You may notice some visitors to the Philadelphia area this weekend who seem like they are from a foreign place, if not a different dimension entirely. Some will be instantly distinguishable by their colorful attire and wide smiles peeking through luxurious facial hair. They may be seen in gregarious gangs, fragrant with essential oils and sparkling with crystals around necks and enamel pins tacked onto hats. These are Phish fans, and they have made the pilgrimage to party down with their band, who are returning once again to Camden beginning Friday, June 28 for a three-night stand at BB&T Pavilion.
Friday marks the 13th time the Vermont-bred prog-rock foursome has played the big stage in Camden. Their first was on July 10, 1999, a show well-known for a benchmark improvisational jam out of the song “Chalk Dust Torture.” Immediately dubbed “The Camden Chalk Dust,” this 14-minute opus instantly entered the pantheon of so-called “named jams.” Twenty years later, it stands as required listening for all fans and those noble souls seeking to understand why anyone would want to see the same band three nights in a row.
Ever since Phish’s Camden debut, the venue, which has undergone several name changes, has been known for barn-burning shows. Though the psychedelic explorations of four virtuosos who have never had a hit single may be lost on many Philadelphians, the culture of devotion, chosen family, celebration and individuality that make up the Phish world are familiar values.
In his 2013 book You Know Me But You Don’t Like Me: Phish, Insane Clown Posse, and My Misadventures with Two of Music’s Most Maligned Tribes (Simon & Schuster), Nathan Rabin embeds with hippies and juggalos in his quest to explain the nature of devotion to bands that the straight world regards with disdain. Philadelphians can relate. Were our hearts ever more full than while watching Eagles center Jason Kelce in full Mummers regalia lead the championship parade, singing “No one likes us, no one likes us, no one likes us, we don’t care!”? Just like Phish fans, our permanent outsider status is worn as a badge of honor; armor against a world that finds us distasteful. Yes, we threw batteries at Santa Claus, but it was because the jolly old elf showed up drunk and late! He had it coming!
Residents of the 215 have our shower slides with socks and sweatpants, unwavering love of kelly green Zubaz, and washcloth-as-hat look in the summer. Those with finer aesthetics peacock in matched leisure sets and gold chains nestled proudly in chest hair. This is who we are, and if you don’t like it, too bad. Philadelphians primarily dress for comfort and function, and to advertise their loyalties. Phish fans take a similar approach: cargo shorts to carry show necessities; a holey, worn-thin T-shirt from their first tour in the 1990s; Birkenstocks. Self-expression is displayed by men and women wearing handmade patchwork skirts, wire-wrapped crystal jewelry, and thousands of fan-made T-shirts vended on the marketplace of Shakedown Street in whatever parking lot that is hosting today’s tour stop. We may be a walking What Not to Wear, but we like ourselves just the way God and Jerry Garcia made us.
Tailgating! Philadelphia is good at it and that’s because we take it seriously. We’ve got our pop-up tents and barbecues, stocked coolers and comfortable chairs. We’re lined up when the lots open and settle in for a proper pregame with all the fixings. Likewise Phish fans, who set up their traveling circus in today’s parking lot and make themselves right at home for the duration. From margaritas to veggie burritos, you can find anything you want on Shakedown Street and support fellow fans in the Lot Economy.
There may be casual Phish or Eagles or Flyers or Phillies fans out there, but I’ve never met any. These are not wishy-washy people. Our heroes are the ones who went all the way, who found their singular love and dedicated their life to it. The 700 Level was not a place; it is a state of mind that persists long after the last piece of the Vet crashed to the ground on Implosion Day. Philadelphians never give up on their loves no matter how many times they break our hearts; true Phish fans never stop chasing another show, another rare song. We are all in search of the timeless moment and a peak to remember forever. Our home is in our hearts and that’s all that matters in the end.
In Philadelphia and on Phish tour, no one cares who your parents are. We don’t ask what your job is, or care how fancy of a car you drive. There is no ascribed status or born-in caste — all position is earned through devotion to the dream. Whether you were riding the El before it had stop announcements, hanging your head out the window trying to guess which stop was next, or following the band around selling grilled cheese to make it to the next show, we earn our stripes through our own blood, sweat, and tears. Both cultures value neighborliness, and those who are too self-centered to lend a red cup to to their parking lot neighbor or sweep the sidewalk out front are disdained. Men and women play equal roles in making Phish and Philadelphia what they are — a place to be seen as you truly are. In this spirit of brotherly love and sisterly affection, reach out to these fuzzy strangers as if they are your neighbor, perhaps offering a hearty “Save Gamehendge!” along with heartfelt advice on the best cheesesteak shop. The smiles you receive in return will last as long as our previous championship drought.
Felicia D’Ambrosio has seen over 100 Phish shows ... maybe that’s closer to 150, she’s “not a counter.”