Amid a sea of smoke and open alcohol containers, tangible expressions of freedom, democracy, capitalism and hope served as a refreshing opening act for the jam band Phish on Saturday — the second of the band’s three-day stop at Bader Field.
Sun-soaked hippies and soul-searching college students mingling with families and professional types seemed to establish a temporary commune of sorts in the shadow of the Atlantic City skyline.
Here there was a sense of unity that inspires many Phish fans — such as Exton, Pa., resident John Zaprala — to travel to show after show for a chance to experience it.
The 33-year-old Zaprala has been to more than 50 Phish shows, from Florida to Maine, which is an average of more than three shows a year since he was 18.
“The music is great, but it’s not just about that,” Zaprala said. “Everyone can be individuals here. Everyone here is accepted and embraced for who they are.”
With the multi-billion dollar casino town as backdrop, a row of pop-up tents — affectionately dubbed by Phish fans, who are commonly known as Phish Heads, as “Shakedown Street” — served as vehicle for dozens of Phish fans to fund their entrance into the show or gas to get to the next one.
Here, glass smoking pipes were on sale next to tie-dyed Frisbees, which were being sold next to burritos and across from T-shirts with the faces of legendary music figures such as Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix.
Katie Shack — a 19-year-old from Atlanta, Ga. — walked through Shakedown Street carrying artwork she created, in hopes of selling each piece for some money for food or enough gas to get to the band’s next tour stop in Portsmouth, Va.
“I did two years of college, and I’m only about a semester away from graduating, but it wasn’t for me. I’m still young, so I’m taking this year to travel around with the band and try to figure out what’s next for me,” Shack said. “If I can trade these for a nice pin or some crystals, that would be great. But I’m pretty strapped for cash, so if I can get $5 to put towards food or especially gas, it would really help.”
Colin Casciato made the trip from Wayne, Pa., without a ticket. The 21-year-old sold enough Phish-themed socks, at $10 a pair, to pay for a ticket.
“Barter, barter, barter,” Casciato said. “It’s capitalism and free-market economy at its best.”
Casciato’s friends, already having tickets, used their proceeds from the sock sales for different purposes.
“We’re college students, so we don’t want to drop a lot of money here on stuff like food and beer, if we don’t have to. This helps us pay for some of that, it gives us something to do while were waiting for the music to start and it’s a great way to meet new people,” said Scott Schulman, 22, of Philadelphia, while wearing a shirt he traded another concertgoer a pair of socks for.
But while people were navigating the crowd of thousands for personal benefits, there were others, such as Dani Plotkin and Jason Steinberg — of the nonprofit organization HeadCount — promoting a greater cause: democracy.
“We go around to a lot of these festivals trying to get people to register to vote,” said Plotkin. “People generally think it’s time-consuming or difficult to register, so we make it really easy for them.”
And Phish fans, Steinberg said, are different than other fan bases.
“You definitely hear a lot more talk about politics outside some of these shows than for other bands. And a lot of Phish fans are very passionate about certain issues and are eager to talk about them,” Steinberg said. “And if they don’t want to register, it’s not out of ignorance or a lack of caring. They usually have a well-thought-out reason behind it.”
While the environment of Phish shows sometimes is criticized by outsiders, it is something that a lot of parents, including 36-year-old Andy Meoli, a veteran of more than 50 Phish shows, enjoy sharing with their children.
The Berwyn, Pa., resident has brought his 14-year-old son, Gabriel, to more than a dozen shows, and Saturday was the first for his 20-month-old son, Matteo.
“The outdoor shows are easier, because there is more space and you can kind of pick where you want to be and the kind of things you want to be next to,” Meoli said. “But when you get a good crowd, that works together, this is a great place to be.”
And somewhere lost in the bartering and barbequing, there was an underlying theme of hope on the defunct runway of Bader Field on Saturday.
Some were hoping the band’s set would match its thrilling set from Friday night. Some were hoping to hear songs that had not heard live in awhile. And others were hoping for “miracles” or at least a discounted ticket into the show.
Dalton Doehring paced through Shakedown Street with a beer in one hand and raising an index finger in the air on the other.
“I’ve miracled people when I could in the past, so I’m trying to see if I can get miracled today,” Doehring said of the practice of Phish fans who give extra tickets away to other fans for free. “But even if I can get some cheaper tickets from someone, that will be great, because I’m not eager to pay what they’d charge me at the box office, but I will if I have to.”
While tickets often go for a higher rate outside other mainstream concerts, Doehring said Phish fans do not typically care about turning a profit, or even getting their money back.
“A lot of us have been in tough spots before,” he said. “So if we can help someone else out, so they can have a good time (at) a show, too, then it’s worth it.”
Contact Robert Spahr:
Follow Rob Spahr on Twitter @TheRobSpahr