For people with a history of substance use disorders, it can be difficult to enjoy situations in which those around them are drinking or using recreational drugs. With clouds of marijuana smoke permeating the air and visibly intoxicated people in the crowd, concerts and music festivals may be considered dangerous territory to those who strive for total abstinence. While the obvious solution to this dilemma would be an altogether avoidance of these scenarios, it would be quite impractical for avid music fans to spend their lives dodging every show. Attending concerts with friends who also abstain from drinking or drugging can make a world of difference to lessen the sense of overwhelming vulnerability. Luckily for those unable to find clean companions, there are several groups in place that have made it possible to safely attend on one’s own.
Enjoying music can be a spiritual and therapeutic experience for many people. According to one study, singing is capable of both increasing immune system function and altering hormones and neurotransmitters associated with happiness and reduced stress (Kang et al., 2018). People who are in recovery from a past of using drugs may feel vulnerable when at a concert where for example, clouds of marijuana smoke permeate the air and it seems as though almost everyone in the audience is holding a beer. Luckily, several support groups exist that are linked to specific bands – groups that typically set up a table somewhere in the venue and hold meetings during intermissions. The Wharf Rats for example, are a group of deadheads (avid Grateful Dead fans) who have chosen to live lives free from drugs and alcohol. They formed in the 1980’s, are not affiliated with any twelve-step group, and are still going strong today. When attending a Dead & Company concert, or any other related show, it is possible for concertgoers to find them, usually at a table colorfully clad with yellow balloons, candy, and inspirational stickers stating things such as, “another dopeless hope fiend” or “one show at a time.”
Following in the footsteps of these deadhead pioneers, other support groups have formed within jam band culture. Fans of the Disco Biscuits can feel safer at shows, knowing The Digital Buddhas table is there if needed. Moe. fans can seek out the Happy Hour Heroes, while seeing the band. The Wharf Rats also set up tables at other Dead-related shows, such as JRAD and DSO concerts.
To gain some insight as to how meaningful these groups are for so many people, I interviewed my enthusiastic friend, Adam Colton, who participates in several of them:
Q: How long have you been participating in the clean jam band scene? What was your first experience like?
A: “I first heard about the Wharf Rats (clean/sober dead-heads) when I was in rehab. Speakers would come up to share their experience, strength, and hope. One speaker in particular stood out, and I really related to her passion for live music. I was so excited and relieved to know there were other people who were clean that were still able to go to shows. I stayed away for my first year, until I felt confident enough to go see moe. at Beekman Beer Gardens in Manhattan. I remembered there was a yellow balloon table, as several bands in the jam band scene have, and made it safely there. I felt free, connected, safe, liberated.”
Q: How many tables have you volunteered to do so far?
A: “I’ve been participating in the clean jam scene for just over 7 years. I’m coming up on 9 years clean. I have volunteered at countless tables since, for several bands. Although the jam scene features a big drug culture, most people are open to and support the presence of a community of concert goers that remain substance free.”
Q: You recently started another group for the band, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong – what has that been like?
A: “Creating the clean/sober group for Pigeons Playing Ping Pong has been one of my proudest accomplishments in recovery. I got to go on a dream vacation and cross Red Rocks (Morrison, CO) off my bucket list. I traveled across the country to see two of my favorite bands and one DJ. I got to see 4 shows that week at Red Rocks. I had already been in contact with their manager, who was very open at the idea of having a clean/sober presence at their shows. I was volunteering at moe.’s table, when I met PPPP managers, bassist, and drummer. My excitement was matched by theirs. I got to present ideas, and began to organize and structure a group of clean/sober people who would volunteer at PPPP shows across the country. Our first table was that fall tour, in 2018. We’re called “Sobird Flockers”.
Navigating through all the obstacles that would arise, stepping up into this leadership role has been a gigantic learning experience. Keeping my vision, our shared vision at the forefront–creating a space for people who choose to remain substance free at shows, is what supports me through any hardships that I’ve encountered. We have a group of 500 people on facebook, and tons of people I’ve met throughout the years all over the country. You can imagine all the different personalities. Our unity and passion for what we do ties us all together.”
Q: What is your favorite thing about being part of these groups and why?
A: “My favorite thing about these groups are the connections, the community. The smiles, the gratitude. I’ve met so many people all over the country, and have built deep connections and friendships with them and their families. Some of my closest friends are people I’ve met being of service. Becoming part of each others support groups spending holidays together, a sense of belonging, purpose… community. Knowing we all create that space together, seeing someone for the first time realizing they can do what they’re passionate about clean/sober. Seeing a new person for the first time achieving that level of freedom, happiness, bliss.
Because that’s what we do. I need to talk about freedom. My passion for live music is a lot more than just attending concerts. It’s the personal/spiritual freedom I feel while at a show, the connection, the love. These are almost direct opposites of the hold that addiction had on me. Strangers become family. To be able to share that with a group of people who all feel the same.”
It’s a beautiful thing for people with a history of substance use disorders to be able to enjoy life again without the need to drink or use drugs. These grassroots groups portray the importance and power of strong support networks for people with a history of substance use disorders. Many of the members also happen to be the nicest people you’ll ever meet. If any concert-goer is in need of support, be it a hug or a listening ear, these groups may be an infinitely valuable resource for approaching recovery one show at a time.
Pettersen, H., Landheim, A., Skeie, I., Biong, S., Brodahl, M., Oute, J., & Davidson, L. (2019). How Social Relationships Influence Substance Use Disorder Recovery: A Collaborative Narrative Study. Substance abuse : research and treatment, 13,1178221819833379. doi:10.1177/1178221819833379
Kang, J., Scholp, A., Jiang, J. (2018). A Review of the Physiological Effects and Mechanisms of Singing. The Voice Foundation Journal of Voice, vol 32, issue 4, 390-395. doi:10.1108/03090560710821161Wharf Rats. (n.d). retrieved from http://wharfrat.org/