**reposted from the Wall Street Journal because I highly doubt I will ever be in the WSJ again**
Nathan Tobey went to a Phish concert hoping to enjoy the medley of song improvisations and laid-back vibes that have drawn followers to the band for more than three decades. Instead, he found himself in the middle of a vicious battle for real estate.
When the gates at Virginia’s Hampton Coliseum finally opened after an hourslong wait, Mr. Tobey rushed to stake out a choice seat on the first row of the balcony. Seconds before he got there, another fan swooped in and covered the entire row with a giant tarp, grabbing all eight seats.
“I’m a very mellow guy, but we had some words,” said Mr. Tobey, a 37-year-old podcast producer from Minneapolis who has been to 70-odd shows. “I had to assert—as a fellow fan—that this is not fair.”
Fans fight about “tarping” pretty much anywhere there is a band on stage and general-admission seating up for grabs. But easygoing Phish fans—or Phans, as the tie-dyed die-hards are known—fighting? That’s a bummer, man.
Phish, currently on a normally cheery summer tour, has sold more than eight million albums and DVDs in the U.S. since emerging from the Vermont college-rock scene in the 1980s, drawing a flock with a chilled-out, neo-hippie ethos. As the band’s security procedures manual once said, its fans are a “peaceful, intelligent group” who will “dance and twirl in any open area made available to them.”
Or not made available to them.
The blogger Grateful Momma Bear, aka Michelle Leigh, at a Phish show in Alpharetta, Ga., this summer. Photo: John Pearce
“I could not stop thinking—who are “we?” what have “we” become? Is this the new idea of family?” wrote blogger Grateful Momma Bear after she was chased off a tarp at a show in Dayton, Ohio, last year.
Tarpers don’t always use tarps. At a show at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo., last year, Devin Yohe, a 31-year-old mechanical engineer from Atlanta, saw a group of fans blocking off rows of seats by putting T-shirts on the backs of chairs, claiming about 60 places for friends he suspects were still partying in the parking lot.
“I could have gone and sat in the middle of them, but then I would just be surrounded by a bunch of people that didn’t like me,” said Mr. Yohe. “It’s a Phish show. Nobody’s looking to get into an argument.”
Tarpers are usually among the most enthusiastic Phans. Many are happy to endure daylong waits for a chance to spend their concert near the stage, where they can interact with the band and enjoy better sound quality.
Others are less cool with the aggressive acquisition of territory. Plus, some fans say, tarpers tend to defend their hard-won space, which totally kills the buzz. Phish fans complain in forums of a superfan dubbed Antelope Greg, who is said to mark out a primo square for himself on the ground with duct tape and shout at interlopers who wander in. A person identified as Antelope Greg on a Facebook account did not respond to a request for comment when contacted through Facebook.
Fans rush to claim space at a Widespread Panic concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
Policies on tarps are often vague and vary from venue to venue. Many venues catalog a long list of banned items, from vuvuzelas and laser pointers to selfie sticks and “illegal substances,” but say little about tarps or blankets.
Phish’s public-relations firm declined to comment. It is possible to detect a little bit of anti-tarpism in the band’s ethos.
This past weekend, Phish was scheduled to play a three-day festival called Curveball in Watkins Glen, N.Y. A guide to the festival on the band’s website helpfully answered questions such as “Can I call it ‘Curfball’?” (“Knock yourself out.”) and “Can I use a tarp to claim my camping spot a week before anyone arrives?” (“No.”) Also, tarps are forbidden on the concert field. Curveball was canceled because of flooding.
Many tarp users are unapologetic, saying they earned their concert real estate through persistence and diligent planning.
Tony Campagna usually arrives at shows early with a tarp folded up in his backpack, hoping to grab a choice spot in front of the soundboard, where many fans say the music is clearest.
“I don’t feel any guilt,” the 35-year-old public-school teacher from central New York says. “My friends and I never took advantage of anything we didn’t have coming to us.”
Mr. Campagna is sanguine about people straying onto his 6-by-8-foot tarp, which he believes is a reasonable size for a crew of about 10 friends that gathers from around the U.S. to attend Phish concerts together. His tarping practices have never drawn the ire of fellow fans, he says.
“It’s the people that come late, step on your feet and are really sorry for cutting in front of you that are the pain,” says Mr. Campagna. They “failed to plan.”
Jnan Blau holding his ‘Peace Blanket.’ Photo: Kiana Blau
The schism over tarping during Phish concerts is a microcosm of larger social problems, says Stephanie Jenkins, a 37-year-old assistant professor of philosophy at Oregon State University who teaches a course titled “Philosophy School of Phish.”
“If Phish fans…can’t solve this problem, what hope do we have of addressing larger, more pressing problems in society?” she asks.
One Phish fan may have arrived at a happy medium. Jnan Blau totes a woven tapestry decorated with peace signs that he calls the “Peace Blanket.” The 46-year-old, a professor of communications studies at California Polytechnic State University and a fan for more than two decades, allows people to sit on the blanket’s edges if they need a rest.
Those that do so “are centered around peace,” he says.
Write to Ira Iosebashvili at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the August 21, 2018, print edition as ‘Phish Fans Are Usually Peaceable—Until the Tarps Come Out.’