It was the late, great writer Hunter Thompson who was famously quoted as saying, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”
Such an affirmatively questionable view on some of this world’s most dangerous (but sometimes fun) vices could easily be applicable for the jam scene, where drugs and alcohol flow just as freely through concert parking lots as LSD-inspired notes out of Jerry Garcia‘s guitar. Accepted use of booze and illegal drugs within the jam scene has been one of those unwritten rules by of the musical subculture ever since the Grateful Dead began their career as the house band for Ken Kesey‘s Acid Test parties in the mid-1960s.
While drugs continue to be an openly controversial topic of discussion in the jam scene and the culture at large, there are some music fans who don’t feel the need to partake in illicit activities during shows. The experience of seeing shows, especially heady jam-friendly ones, can be just as fulfilling sober as they are with a few added substances.
A new mini-documentary titled Sober Jam Band Scene recently uploaded YouTube by Mary Gray Johnson shows viewers into the lives of music fans (primarily Phish fans) who follow the sober path when attending shows. The short, 10-minute film features a mix of real-fan interviews in which they discuss their love for Phish and acknowledge the existence of drug use throughout their scene. One interviewee named Carolina D. states that jam shows can be, “kind of like Disneyland for drunks and addicts.”
However, the film shows viewers a side of the jam scene that doesn’t partake in such vices. You’ve probably seen them at shows, where sober fans gather under yellow balloons to connect and help each other enjoy the music and the scene they love without succumbing to its myriad temptations. From The Wharf Rats on Grateful Dead tour to The Phellowship at Phish shows to Much Obliged at Umphrey’s McGee and The Jellyfish at The String Cheese Incident, these yellow balloon groups hold 12 Step meetings at set breaks and help sober fans continue to appreciate live music without the substance-based pitfalls that often come with it.
The documentary clearly struck a power chord with viewers, as the video’s comment section includes notes shared by other sober folks, stating, “I have only seen Phish sober, 57 shows so far! Best time EVER!,” “My ‘drug’ is the combination of getting lost in the music and dancing. That is all I need,” and “You did an awesome job capturing the essence of this scene. Sober Rat & Phell since ’95! Much Love!”
Fans can watch the entire documentary in the video below.
Sober Jam Band Scene
[Video: Mary Gray Johnson]
Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio recently spoke of his own sobriety strategies in an interview with GQ. The Grateful Dead‘s current audio archivist, David Lemieux, has also admitted in the past that he mostly refrained from using psychedelic drugs during the Dead shows he attended as a “taper” over the years.
“I saw the Dead over 100 times and the bulk of those shows were sober,” Lemieux said in a 2017 interview. “I enjoyed the heck out of them. In fact, a lot of those shows are the ones that I can right now look back on 25-30 years [later] and have better memories of those because I could be more focused on it. I could be more in the moment of what was going on, as opposed to having this mind-expanding moment.”