Famed jam band Phish came through Camden this week, where they played two shows at the city's BB&T Pavilion on Tuesday and Wednesday. And with them came the fans that turned the venue's parking lot into a massive traveling party.
Partygoers were Phishheads who follow the band around the country on tour, à la the Grateful Dead's Deadheads. Many of those fans made their way from the group's recent run in Alpharetta, Ga., all the way to Camden, joining local Phish lovers for two days of hanging out on "the lot."
There, fans can hang out, prepare for the show, and grab some food, bootleg swag, or, if they know where to look, drugs. The lot's allure is so strong that some fans don't even go in to see the show, opting instead for the scene outside the venue.
Some, such as Federal Donuts co-owner and 160-show veteran Felicia D'Ambrosio, got into Phish because of the lot. A fan of the band for nearly 20 years, D'Ambrosio attended both Camden shows, and got into the group after visiting the lot at a show in Camden back in 1999. Federal Donuts, meanwhile, had a run of Phish-themed doughnuts available in honor of the Camden shows this week, and was the mastermind behind the a run of the sweets that fed hungry fans (and the band) during the band's Baker's Dozen, a 13-night run at Madison Square Garden last year.
"As soon as I got there, the weirdness of it immediately made me very happy," D'Ambrosio says. "I hadn't even really listened to Phish yet. My friends wanted to go. I think they thought of it as a prime opportunity for some underage drinking."
D'Ambrosio said that today, for her and many others, going to lot is more about the community the scene creates, as well as the people who populate it. The lot serves as a family reunion of sorts for area Phishheads, though maybe a bit more raucous.
"For me, that's really important," she says. "It's all about the friendships you build, and the community."
These days, the lot isn't the rough-and-tumble place of yore. While there are some illicit activities, the lot has grown up along with the fans. Audiences aren't as young as when Phish first started, so there are families with children, and Phish-themed onesies available to clothe the youngest phans.
Technology has also made its way onto the lot. Many vendors take credit cards for their wares, so Shakedown Street, where most vendors congregate, isn't a cash-only affair anymore. Fans even track the shows they've attended online via the Phantasy Tour website, which keeps info about set lists and other statistics. In that sense, the lot, like the rest of the world, has entered the 21st century.
Founded in Burlington, Vt., in 1983, Phish is known for their jammy music that blends elements of rock, reggae, folk, and bluegrass. To date, the group has released 15 studio albums, most recently Big Boat in 2016. But they are mostly a touring behemoth. As concert industry publication Pollstar reported last year, Phish is one of the most popular touring acts in the country, and in 2016 pulled in about $1.6 million per show.
"You have four virtuosic musicians all doing improv at the same time," D'Ambrosio says. "You don't want to miss a show because you'll miss a song you've been waiting for, or the most interesting version, or a 'bust-out,' a song they haven't played in a long time. It's unpredictable. You don't know what's going to happen."
The scene Phish's music inspired was on full display during a Tuesday visit to the venue, where hundreds of fans had set up for the night by midafternoon. At first glance, it looked like any old Eagles or Billy Joel tailgating party, only with way more tie-dye.
All around the lot, music blared, both live and recorded, and Phish fans milled around, many with joints and beers in hand. Some had been there all day after following the band up from Georgia, while others just took off work for the day for a party.
Marlee Barbetto, 25, of Atlantic City, follows Phish on tour, making Camden a particularly easy destination. A fan since 2014, Barbetto has seen about 50 Phish shows, and doesn't plan on stopping any time soon.
"I come for the people and the vibe," she said Tuesday. "We all run into each other, and the next thing you know, we're all friends. It's the best feeling."
Traveling guitarist Harry Perry, 67, meanwhile, traversed the lot with an electric guitar and portable amp, playing songs about the "harmonic convergence" and value of "positive energy." A well-known Venice Beach, Calif., boardwalk busker, Perry hopped on Phish's current tour after the end of Dead & Company's most recent run earlier this summer.
"I do these tours, and I'm getting ready to do [the Lockn' Festival in Virginia]. After that, I'm going back to the beach," he says. "I am a long way from home."
While some fans come for the show, others come to make money on the lot's so-called Shakedown Street, an area where attendees can find everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to illegal drugs, including nitrous oxide, marijuana, and LSD. Mostly, though, you'll probably just find veggie burritos and tie-dyed T-shirts.
Vendor Richard Kumpfer, 32, of northern Florida, typically sells shirts and other swag at music festivals but recently started following Phish on tour. While the new venture has been good business-wise, he says, adapting to the challenges of tour has been a little difficult, socially speaking.
"It's still fun, but at a festival, I can go back to my friend's campsite, or the late-night party," he said Tuesday. "This, now I guess I go to a hotel or something? I mean, I love life, so it's sweet either way."
While Phish has a particularly robust lot culture, they are certainly not the first to have one. As with many things in jam-band culture, the concept of "the lot" today traces its way back to the Grateful Dead.
According to Dead historian Dennis McNally, modern lot culture started in December 1979. That month, the Dead played a run of New Year's shows in Oakland, Calif., at what was then the Oakland Civic Auditorium, and allowed show-goers to camp in a park outside the venue. As McNally said in a 2007 interview with music news site JamBands, about 20 people showed up the first night. By the end of the week, the crowd ballooned to about 200 people. By the next year, there were "lots of hundreds" of people, as McNally said.
That decision also brought about the creation of Shakedown Street, which is named after a 1978 Dead track. Dead lyricist Robert Hunter titled the song after his nickname for Front Street in San Rafael, Calif., where the band had a recording studio and rehearsal space.
Overcrowding and crime prompted the Dead to start clamping down on its lot scene in 1989, Rolling Stone reported. By 1995, they told fans via an open letter that "if you don't have a ticket, don't come," according to the Washington Post. Guitarist Jerry Garcia died that same year, bringing about the dissolution of the group, as well as its lot troubles.
By then, however, the lot and Shakedown Street as concepts were already established, and today can be found on just about any jam band tour. Phish has had a lot scene in tow with them ever since their first cross-country tour in 1990, when fans followed them from their home state of Vermont to gigs throughout America.
After partying on the lot for several hours Tuesday, fans headed into the BB&T Pavilion at around 7 p.m. for the evening's show. But after all, the actual performance at a Phish concert is only part of the experience. The rest of the show is outside.
"It's definitely a big and colorful cultural part of it," D'Ambrosio says. "If you have never been to a show and you don't hang out on lot before you go in, you're going to miss something cool."