.

But now it’s all over.

Or is it?

The Phish quartet (singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio; keyboardist Page McConnell; bassist Mike Gordon; and drummer Jon Fishman) may never play together again, but all that camaraderie — not to mention the black-market economy of food, drugs and T-shirts that followed the band wherever it went — won’t just evaporate.

“There’s gonna be a void,” Mr. Baron says.

Asked if one band in particular stood to absorb Phish’s following, or a good chunk of it, he says, “There doesn’t seem to be an imminent heir to the throne.”

Phish’s devotees will most likely reintegrate into the vast web of jam band camp followers that travel the country nonstop, congregating in hubs such as Colorado, with its progressive bluegrass scene, and the annual Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tenn.

Something like this has happened before. When Phish took a two-year hiatus beginning in 2000, the String Cheese Incident found itself playing to a sold-out Radio City Music Hall. The first Bonnaroo festival, too, was a natural choice for the Phish tribe, which had a wide-open summer calendar in June 2002.

No one could confirm the runoff from Phish’s fan base for sure, but that’s what jam-band circuit observers assumed was happening.

Other acts could enjoy a similar boost next year. “I think a lot of smaller, midlevel bands” — from Perpetual Groove to Sound Tribe Sector 9 to the Disco Biscuits — “are going to see an increase in audience attendance,” Mr. Baron says.

“There are certainly bands that will gain momentum from Phish calling it quits, but there isn’t necessarily an immediate touring successor quite like Phish was in ‘95, after [Grateful Dead leader] Jerry Garcia died,” says Eric Ward, editor of the online music magazine Glide.

“At that time, Phish had already solidified themselves as a major player, so it was a natural progression for them to slide atop the touring pyramid rather quickly,” he adds.

(As a return favor, the Dead itself may benefit from Phish’s departure next year, which will mark the band’s 40th anniversary as well as the 10th anniversary of Mr. Garcia’s death.)

Mr. Ward says young fans, who may have discovered jam-bands only in the last year or two, will want an act they can claim as their own. It’s likely they’ll gravitate toward a younger jam band such as the Chicago-based Umphrey’s McGee. “It enables them to create their own unique, coming-of-age relationship like many of us had with Phish in the ‘90s,” he says.

“There’s a number of exciting bands on the scene that have steadily growing followings,” says Ashley Capps, president of A.C. Entertainment, the Knoxville, Tenn.-based company that co-promotes the Bonnaroo festival with Superfly Productions.

He cites the band Moe and Umphrey’s McGee (them again), acts that went over big this year at Bonnaroo. In Phish’s absence, they could see hundreds, if not thousands, of new faces.

A big reason why concert industry observers should watch where Phish fans go is because they’re a hardy lot. In a season of slumping ticket sales and canceled festivals — Mr. Ward says the smaller copycat camp-out concerts that, under Phish’s influence, popped up on acreages across the country are all but history — Phish’s tour has been one of the biggest successes of the year.

“They have a very devoted following,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar magazine, the concert industry bible. “How you define yourself as a fan is how many shows you’ve seen.”

Jam bands probably aren’t expecting a quick injection of Phish fans. Overnight success is foreign to their grass-roots ethos. Patience and persistence are key, and longevity is the reward. “Since jam bands don’t generate the majority of their income on record sales, they have more or less been able to avoid many of the pitfalls incurred by the music industry as of late,” says Mr. Ward.

“It took Phish 21 years to go from Burlington to Coventry,” he adds. “That’s only 75 miles, but the journey secured them a permanent place in rock history.”


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