When it comes to being a fan, jam bands are a lot like pro-sports teams…
It’s a sound explanation to dispell your “normal” friends and families’ confusion when they ask if you’re still following “that one band” around, or if you’ve finally gotten your fill. Their hesitation at the concept is understandable. At face value, it sounds like a deranged obsession—going and seeing the same band over and over again, meticulously following their performances when they’re on the road. It’s tough for a lot of people to wrap their heads around.
But, swap out your favorite band for your favorite sports team, and the obsession suddenly seems a bit less strange. Year in and year out, sports fans watch their favorite teams, follow their players, and fly their colors. When they get the chance to see their team play live, they jump at the opportunity. But even when they don’t, they still watch from their couches or listen on the radio or, at the very least, check the stats and scores online.
They follow their team’s beat, root for them. It’s a gratifying distraction to feel like a small part of something bigger than yourself—something to grit your teeth and be loyal to one year and to wear as a badge of honor when they raise a championship banner to the rafters during the next. Sports fans don’t watch games to see their favorite player recreate that one play they saw on SportsCenter. They watch to see these masters of their craft do what they do best—and put faith in their ability to once again do something remarkable.
Jam band fans approach their favorite bands in much the same way. You’re not going to the concert hear that one song from the record, just like you’re not going to the game to see Steph Curry do that one crossover he did last week in Houston. When you watch a game, or you watch a show, you always know roughly what’s going to happen. How many periods, who the players are… Often, you can make some educated predictions based on what’s happened in the past, but the results are really anyone’s guess. Within the set parameters of the game, of the show, anything is possible.
Of course, that also means that sometimes what happens in the arena on a given night is straightforward, a blowout. While it’s still fun to watch at the time, it quickly fades into the background, unremarkable amongst the thousands that have come before it. But sometimes, often out of nowhere, this dance they’ve done over and over again produces something truly special—an event that reverberates much further and louder than the moment in time in which it took place. It’s why we have things like ESPN Classic that dramatize and celebrate old games. It’s why people trumpet specific decades-old shows as revered and timeless works of art.
Before the opening whistle blew on the night of Wilt Chamberlain‘s 100-point game, it was just going to be another night of basketball. Now, it’s a historic and unfathomable feat that will likely never be duplicated. Before Phish went to Utah two days after Halloween in ’98, it was just an inconvenient show that many fans on tour skipped. That night, unannounced, they decided to play Dark Side of the Moon all the way through, cementing the show as a landmark “anything can happen” moment in the band’s history.
The deeper you dive into the comparison, the deeper the connection runs. Fans of sports teams and jam bands both might pay less attention early on in the season or tour when the stakes are lower and the kinks are still being worked out. But when it gets down to the nitty-gritty and the big games (like the playoffs) and shows (like holiday runs) come around, ever more casual fans are drawn in by the increased potential for fireworks. Then, there are the championships—like a headlining festival play, or maybe a New Year’s show—when the stakes are at their highest, and even people who don’t necessarily identify as “fans” turn their attention toward the event, as something so big and significant is notable, even if you don’t fully know what’s going on.
Sometimes players retire or leave unexpectedly before making a triumphant return, though not before the fans let them know that they feel spurned. That storyline is as true for a band like Phish as it is for NBA legends like Michael Jordan or LeBron James. And everyone knows that, at the root of it, your personal connection to the team, to the band, is mostly insignificant. They exist without you, independent of you. They existed before you started paying attention, and they probably will long after you stop. It’s all just entertainment, after all. But what it does do is give you something to root for, something to be connected to, something that can consistently get you excited, time and time again. And that’s not so hard to understand after all.