One Show at a Time 

Sober fans at jam-band concerts? Duuuuuuuuuude!

Question: What did the Deadhead say when the acid wore off? Answer: This band sucks!

If you laughed, the joke's on you. It seems that a certain roving hoard of jam-band fans are not only drug- and alcohol-free, they actually -- get this -- enjoy going to shows by the String Cheese Incident, Phish, Leftover Salmon, and this week's Greek Theater vagabonds, Widespread Panic.

These teetotalers set up tables at shows and generally help each other out through the shared brotherhood of abstinence -- dodging pot clouds and microbrews with a firm resolve and a little hand-holding, all to the tune of the twelve steps: "God grant me the serenity to wear dreads even though I am an upper-middle-class white boy, the courage to face this music without drugs or alcohol, and the wisdom to discern between Jim Morrison and a real poet."

Actually, it's an idea whose time has come. Why should someone forgo concertgoing for the rest of their lives because everyone around them will be out of their minds on drugs, alternately staring at their hands or creating batiked canvases in the air? Besides, there's nothing better for staying sober than watching a bunch of idiotic drunks or dazed drug casualties.

One such pro-sobriety organization is the Gateway, which sets up shop at Widespread Panic shows. It is loosely based on the principles of AA, and therefore its members are anonymous except for the yellow balloons they carry around at concerts to show their solidarity. The group's rather high profile is helpful for people who want to stay clean, but can be problematic for Gateway members themselves. Some actually have been hit up for sucks from their balloons by spiral-eyed zonkers looking for a hit of nitrous. Then there's the problem of having a volunteer table right next to the beer line, which has happened, or having their bountiful bowls of candy raided by concertgoers with the munchies. But how to explain the simple bliss that goes with dancing without a monkey on your back? At any given jam-band concert, there are groups of up to thirty or forty clean and sober people writhing around in ecstasy. That's in ecstasy, not on Ecstasy. Gateway and other groups say that some concertgoers see their carefree rapture and ask if they can buy a tab.

Since the organization is anonymous, getting someone to talk to the press about it is problematic. But the Gateway's founder, who would like to simply be referred to as "Spokesman," reluctantly answered a few questions. "We aren't looking for any attention from the media," he says. "We really prefer as little outside attention as possible."

Interestingly, just like all jam bands seem to have nomadic fans who hitch from show to show and often can't remember any of them the next day, these clean and sober groups also have folks who take it from state to state "one show at a time." The Gateway was patterned after the Wharf Rats, a clean and sober coterie of Deadheads who reportedly first met at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. Now there is at least one drug-free group per jam band, with Jellyfish for the String Cheese Incident, the Phellowship for you-know-who, and a handful of others. The groups generally set up tables at the shows, hand out literature to those who are interested, and hold meetings in between sets.

At least initially, the crowd's reaction was negative -- sort of like what would happen if Focus on the Family set up a table at an ACLU dinner. But Spokesman says the audience has become more and more accepting of them at the shows lately.

Are group members ad hoc Carrie Nations, smashing beer bottles, pointing fingers, and ramming clean living down everyone's throats? Spokesman says no way. "We aren't trying to preach or change anybody," he says. "We are just people who need a little extra support." He describes what his group does as "attraction, not promotion," a tenet of other twelve-step programs.

As for Widespread Panic, mum's the word. Although the group's management allows the Gateway tables to be set up at its shows, for some reason its members don't discuss the setup with the press. In fact, tell the publicist you want to ask them about it and you'll get this snippy response: "What kind of questions are you asking? The band only knows so much about the Gateway and are mainly focusing on their new tour and record."

Maybe the band doesn't want to call attention to the fact that a WSP fan died at a show in Alabama after taking Ecstasy, or that an underground task force calling itself Operation Don't Panic made more than two hundred drug- and alcohol-related arrests at that same show. Jam bands are a cesspool of vice and despair, and that's just their musical output. Badum-bump. But anyone who can sit through their offal with a clear head deserves everyone's esteem.


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