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Phishheads and Gumbo Don't Mix

May 19, 1996|Steve Hochman

While Deadheads were sent into disarray after Jerry Garcia's death last year, Phishheads--followers of the Vermont band Phish--were thrust to the fore as the leading active neo-hippie subculture.

But, as Deadheads can attest, it's not a mantle that's surrounded entirely by good vibes.

That became apparent when Phish played the first day of the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival recently. The influx of Phishheads--estimated at several thousand--not only impacted the event, pushing attendance to an opening-day record of more than 62,000, but also overwhelmed parts of the city, especially the historic French Quarter, where groups of tie-dye-clad Phishheads clogged the sidewalks panhandling and walking their seemingly ever-present puppies.

"They're just a step up from the gutter-punks," said one local merchant, comparing the Phishheads to the pierced and tattooed homeless youth who have become a controversial French Quarter fixture in recent years.

At the festival grounds, veteran attendees were annoyed by Phish fans who sat around blocking pathways and access to food concessions. And, by and large, the young fans seemed only interested in their band, taking little advantage of the wide variety of music offered on the event's 10 stages.

JazzFest executive producer George Wein took note of the numerous complaints and declared that "Phish will not be invited back."

That's reminiscent of the situation the Deadheads were in as the Grateful Dead's popularity ballooned in the late '80s, and with it the itinerant fans' presence in communities where the band was performing. A few cities ultimately banned the Dead.

With Phish preparing for a full summer tour, Jason Colton, media representative for the band's management, says that this is the first incident he's aware of in which Phishheads were perceived negatively.

"We take great pains to make sure our fans don't leave an impact on a community," he says. "For example, we have a thing called the Phish Green Crew, a traveling group of Phishheads that clean up parking lots and grounds in exchange for gas money and tickets from us."

The impact on New Orleans, he says, may have been magnified by the circumstances, with the city already packed by festival-goers and the number of Phishheads high because this was the band's only appearance this spring.

Jim Koplik, president of New Jersey-based concert promotion firm Metropolitan Entertainment, who has worked extensively with both the Dead and Phish, says that both bands' fans have been singled out unfairly.

"It's always the hippie bands that get tagged with that image," he says. "It's just because of how they dress and look."

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