Friday Phish Fry: The Phellowship

You may have seen them, maybe even stopped by the table, and like most people, thought “that’s cool, not for me, but cool.”  Or you could be one of  the most sizable minority, come to the table and beat a quick retreat.  Or you could be one of those people who walk by the table, say something that was clever about twenty years ago like, “rehab is for quitters!” HAHAHA, never heard that one, asshole.


Unless of course, you are one of those people who need the table, or love the table, or enjoy serving at the table, then you know about the table and the people that sit there.

That table with the yellow balloons and large banner and sometimes popup tent belongs to the Phellowship, a group of Phish heads committed to staying clean and sober at shows.  By extension, many of the people who are part of the Phellowship are also part of other recovery groups, like AA or NA to name a couple.

As far as I can tell, the Phellowship got started in 1996 when some sober folks got together at the Clifford Ball.  The first table was at Halloween of the same year.  Even though I had met up with some sober folks around the same time, the creation of an actual group was a godsend to my Phish experience.  It wasn’t so much that I was worried about a relapse, but having a like-minded, committed group to meet at shows was fantastic.  A very strange venn diagram was created in my life.

Especially during the years from 1997-1999, the Phellowship was a pretty big part of my Phish experience.  In summer of 1997, I started showing up at the table and by the end of my run on that tour, I was in the same camp site as the rest of the folks.  I particularly remember the Minnesota crew and found them to be so welcoming and friendly that I couldn’t wait to see them again.

I did see the folks that fall but truthfully, all of my memories of the Phellowship revolve around summer tours.  1998 I camped with the Phellowship folks at Lemonwheel.  On the second night of that festival the Phellowship demonstrated, to me anyway, why it is such a great group and is such a great presence at shows.  Toward the end of the second set, a kid came by the tent, obviously messed up.  As he was talking, he basically collapsed and his entire left side kind of seized.  Those of us who were there, remained incredibly calm, unlike other folks and we were able to get paramedics and help communicate with the kid.  I won’t say we saved his life, but I do think we helped to get him to a safe place.

1999 was a special year for Phish and it was also when I was probably at my greatest involvement with the Phellowship.  I did the last five dates of the tour and also picked up a service commitment to the web site.  I can’t remember what my job was called, but involved responding to e-mails about the group did and the like.  It was also during this tour that I met Paige.

There really is no other way to say this, but without Paige there wouldn’t be a Phellowship.  This isn’t to say that a lot of folks didn’t do a lot of work and play vital roles, like Robert for example, but Paige was the leader and to be hyperbolic for a second, the visionary.  Without her drive I don’t think the Phellowship would have gotten off the ground and I don’t think it would have remained.

I got to witness that drive firsthand the first night I met Paige.  I was recruited to give Paige a lift from Alpine Valley to Deer Creek.  Back in those days it was SOP at Alpine to triple park cars.  As luck would have it, I was stuck in the middle of a three car line.  Paige and I walked back to my car and the people behind me were there, but had no intention of moving, telling us that it was an “Alpine tradition to just chill out.”  Within five minutes Paige had them moving their car and we were gone.*

*Funny story: When Skippy(someone I still desperately miss around Phish shows) introduced me to Paige and said I’d be willing to drive her, he said, “he’s a pretty cool guy and not an ax murderer.” Which is true, at least the latter.  I had, however just written a short story (which I still want to develop more) about a serial killer who preyed on women at Phish shows.  I couldn’t help but chuckle at that intro.

When we got to Indianapolis, it was just a great couple of days.  A bunch of us got together for breakfast in between shows, we hung out before the shows and danced like crazy.  After the final encore, we said our goodbyes, but I felt more connected to the group than ever.

While I associate the Phellowship very strongly with the summer, two separate shows in the fall and winter of 1999 standout.  First, I had made a couple of strong connnections in Chicago and after one of the Rosemont shows a bunch of us met up at the Green Mill for some late night jazz.  Talk about knowing your audience, when the band launched into Fire On the Mountain I bet the late night bartender thought a bomb went off.  I begged off when boys decided to go to the Admiral (a local strip club.)

