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October 24, 2014

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Devotees of Phish, Buffett flock to Las Vegas

Phish Phans and Parrot Heads: Forget all of the lame puns writers come up with for either group. Both fan bases are serious lots and deserve a serious look.

If there's any doubt, there are the sold-out shows going on this weekend in Las Vegas, as both Phish and Jimmy Buffett wind down their respective tours. (Phish performs on Friday and Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center; Buffett on Friday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.)

At the Phish performance you'll see people dressed with angelic wings strapped to their backs or tails sticking out from behind. Then there's the group that hands out Uno playing cards to passersby. All for no apparent reason.

At the Buffett show you'll see a swarm of Parrott Heads decked out in Hawaiian shirts, straw hats with parrots or sharks attached and other beachcomber attire usually found at the back of your fashion-impaired uncle's closet.

Phish is a jam-oriented rock band -- sometimes extending a single song to an hour or more -- given to throwing in samplings of jazz, bluegrass, country and seemingly anything else they can think of. This perfectly suits a group looking for something off the radio hit list.

And Buffett, besides his must-perform hits "Margaritaville," "Come Monday" and "Cheeseburger in Paradise," is devoted to playing songs about sand, surf and sex -- certainly songs with which his fans identify.

Still, considering both bands have fanatical followings all over the United States, the radio is surprisingly absent of their work.

Their popularity exists mainly on the power of their live shows and the impact those performances have on their fans.

And for that, people will come from all over. In Phish's case, some fans tour with the band for an extended period -- a weekend, a week, a month or more -- as long as the predominantly college-age crowd can afford it.

For Buffett fans, who tend to be older with more money and, consequently, more responsibilities, there are the occasional trips to see him when he comes to town or the nearest locale, paying upwards of $150 a ticket (the top non-scalper price for the Las Vegas show).

The rabid support has amounted to a great deal of financial support for both bands -- both routinely land in the top-grossing tours of concert acts nationwide -- and have created an almost cultlike allegiance.

A million Phish fans

"If you're gonna do a story on Phish, don't make it another piece of (expletive) article about 'deadhead kids invading the Strip again,' " Las Vegas resident Bobby Machado wrote.

His response was to a query looking for Phish fans posted on one of the band's many news groups on the Internet.

Harsh? Not when it comes to Phish. The four-piece band, which formed at the University of Vermont, has accrued quite a following in its 17-year history.

What began as a small gathering of fans that followed Phish to small clubs around Vermont has grown into a national phenomenon.

Now the band routinely zigzags across the United States with an armada of fans in tow.

It's a sight reminiscent of the Grateful Dead tours, with makeshift campsites forming to house the fans and booths to feed the followers and provide some cash for those travelling with the band.

But there are many differences, points out Rudy Jalio, 46, owner of Legends Lounge in Las Vegas.

A Deadhead since '73 and a Phish Phan since the early '90s, Jalio said the sound is different enough that many older Dead fans have been unwilling to embrace Phish.

"The Phish sound is a lot more upbeat and lively and is based more on a sound that a younger generation can embrace."

So why the following?

"Because people are tired of popular MTV-fed shallow music," wrote Erik Koral, a 24-year-old Los Angeles resident who has seen the band 30 times and is attending the Las Vegas gig. "Phish are constantly striving to get better instead of trying to get bigger and play stadium shows ... People want to see a band like Phish take risks and always keep the audience guessing."

Such as performing entire albums from other artists or covering songs, such as an acappella version of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Southern Rock classic, "Free Bird."

Stage theatrics are also part of the show.

The band will occasionally put small trampolines on stage to bounce around on, or, in in the case of its first Las Vegas show in December 1996, invite a handful of Elvis impersonators on stage to sing with the band.

Todd Phillips, producer and director of the Phish documentary "Bittersweet Motel," which makes its Las Vegas debut Friday at Regal Cinemas Village Square 18, was on the road with the band on and off for two years beginning in '97. He said he was "constantly blown away" by the level of fanaticism of Phish fans.

"I don't think I have ever been into anything as much they are into Phish," Phillips said. "Their loyalty is incredible."

When discussing the band's fan base, Phish bassist Mike Gordon, in a radio interview recorded for the film, said it developed simply through years of word-of-mouth and a desire for audiences to see what the band would do next.

"It's different than how it usually works in the music business," Gordon said. "You know they're not just coming to hear hit songs; they're just coming because because they they don't know what's going to happen, just like we don't know what's going to happen."

A flock of Parrott Heads

"There are certain priorities in my life, and that is (Jimmy) Buffett," Janelle Reid, a 37-year-old Las Vegas native, said.

That's not a statement Reid takes lightly. In fact, after learning her wedding was scheduled for the day of the Buffett show, she moved it back a day even though her sister argued the original date was best.

"She said, 'You don't want to get married Friday because of Buffett?' I said, 'You don't understand, it's Buffett.' "

And Reid's not alone. When Mike Walker started a pool-equipment repair business four years ago in Las Vegas, he found himself searching for a name.

Finally he mentioned Parrothead Pools as a possibility to a friend and fellow Buffett fan, "and he loved it."

After making sure the name wasn't taken, Parrothead Pools was born. It's been a move popular enough that one of Walker's employees wants to have extra shirts made to sell to customers.

"It's been a lot of fun for people who know what it is," Walker said.

Which is really the whole point of a Buffett concert, and for those who go.

Though not as fanatical as Phish Phans in that Parrot Heads don't tour as extensively with the band, Parrot Heads do have their own kind of fun.

Often beginning with a preconcert party, such as what's scheduled at the MGM Grand Adventures theme park beginning at noon Friday, Parrot Heads also know how to get into the act.

For a performer perhaps best known for singing about "wasting away in Margaritaville," is it any wonder?

"It's a party all the way through," said Garratt Wilkin, who performs as Buffett in his tribute band Garratt Wilkin & the Parrotheads, through Saturday at Palace Station. "The audience is the show. If you've got a seat way in the back, you still get a great show by the people around you. Fans are worldwide."

Wilkin, who lives in Sacramento, Calif., said he has seen Buffett 60 or 70 times since 1976, and is typical of other Parrot Heads: people in their mid-40s to early 50s, somewhat affluent, who will travel from all over to see Buffett perform -- usually by plane.

But there are exceptions.

Local restaurant and club owner Tommy Rocker, who performs in the Buffett tribute band Conched Out, which is scheduled to perform at the MGM preshow party, said he's amazed by the demographics of Parrot Heads.

"I've been playing (Buffett's) music since '74, started going to concerts in the early '90s," Rocker said. "Then I realized this whole thing that has happened at concerts is amazing and has grown over the years. All ages, 70 to 21 -- a real broad base."

Rocker's a fan himself. His wife, Donna, founded the local Buffett fan club Parrot Heads in Paradise. One of 100 clubs nationally, the Las Vegas club has about 300 members who meet at Tommy Rocker's Cantina & Grill the first Wednesday of every month.

The club meetings are a "social thing," like the concerts themselves, Rocker said.

"I enjoy playing (Buffett's) songs -- they're easy," Rocker said. "Once you know one of them, you know most of them."

Which is one of the reasons for his popularity, he said. Then there are Buffett's lyrics, which create stories most people can identify with.

" 'Wasting away in Margaritaville'? I've been there," Rocker said.

And on Friday night, many Parrot Heads will undoubtedly join him.

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