As he has perhaps 30 times before, Connor Devine set off this week from his home in Milwaukee, making a long drive for one purpose: to see Phish play in another city, in this case at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
“They play a different show every night,” said Devine, 23, standing shirtless Friday near the water fountains at the Fair Grounds, succinctly explaining his devotion to a band that’s been around for longer than he’s been alive.
Devine rattled off a list of far-flung states, from Colorado to New York, where he’s seen Phish perform.
“For me, it’s about them representing a lot in terms of community,” he said.
Phish fans began making their way into the city almost in droves this week, with many attending the first day of Jazz Fest and making the rounds at local bars and music clubs while gearing up for the band’s three-hour headlining set Saturday.
It’s a long-delayed return to New Orleans for the band, which got started at a Vermont college campus in 1983.
Phish last played at Jazz Fest in 1996, a year many festivalgoers still associate with overflowing crowds attributed to the band’s abundant fans. They returned to play a Lakefront Arena concert three years later but hadn’t been back since then.
The band includes guitarist Trey Anastasio, drummer Jon Fishman, bassist Mike Gordon and keyboardist Page McConnell. In their 30-plus years together, they’ve gone from playing small clubs to selling out theaters, arenas and playing an occasional festival. All told, they’ve sold millions of albums in the United States, including 14 studio albums and dozens of live recordings.
Often considered the heir to the Grateful Dead, having taken off in popularity around the time Jerry Garcia died in 1995, Phish over the years developed a similarly passionate fan base, drawn by a mix of original music, cover tunes and improvised jams. As with the Dead, a legion of fans tours with the band, some peddling merchandise or food to get by.
“These folks travel very well,” said Howlin’ Wolf owner Howie Kaplan. “The crowds travel well, and the fact that Phish really isn’t doing much right now really kind of changes things up a bit.”
Ask Devine and others milling around the Fair Grounds on Friday just what drives them to trail the band from show to show, and they’ll usually fall back on similar themes: an appreciation for the community that’s developed within the band’s loyal following, a chance to see fans they met at earlier shows and an always-changing song lineup that ensures no two shows are the same.
“I’ve got, like, a hostel at my house. Every person I know has like five people staying with them,” Erika Lowman 26, of New Orleans, said, noting that many in the Fair Grounds crowd were lured mainly by the prospect of seeing Phish.
After their last Jazz Fest appearance, at the Ray-Ban Stage in 1996, some in the band said they didn’t expect to be invited back.
“I know there was a problem with fans defecating and fornicating on the lawn. But then, who knows what band those people came to see?” McConnell told OffBeat Magazine in an interview last year. “But I can see that we bring a particular flavor of fan, and we bring enough of them that it can start to feel like something other than Jazz Fest; it can feel like a Phish concert.”
It’s been a long road for the seminal rock group since that performance, including a two-year hiatus and a five-year breakup that kept the band off the road until 2009.
Looking back, some who live near the Fair Grounds said the surrounding neighborhood was ill-prepared for the sudden influx of fans, some of whom decided to camp out along Bayou St. John.
Fest regulars compare it to the 2001 Jazz Fest, when the Dave Matthews Band was joined by Lenny Kravitz and Paul Simon on the same day that local rap star Mystikal performed.
“The neighborhood was a bit overwhelmed,” said Jimmy Fahrenholtz, who is active in the Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association. “I think we’re more prepared for it this time.”
Besides issues with litter, Fahrenholtz said, people were scattered all over the neighborhood but ultimately didn’t cause any serious problems.
“They laid their head down wherever they could,” he said. “It overwhelmed the neighborhood, but it’s once a year, so we can certainly live with it.”
With Phish on the Jazz Fest lineup, Kaplan said, clubs like his and others have been able to book a steady stream of late-night shows that are also drawing from some of the same crowd.
“There are people that are coming just to see the night shows and don’t ever make their way to the Fair Grounds,” he said.
As the crowds started trickling in Friday, Fahrenholtz said he expects plenty of people would head to the Acura Stage on Saturday evening but probably not as many as last time.
“The Phish fans have gotten older. A lot of them can’t sleep on the ground anymore,” he said. “I would say that they have the same following, the same people, but maybe not turning out in the same numbers because a lot of them are going to be working now.”