Understanding the sober jam band community

Subculture Documentary / 8 weeks


Background / A Phish fan and her sober brother walk into a show…

Since I was 16, I’ve spent an outrageous amount of time and money following around the band Phish. When my younger brother got sober a few years ago, everyone told him not to join me for Phish shows because of the “druggy jam band scene.”

Despite their warnings, he came, and we discovered that there was a huge community of sober fans at these shows. “Yellow Balloon Groups” had started gathering informally in the 80s at Grateful Dead shows as a haven for sober and recovering fans. They held 12-step based recovery meetings during set breaks, and set up tables inside shows with yellow balloons to create a safe space for those abstaining from drugs and alcohol.

Check out the  a cappella cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity  from this show.

The Making / A strategist lugs around a light kit

With the help of my brother, I filmed and edited the documentary (and borrowed some live concert footage). We interviewed a few friends, and used Facebook groups to track down sober fans we’d never met before. My hope was to shed a sliver of light on an inspiring community that’s unexpected and overlooked.


The Response / Some people cared (!)

I expected the documentary to wither away in the category of “Subjects Too Niche to Attract Significant Attention.” But, within a few days of posting the video, I received hundreds of comments from the sober jam band community on Facebook, Reddit, and online Phish forums. In a week, the video had a few thousand views, and two niche jam band publications had written articles about it. Entirely coincidentally, Phish front-man Trey Anastasio opened up about his 10 years of sobriety in GQ just before I posted the video, which may have helped my chances of exposure.


Dissecting the group

To understand how they came together, I dissected the makeup of both the jam band scene and sober / recovery scene in the infographic below. The two groups are a perfect mix of obsessive personalities, tight-knit communities, and welcoming spirit.

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This project was mostly solo, with a little help from my brother.


Special thanks to the people I interviewed, and my friends who weren’t embarrassed by me when I brought camera equipment to shows.