Phreak Show

Posted October 1, 2009 in Feature Story

“I would sit in a week’s-worth of traffic for Phish!”


So says one earnest, bearded young fan in the new documentary We Enjoy Yourself, which captures the devotion of thousands of Phish followers as they endure a nightmarish traffic jam—some waited in their cars for over 50 hours—to witness what was billed as the lauded jam band’s final shows in the summer of 2004 (Phish subsequently reunited earlier this year).  Produced, directed and edited by 31-year-old Redlands filmmaker Chris Pepino, this compassionate, rather restless film (which features mostly hand-held footage) debuted at last month’s New Jersey Film Festival.


The IE will get a dose of how dedicated the Cult of Phish is when, Oct. 31, the band kicks off “Festival 8,” a three-day, eight-set extravaganza at the site of Coachella, the Empire Polo Club fields in Indio.



Phish formed at the University of Vermont in 1983, with band members initially promoting themselves as a Grateful Dead cover band. Over the following 21 years they built an enormous fan base chiefly through semi-improvised shows which fused elements of rock, reggae, jazz, reggae, funk, bluegrass, prog rock, country, blues and even classical music into sprawling, 420-friendly sets which included extended versions of both their own songs and cover tunes. The quartet nurtured a rare sense of unity between themselves and their fans, including actively encouraging audience members to make and trade audio recordings of their shows. Despite their lack of airplay or TV exposure, by the mid-1990s Phish had a huge and unusually devoted following, many of whom would follow the band on tour.


When Phish announced that a three-day festival near the tiny town of Coventry, Vermont, in August of 2004 would be their final shows, tens of thousands of Phishheads, as the band’s diehard fans are known, planned to be there. Although 70,000 tickets were officially sold, estimates for the number of people that made the trek to Coventry run as high as 130,000.  Torrential rain on the week of the festival meant that only 20,000 had entered the site before no more cars were allowed into the quagmire of a field. Many in the resulting epic traffic line simply abandoned their vehicles and walked up to 20 miles to attend the concert. Pepino’s documentary, We Enjoy Yourself, tells their story, and in so doing offers a window into the Phishhead phenomenon.


“I went out with the intent to capture people’s reactions to [Phish’s final shows] and to see how people were planning on dealing with it and how it was affecting them emotionally,” says Pepino, himself a veteran of around 85 Phish concerts. “Once I got involved with the documentary and found myself in that traffic, on those roads, then the film kind of took a new shape.”



We Enjoy Yourself is a film about Phish fans rather than a study of the band itself. It consists of interviews with Phish lovers from all over the U.S. en route to and outside the final five concerts of the band’s “pharewell” tour that summer, set to music from the shows (which was licensed with the band’s blessing). While it portrays the colorful temporary communities that sprout in the parking lots around Phish shows, complete with informal food and T-shirt vendors, it includes no actual concert footage. Phish-ianados—one whom claims to have seen 104 of their concerts—are seen gushing about their great love for the band; desperately seeking spare tickets (and vaulting over a venue’s fence when these fail to materialize); dancing, tailgating and bonding. The mostly college-age interviewees—some of whom boast carefully cultivated dreadlocks or walk barefoot—almost universally testify to the family-esque aura of acceptance and mutual support amongst Phish followers (the only negative account comes from one rather bewildered lad whose ticket had been stolen).


“[Phish] really strives to do something different every night at their concerts,” explains Pepino who graduated from the University of Redlands with a degree in film, creative writing and music composition in 2000. “This is a band that has hundreds of original songs in their repertoire and hundreds of covers added to that. I’ve had the experience where you can see literally 10, 15 shows in a row and not see them repeat a single song. Because of that, people are really drawn to want to see more than one concert and follow them and get more of a full experience of what they have to offer . . . People really go there for the music, and realize once they’re there that there’s something also alluring about the fans and the fact that everyone is so friendly and people have all these things in common.”



“It’s all about the music—the people are a plus,” concurs Sarah James, 22, a Phish fiend (33 shows and counting) from Philadelphia who was at Coventry. “It’s like everyone there is your friend . . . If you need a sweatshirt, someone will lend you a sweatshirt; if you’re hungry and don’t have enough money for food, someone will probably be able to cook you up something from their campsite.”


“It was just an extraordinary to me to watch these four guys do things with their instruments that I didn’t think you were supposed to do in rock ‘n’ roll music—that I didn’t know you could do,” says Stuart Henderson, 31, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of History at Toronto’s York University, of his first Phish encounter when he was just 14 years old. “A room full of like-minded kids, doing drugs and listening to a band that seems to be really connecting with them . . . it was really the whole package. And I wouldn’t be surprised if my experience was totally archetypal.


