Phish jamming at MGM Grand

Phish changed Tom Roman’s life.

Twice.

The first instance was a tragedy: In April 2013 in Washington, Pa., near Pittsburgh, Roman’s son Nate, then 30, was shot and killed in a dispute over Phish tickets with another man, who later committed suicide.

After Roman’s son’s death, the tickets arrived in the mail.

“I didn’t know exactly what to do with them,” Roman recalls from his home in Canonsburg, Pa.

So he logged on to the Phish.net fan site, which he knew his son frequented, and offered to sell the tickets to fellow visitors.

“They were like, ‘Well, we can hook you up with people to buy the tickets, but you should go to see a show, see what it’s all about. Your son loved it.’ ”

And so Roman decided to attend a show in San Francisco in memory of his son, a Phish die-hard who had traveled all over the country to see the band 83 times.

And that’s when the Phish community got involved.

One fan offered Roman his frequent-flier miles in order to cover his airfare.

A nonprofit organization founded by Phish fans, The Mockingbird Foundation, took him out to dinner once he got into town.

And then there was the show itself.

Roman remembers his son playing him Phish tunes from time to time, but they never really sunk in.

“Their songs are long, is the thing,” he says. “I would listen to ’em and listen to ’em, and I’d finally say, ‘Put the next song on.’ I really didn’t get it until I went to actually see them live — just the energy of it. Everyone was just so friggin’ happy, people were beaming, just glowing and dancing like crazy. The energy was just incredible.”

Roman, approaching 60, was hooked.

Shows in Maryland followed this summer, where he made friends who persuaded him to come see the band’s Las Vegas shows this weekend.

“It’s been a bright spot in a really dark time for me,” he says.

Roman’s story encapsulates the story of Phish, in a way: Like the Grateful Dead, whom they’re frequently compared to, the seminal jam band is at the center of a culture and a community that has sprung up around them, of which the music plays a central part — yet is but one part.

Phish’s supremely dedicated following, their self-anointed “phans,” have a symbiotic relationship with the band, generating the giddy atmosphere at their shows and making phish phandom a lifestyle, an identity, that extends far beyond the group itself.

“When I run into another phan, there is an instant ‘you get it’ connection,” says Kyle Henson, a full-time RVer who is coming to the band’s Vegas shows and will see Phish nine times this year.

“They’re always likened to The Dead,” adds Keith Scherer, a phan who has seen the band 85 times. “They’re different musically, but in devotion and community, not very different at all.

“Any musical act develops a fan base with its own culture, it’s own sayings, nuances,” Scherer adds. “Our bond is the love of music, of all kinds. It’s also a bond of shared adventures, shared musical experiences. Sitting in traffic jams. Trudging through mud. The musical peaks.”

Those peaks invariably include Phish’s storied Halloween gigs, where the group has been known to put on “musical costumes” and cover an album from another band in its entirety.

The one time Phish played Las Vegas on Halloween, at the Thomas & Mack Center in 1998, they performed Velvet Underground’s “Loaded.”

Whether or not they take on a full album this year, Phish’s Halloween show is among the band’s most anticipated of the year.

“It, along with New Year’s, is the Super Bowl of Phish shows: elusive tickets, extra sets, the musical costumes, the hype, the unpredictability of what they will play. It’s very exciting,” Henson says.

For Roman, a big part of this excitement is meeting fellow Phish.net regulars face to face, some of them for the first time, people he mainly knows by the nicknames they give themselves when posting on the site message boards.

He notes that one such poster is coming to the show all the way from Germany.

He got the guy some Pittsburgh Steelers shirts.

It’s a small gesture, giving a fellow phan something indicative of where he’s from.

But for Roman, it has a bigger meaning, making him a part of something that was a part of his son.

“It’s a hell of a community,” he says. “Now, I can see why my son loved this so much.”

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow on Twitter @JasonBracelin.

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