Never ask Phish fans the following question: "After Phish went on hiatus, how well do you feel that the Dave Matthews Band carried on and preserved Phish's musical traditions and legacy?" After posting this query — which was part of an online poll I conducted, asking fans to evaluate stereotypes about both acts — the denizens of the Phantasy Tour message board had a field day. The RFT's address, where I went to college, my personal networking sites and anything else about me available on Google became fair game to post.
The board's wariness toward the media is understandable, though. Jam-band fans get a bad rap in the mainstream anyway, and because Phish — which recently reunited for a summer tour and new album — is a major player in that genre, its fans in particular are reduced to stereotypes: They're drug-addled or hopeless hippies or just plain obnoxious. In fact, Dave Matthews Band fans are perhaps the only people who get more flak — in their case, for being drunk frat boys or ballcap-wearing bozos or just plain obnoxious.
Just as bad are the musical stereotypes — i.e., the ones that assume the pop-song-sized world-music/jazz/folk fusions of Dave Matthews Band, and the melting-pot genre and intricate improvisations of Phish — are one and the same. The comparisons likely came about because each band has been known to collaborate with the other. (Phish guitarist/songwriter Trey Anastasio backed up Dave Matthews on his solo tour for 2003's Some Devil, and members of both bands guested occasionally with each other during the mid-'90s.) And just a few weeks ago, Dave Matthews Band played Friday and Saturday night at Boston's Fenway Park — and then Phish performed its summer tour kickoff gig there on Sunday.
But there's often no love lost between the fan bases, and how each group of fans perceives the other is quite a study in contrasts. And in the end, stereotypes are just that — stereotypes — and they're something that Phish fans rightfully want to dispel.
After posting my poll, fans e-mailed me thoughtful, passionate declarations that stressed the differences between DMB and Phish and shared stories of what makes the latter great — things ranging from musical talent and live-show diversity, to the positive concert atmosphere and road-trip adventure potential. One e-mail pointed out how fans banded together to buy Anastasio a guitar pedal he used to achieve a particular sound, after he lamented its absence; representatives from the Mockingbird Foundation, a music-education nonprofit run by Phish fans, also reached out to me. (Just last week, in fact, it donated $1,000 to the Community Music School of Webster University.)
But what it boils down to, fans say, is the sense of community, loyalty and respect Phish fosters.
"People had respect for one another, and everyone had a great time," wrote Chris Pruzenski, 33, about his first show, at the Darien Lakes (Buffalo) PAC in 1997. "I never felt so comfortable around strangers. I'll never forget the vibe that I felt at my first Phish show — and when I saw Phish in Hampton this past March, it was like a family reunion. That same vibe that I discovered in 1997 was there in 2009, just as if it never left. It's like all these people never missed a beat."
Incidentally, no DMB fans e-mailed me privately when I solicited their opinion about the band.