Phish pleases sea of phans

The legendary jam band with Syracuse roots performed Sunday to a sold-out crowd at the War Memorial Arena.

“Are they smoking weed down there?” asked a Syracuse Police Officer on the roof of the OnCenter parking garage. It was probably a rhetorical question.

The Phish fans — or “phans” as they prefer to be called — descended upon downtown Syracuse long before the legendary jam band went on at 8 p.m. Phans sold their tye-dye shirts and homemade jewelry, enjoyed some food and simply hung out before the fourth stop on Phish’s Fall Tour 2009.

Photo: Jamie De Pould
Phish "phans" turned up long before the band took the stage at 8 p.m. Organizers put together a phan gathering at the OnCenter in addition to the usual parking lot scene.

The band’s cult following is often compared to the Grateful Dead, and the sellout crowd packed the War Memorial Arena, cheering and dancing throughout the entire concert.

For Chris Spence, a 1994 Syracuse University alumnus, Sunday was his 144th Phish show.

“You get to live with your friends for three days,” Spence says. “It’s like summer camp for adults.”

Spence and friend Brian Geraghty drove in from Boston for the concert, planning to drive back at the end of the night. The traveling companions didn’t think much of the five-hour drive, having driven to Florida and back to see the band.

The duo said it wasn’t unusual for a group of 20 or more friends to follow the band for several shows, but tonight it was just the two of them.

Geraghty said a lot of the loyalty comes from the way the band embraced the Internet in the 1990s. Phans can stream shows from their smart phones, and set lists are updated in real time on sites like

One reason for the band’s popularity in Syracuse is drummer Jon Fishman, who grew up in the area. He graduated from Jamesville-DeWitt High in 1983 and founded Phish a year later at the University of Vermont.
Fishman kicked off the show sporting a blue and red dress, playing the tick-tock cymbal intro that phans instantly recognized as “David Bowie.” The band is best known for mixing vastly different styles, complex melodies, and tight harmonies.
Phish opened the second set with two more rare tunes: “Drowned” and “Twist.” They explored the melodic possibilities of the tunes for a solid 20 minutes, playing the guitar against the piano, while the bass line held it all together.
“Twist” transitioned seamlessly into “Piper,” which started fast and relentlessly pushed faster at the insistence of bassist Mike Gordon. Soon it was raining glow sticks, and the lights were frenetically cycling through every color of the rainbow for the “Big Black Furry Creature from Mars.”
But Phish shows are a lot more than rock concerts with fancy lights. There’s a sense of community that’s hard to find. It’s about total strangers hugging and saying, “Have a good show,” after standing in line together, and lending each other money because the credit card machine is broken.

Dave McGregor, an executive chef from Rochester and phan since age 11, picked a friend up from the Buffalo airport before heading to Syracuse. It was his first show in several years, and McGregor said the 2009 Phish (dubbed "Phish 3.0"), is better than ever.

“They enjoy playing together again,” McGregor said as "Funky Bitch" was being performed. “You haven’t heard that bass line since ’97”

Mike Dreaggs, McGregor’s "phriend," added that the Syracuase show was a stand-out performance for Phish.

“They killed that whole first set — that was awesome,” Dreaggs said. “That’s why you go to a whole bunch of shows. You take the bad shows to see a show like tonight.”

Phish Setlist

Set 1: David Bowie, Julius, Sparkle, Kill Devil Falls, Lawn Boy, Heavy Things, Funky Bitch, Sample in a Jar, Boogie On Reggae Woman, Let Me Lie, Beauty of a Broken Heart, Stash

Set 2: Drowned > Twist > Piper > Big Black Furry Creature from Mars, Tube, Theme From the Bottom, Maze, The Horse > Silent in the Morning, Character Zero, First Tube

Encore: Good Times Bad Times

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