Phish have always been a divisive band. Maybe it's the pseudo-hippie outlook, or the Deadhead-with-a-trust-fund fanbase stereotype, or the density of the band's live catalogue. Or maybe it's all of these things combined.
Personally, I never thought about Phish much growing up. While they were gaining momentum in the '90s, I was diving into punk, studying the likes of Fugazi, Refused, Mission of Burma, and Snapcase. If this sounds like I'm bragging, I'm not. When I was in college the number of people who understood me could be counted on one hand. Which is why I went out of my way to meet people who had adopted a kind of life philosophy, one that included the tenet that music needed to feel authentic, authoritative, and important. Around the same time, Phish were making headlines for performing on trampolines.
Then this summer, with my 40th birthday fast approaching, I attended my first Phish concert. As I anticipated, the parking lot outside the Sleep Train Amphitheater, a San Diego-adjacent venue just north of Mexico, is filled with a hodge-podge of twenty- and thirty-somethings. Within minutes of my arrival, two shirtless men with an aluminum tank try to sell me a balloon of nitrous for five bucks. Nearby, a woman and her daughter stand behind a folding table full of shirts, patches, and pot paraphernalia, while an older man, also shirtless, peddles grilled cheese sandwiches from the back of his Subaru.
On my way towards the gate I meet David, a self-proclaimed Phish follower about to embark on his 71st show. "I saw them for the first time in 1996," he tells me. "Then I followed them the summer of '99, and it was the best time of my life." I can tell by the way he speaks that David is preaching the God's-honest truth.
David and his friends proceed to regale me with tales of the good old days, back when you needed an AOL account to access the Phish bootleg tape trading community. He misses the Deadheads who used to frequent Phish shows as well. "It was dirtier back then, but it was better," says David's friend.
I ask the David and his buddies what their favorite Phish album is and they can barely contain their laughter. "Dude, I couldn't name one of their albums right now," David says. "Now, Hartford Civic Center in '96? That I remember."
Their collective indifference for the very idea of the studio album is bordering on irreverence, and I think to myself that this attitude sounds suspiciously, perhaps even distinctly, punk.
Inside Sleep Train, Phish take the stage early and ease the crowd into "Farmhouse," a mid-tempo number with a simple rhyme scheme. I don't hate it—you can't really hate anything so inoffensive—but I do feel a little bored. I take it all in politely, although a woman lectures me for folding my arms at one point, handing me a couple glow sticks, presumably to discourage my behavior.
Meanwhile, the crowd around me locks in like a congregation. Many dance and jump, some close their eyes, and several simply watch, passing joints and taking in the lights and the music. By the end of the second set the band has executed a lean jam ("The Sloth"), some tongue-in-cheek moments ("2001: A Space Odyssey" and a 2Pac homage), and a carefree Stones cover ("Loving Cup").
When it's all over, some will head home to spouses and children and responsibilities, while others will hit a few more tour stops, devoutly following the band like they have for decades. But that's later. Until the encore ends, everyone belongs right where they are.
There are beads, tie-dye, and of course an adequate amount of weed. There is a wide-eyed grandmother with stringy white hair in the orchestra section, and elementary-aged kids near the front row yelling out song requests that the band will never hear. There are men smiling broadly and some young women holding up poster boards that read "Thank You!"
All I can think is that these people have all found their scene.
Finding your scene—your community, to put it in Phish parlance—is significant. When I was younger, I found my community by meeting people who questioned everything—traditionalism, complacency, the religion of their parents. The punk community found sponsors for their disposition in the noise of Drive Like Jehu, the politics of "The Shape of Punk to Come," and the idealism in Fugazi's "Reprovisional," not to mention the fellowship of their local scene, which, if they were lucky, was a nurturing one. Phish fans seem to be doing something similar with their DIY parking lot principles, their shared history, and their rebellious state of mind.
This sounds crazy, but the difference between punk rock and what Phish does is mostly in the details. They sound different from each other, and the wardrobe is certainly not the same, I'll grant you. But here in the desert heat, during Phish's last show of their 2016 Summer Tour's main leg, the people in the crowd look like they are, in this moment at least, their realest, truest selves, and if the rest of the world decides to judge them for it, they couldn't care less.
How very punk indeed.