Last night at the Phish concert I met a young man named Will wearing a crown . We struck up a conversation on the floor of the ugliest arena this side of Vladivostok, the North Charleston Coliseum. Will asked me how many of Phish’s shows I’d seen. I said, “None, nada, not a fan.” Tongue in cheek, I told him that I was there in the capacity of a cultural anthropologist who studies cults. Smiling, he asked if I would like some chemical stimulation to aide in my explorations and whipped out a small wooden box containing a white chalky worm of a substance.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“LSD,” he said matter-of-factly.
In the mists of the previous century, I had dropped acid a few times, but it didn’t look like this stuff he was showing me. Back then it came in tabs. You put it on your tongue, and in the course of an hour, the people you didn’t particularly like appeared in your friend’s living room at a great distance, wee insignificant presences on the edge of a psychedelic horizon. To wax not very poetical, it fucked you way way up.
I declined his kind offer, and he looked genuinely disappointed.
This was King Will’s tenth show. He had left Birmingham, Alabama, at four a.m. and driven straight to the coliseum. I had expected, from what I’d read, to see a lot more people in costumes, and there were a few sparkly capes and a couple of medieval get-ups, but all in all, an ungracious un-plenty of dress-up. The audience consisted predominantly of white males in the mid-30s to mid-40s range. Everyone I encountered — couples strolling by, customers waiting in line for $14 Bud Lite Tallboys, audience members jostling for positions on the floor — were incredibly well-mannered. I wish I’d kept a count of the number of excuse me(s) and sorry(s) I heard. The audience’s devotion to Phish, it seemed to me, had united them in a common ethos of let-the-good-times-roll hedonism, a communal mellowness that was quite pleasant.
Standing there in the throng of the sold-out arena, I thought of Trump rallies and the very different vibe of those mass gatherings. I imagined the cultists coming to see Trump, feeding on the communal buzz, having somehow been dosed with some low-wattage gummy bears, and instead of Donald J stalking on stage, out comes Phish singing a cappella “Nothing Could Be Finer Than to be in Carolina in the morning,” which, in fact, was their first song. How would the MAGA folk react? They would love it, I suspect. Sweet harmony.
After “Carolina in the Morning,” the band cranked into their stock-and-trade, jazzy improvisational forays into eclectic genres, funk, folk country, the blues, a cocktail mix of the Dead, Santana, Frank Zappa. Alas, I’ve never been into jam bands, the riffs outpacing my attention span, failing to hypnotize me, unlike the people up in the stands, who were swaying, smiling, singing along whenever a lyric would intrude on a solo.
It’s genuinely a phenomenon, a cult of sorts, sold-out show after sold-out show, three nights in a row, completely fresh set lists, many taking in all three performances, an orgy of good vibes. Here’s the pre-intermission set list provided by a kind extrovert.
Me, alas, too damned cerebral, jotting down notes, my pith helmet blocking the strobe of a million-dollar lightshow, a stationary dot among the sway.
 I don’t recall seeing an African American among the audience.