Fans Follow Phish In Name Of Higher Education

Three juniors at an Indiana college win money to trek around the country with the jam-happy quartet.

It sounds like the perfect swindle, a Tom Sawyer-styled scam worthy of a Mark Twain

sequel.

But instead of conning friends into whitewashing a picket fence by making it look like fun,

these modern-day Tom Sawyers convinced an institute of higher education to let them

follow a rock band around for a summer by passing it off as educational.

And, like Tom, they did it, um, with only the best intentions.

Thanks to a $6,000 grant issued through Hanover College in Hanover, Ind., Alea Gold,

Christi Scoccola and Rebecca Smith are making a 17-date pilgrimage with jam-rock act

Phish. The trek began July 15 at Portland Meadows in Portland, Ore., and wraps up with

the large-scale Lemonwheel gathering Aug. 15 and 16 in Limestone, Maine.

"People always say, 'How'd you pull that off, how'd you do that?' " Scoccola said from

the Kentucky home of Gold's mom, Sara Sprowles, where the group is currently holed

up on the tour. "We handed [our proposal] in three times and we've been working on it

since January and the school finally approved it."

While Phish fans are famous for piling into vans and following the jam-happy Vermont

foursome from town to town -- in a fashion that recalls the uniquely dedicated Grateful

Dead followers of yesteryear -- the bulk of them do so on their own dimes, or at least

those of their parents.

In the case of 20-year-old college juniors Gold, Scoccola and Smith, it's all paid for, with

the lone caveat being that the threesome study the concert culture and report their

findings back to the committee that issued the grant.

"It makes me smile. There's a romantic quality about going on the road that's a central

part of our culture," said Larry Thornton, associate dean of academic affairs at Hanover

College and a member of the committee that awarded the grant. "On the surface,

everybody can look at this and say, 'They're out there playing,' but there's a real good

substance to it, and if they can get both of those together, why not? And if you can get

somebody else to pay for it, even better."

But it's not all supposed to be fun and games. Each of the three Hanover students has a

specific field of emphasis for a presentation to be made to the committee upon their

return. Smith, for example, will compare Phish fans to commune-dwellers. Gold must

focus on the mystical aspects of Phish shows, while Scoccola will contemplate the

similarities and differences between Phish fans and cult members.

The grant that is paying for their travels, the Paul K. Richter and Evelyn Elizabeth Cook

Richter Memorial Fund, was established by J. Edward Richter with the intention of

promoting individual study, according to Thornton. Past winners have used the money to

study social change in Eastern Europe as well as to monitor a recent eclipse in the

Caribbean.

But never has a Hanover student been given permission to study a rock act.

Formed in Vermont in 1983 and currently comprising guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio,

drummer Jon Fishman, keyboardist Page McConnell and bassist Mike Gordon, the

foursome has drawn comparisons to the Dead for its improvisation-heavy live shows.

Although not known for their studio albums, Phish registered a minor hit with the tune

"Down

With Disease" (RealAudio excerpt), from their 1994 LP, Hoist.

The genesis of the idea to apply for a grant was hatched in a car during a roadtrip to

Indiana University that the girls took last summer. As -- who else -- Phish played on the

vehicle's cassette deck, Gold began hashing out a plan that would enable the girls to

follow the band without paying a cent.

"I was always on the journalism staff in high school and I started out thinking in terms of

getting backstage," Gold said. "And then I started thinking about the Richter grant. The

way it works, if you can think it up, you can do it, but most people think along more

traditional academic lines."

The response to the academicians from fellow concert-attendees as well as family

members has been almost universally positive so far.

"We were pretty nervous at first, but they've been around the country and they seem to

be having a great time. We haven't seen her since she left," said Gold's mother,

Sprowles, speaking from Columbia, Ky. "I'm pretty excited about it. When I went to

school, nobody let me do this."

As for Phish, they seemed to be nonplussed by the news that a group of their fans is

actually studying the tour.

Either that, or they were having a hard time believing it.

"Christi and I talked to Mike and Fishman. When we brought it up, they didn't want to

hear about it," Smith said, based on a conversation she had with drummer Fishman and

bassist Gordon backstage. "They'd just turn their heads or just choose not to answer.

They didn't care."

Although a fan prior to the start of their trek, Smith expects to return from the venture in

two weeks as more of a fanatical Phishhead than ever.

If anything, the experience taught her how good Phish really are, as musicians and as

icons, she said.

"I never realized to what extent they are musical geniuses," she said. "All my friends

said, 'You won't be playing Phish in the car,' but it's all we play really."