The other big Phellowship event of 1999 was the big event of 1999,  Big Cypress.  Not only did the Phellowship provide me with some much needed companionship, my fellow members really helped me stay sane.  After going out for a bite to eat, I got back to my hotel room to find my ticket for the concert was gone.  After a good freak out, I managed to find a ticket broker who would sell me ticket for double the face value.  Because I had to run around Fort Lauderdale for about an extra hour, I pretty much hit all of the traffic going into the venue.  I barely caught the end of the first set.  It was pretty apparent to the fellows that I needed a meeting.

Of course it was much more than a meeting, my friends helped to calm me down, reminded me it was only a ticket and only money.  Then they got me to  dance and get my head into the present.  After the show, we hung out until late and hung out much of the next day.

When you read interviews with Trey after Big Cypress, he talked a lot about it feeling like a wave crashing into the surf, like it was an ending.  The band contemplated calling it quits after the show.  I knew exactly how they felt.  It felt like something was ending, like a commencement, time to move on.  I remember walking around Shakedown Street with Skippy, just talking about where life was going for both of us.  He was struggling with sobriety and I was in a weird place, just turned 30, feeling like I needed to be doing more.  Last I heard, I’m sorry to say Skippy didn’t stay sober much after New Year’s.  I’m glad he stayed sober through the show.  I still think of him and hope, truly wish, that wherever he is he’s found what he needed.

After the show, back in Fort Lauderdale, I got to hang out with Paige a little bit.  When I say hang out I pretty much mean sleep, an all-night show is pretty exhausting the next day.  When the alarm went off at three AM to catch our flights, it felt like I had just closed my eyes.  I dropped Paige off at her gate (you could still do that in 1999) and haven’t seen her in person since.  She’s still around, doing incredible things, most of them outside of the Phellowship.  A few hours later, I was back in Chicago waiting at an L stop, just trying to process the whole experience.

I was still excited for the coming tours, eager to go and hang out with the Phellowship.  However, things were just different.  I went to a couple of the 2000 shows, but so many of the people I knew from the tables weren’t around.  I also wasn’t devoting as much time to Phish.  I had other things to do and that feeling of things being finished was still there.  The hiatus that came after fall 2000 felt right.

By the time Phish came back in 2003, things had changed a great deal.  I was married, a child would be coming along.  I tried to get tickets for the winter show in Chicago, but the show sold out.  I opted for Jeff Tweedy tickets on sale the same day.  Oddly, I didn’t feel very disappointed.  I still wanted to see Phish, share the experience at least once with my wife (and that would be all:-) especially the Phellowship.  We got the chance during that summer tour, but it wasn’t the Phellowship of 1997-1999, it was a lot of new faces, young faces.  I didn’t feel like an outsider, but I also didn’t feel connected like I once did.

When the band announced the break up in 2004, I had an urge to try and make it to Coventry.  After thinking about it for about a second, I knew that wasn’t going to happen.  Going to Phish’s last concert wasn’t important compared to the rest of my life.  I couldn’t even go to both shows at Alpine that year, a friends wedding was on the same weekend.

So I went to what I thought was my last show at Alpine.  I was determined to at least check-in with the Phellowship one last time.  At the set break I made my way up the hill for the meeting.  I’m so glad that I did.  A lot of old faces were there, familiar names and still a lot of new blood.  It was, outside of Big Cypress, the biggest Phellowship meeting I had ever been at.  I ditched my pavilion seat and stayed to dance with all of the folks.  It was a great way to end two relationships, one with the band, one with the group.

Of course, it didn’t end.  After a five year break up, the band came roaring back and so did the Phellowship.  The tables were back.  The meetings were back. The connection through Facebook was, and is, exciting.  I must admit, at most shows I go to these days, I’m too old and too lazy to leave the pavillion to make my way to the back for a meeting.  I do make sure to check in at every show, chat with the the volunteers a little bit.  It’s great to see that the sober enthusiasm is still there.  The Phellowship, however, feels like a young persons game, kind of like a travelling young peoples meeting.  Just like I would feel out of place at a young person’s conference of AA, I kind of get the same feeling at the Phellowship.  But that is ok.  It is their time, I had mine and I’m forever grateful for it.

N.B. Yes, this Friday Phish Fry is coming out late Sunday, but as you can read, I went on for the better part of 1900 words.  A little extra fry time :-). 


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