“There’s something astounding about a band that invites so much identification with their music: that says to it’s fans ‘come along with us,’ literally—don’t just come and see us once, but get in the van. [Phish] learned this from the Grateful Dead—you create an amazing scene around the fact that the band and the fans are part of the same subculture. They speak the same language; they do the same things. If you were sitting down next to [Phish guitarist/vocalist] Trey Anastasio, you could just have a beer and a chat because you’d have all the same cultural touchstones.”


Sure enough, heartening goodwill prevails on We Enjoy Yourself as the Phishy faithful become snarled in an incredible 35 miles of all-but stationary traffic on Interstate 91, the main north-south thoroughfare through Vermont (Anastasio had issued an on-stage warning about the appalling weather conditions around Coventry at the previous show). According to those interviewed by Pepino, nobody lost their tempers or tried to jump the line, even when they could hear Phish’s first performance starting without them on the radio. While such a situation might have deteriorated into a riot—or at least a rash of petty crimes—at some rock festivals, the Phish fans in the film stay patiently, philosophically cool and watch out for each other. While many did turn back once the Coventry site stopped accepting vehicles, none of those interviewed on camera even consider not making it to the festival.


“All the people that I had come into contact with and interviewed were so positive through the whole experience,” says Pepino, “despite all the hardships they had gone through.”



Yet these fans aren’t the crusty, lentil-munching hippies of old. Instead, those in the documentary are mostly decently-dressed, well-spoken youngsters, who politely chat in front of the late-model cars and RVs of their fellow Phish-torians.


“Young people in general, but especially middle-class white people from suburban situations, have a tendency to feel alienated by their surroundings and, to a certain extent, be embarrassed by what material wealth and affluence has provided for them,” says Henderson, author of the forthcoming book Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press), and a self-confessed former Phish fanatic. “In my experience, this often translates into them ‘performing,’ as it were, a kind of alternative identity. You see these subcultures at any high school: you’ve got the goth kids; the hippie kids; the hip-hop kids etc. There’s a strong draw to a band such as Phish, because they seem to offer a ready-made alternative identity to its listeners.


“Whereas the hippies in the ’60s and ’70s tended to be a response to the kind of affluence [of the era] . . . the Phish thing comes around in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, when there really wasn’t a lot of traction for those types of ideas. There’s a tendency for these fans to just be really, really into the band; go to college; then split for a couple of weeks and go see a bunch of shows.  And they live simply for those couple of weeks, but these are not kids that are giving up everything, and they’ve all got their credit cards in their pockets.”



“There’s a lot of angst, I guess, in people of that age group, and aimlessness perhaps, and I think that there is something to be said for a community where people are very accepting and very supportive and it’s easy to find a common bond in music,” says Pepino.


His film is intended to be equally a document of that community for Phish fans; a memento for those who actually attended Coventry; and an insight into their often under-the-radar subculture for the uninitiated. Wisely, and perhaps with the latter in mind, Pepino tastefully limits his film, which chiefly consists of shots of massed Phish fans and interviews with individuals from their number, to almost exactly 60 minutes. Snippets of the concerts themselves, particularly considering Phish’s legendary light show, would have brought a welcome vivacity to We Enjoy Yourself’s often overcast footage and offered those who’ve never seen the band an inkling of what all the fuss is about. However, as Phish had hired their own filmmaker to document Coventry’s on-stage action and does not allow fans to shoot video footage, this was simply not an option for Pepino.


Many of those who will watch We Enjoy Yourself (a title borrowed from a Phish song) will indeed be hardcore Phishheads—both those who were at Coventry and those who wish they’d been there. Pepino hopes to screen the film at the band’s Festival 8 in Indio—it’s the band’s first such event since Coventry, where he expects a crowd of up to 130,000—as well as at the Palm Springs Film Festival in January.


For the Coventry faithful, the numbing boredom of their wait amidst Vermont’s emerald woods and corn fields, plus the sometimes knee-deep mud at the festival site, did little to dampen their devotion to Phish (“It adds to the experience to be struggling a bit” insists one giggly gal in the documentary). And even though the band’s recent reformation means that those shows weren’t their swan song after all, diehard attendees like James have no regrets.


“Now that I look back on it, I think it was cool that we walked seven miles to get there. It was fun; it was really good; it was a great experience and like nothing else. It was almost a bitter-sweet essence—like we’re not going to have this anymore . . . I’ve met all of my friends, really, through this band.”


We Enjoy Yourself deftly, if a little over-lovingly, transmits such shared sentiments with both an insider’s and outsider’s eye, and in so doing this very viewable film becomes yet another friend which Phish made along the way.


For more information about Chris Pepino and We Enjoy Yourself, Phish will play the three-day Festival 8 at the Empire Polo Club, 81-800 Avenue 51, Indio, Oct. 30. Tickets: $199 plus $1 donation.


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