Widespread Panic recently agreed to give Gateway members a table at all of the band's shows. (According to a publicist, the group and its management were unavailable to comment on this arrangement.) The Gateway's founder, a twenty-something man named Clay, says that while he's frustrated that it took deadly events for the band to open the door to his group, he's happy to have the opportunity now.
"They're doing us a huge favor," he says. "It's outside the scope of rock and roll."
Clay, who started the Gateway in 1998, doesn't expect his group to be warmly received by everyone. He learned that lesson during his first concert appearance as a sober crusader, a Widespread show in Tennessee. "It was tough. [There were] wasted people who screwed with you," he recalls. "I felt like some weirdo, some preacher trying to spread the gospel on the streets of Birmingham." The response, he says, reflected the music of the band he travels to see ten to fifteen times a year. "[Widespread Panic's] music is a little bit meaner and nastier -- which I like -- and so is the crowd," he says. "It's not all bubbles and hula hoops, like you've got with String Cheese. People were pretty negative toward us from the beginning."
Clay says the animosity has mellowed over the past four years, though he still occasionally encounters the hostility of drug and alcohol users. "The Gateway is not anti-drug; that's not our position," he says. "We're just there to have a good time, and we feel like it's an environment where people might need a group like us." He also makes it clear that he and his associates don't hold Widespread Panic, or any other band, responsible for their audiences' behavior or consumption.
"The band has nothing to do with the world's drug problem," he says. "I've seen a lot of people try to find something in a rock-and-roll band. They're looking for meaning or God or whatever they're looking for, whether they know it or not. They're using the drugs too heavily and thinking this band can save them. That's just not the case."
Clay recalls the story of a friend who, while following Panic on the road, embraced the more dangerous side of the band's touring contingent. "Within a couple of years, she was all dreaded out and crazy, and she ended up killing herself," he says. "But it didn't have anything to do with the band. She was just searching for something and looking in the wrong places."
The Gateway and the Jellyfish loosely follow the practices of organizations such as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. Both have volunteer staffs of officers, regional table coordinators and Web and newsletter editors; both host discussions online. The Gateway and the Jellyfish also use the model designed by Don, founder of the original group of sober fans, the Wharf Rats. A Deadhead now celebrating his 25th year of clean living, Don got the idea of organizing like-minded fans after seeing an AA bumper sticker in the parking lot of a Dead show in the mid-'80s and, later, meeting the members of an informal club, Grateful We're Not Dead, at a show in Chicago. The official Wharf Rats held their first meetings at shows -- always in an area midway between stage and the soundboard, "on the Phil Lesh side," Don says. "We had it in our head somehow that Phil was one of us. I'm not sure why we felt that."
The Wharf Rats identified themselves by carrying yellow balloons at concerts, a practice that's been embraced by other groups like the Gateway and the Jellyfish. (This system has created some confusion at concerts: Sober fans tell of being approached by people who think the balloons are filled with nitrous oxide. "I've had people ask me, 'Hey dude, can I get a hit off that balloon?'" Steve says.)
Interest in the Wharf Rats has not waned in the post-Dead years. The group has continued to meet at shows that feature former members of the band, including Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, with in-concert Rat meetings often drawing a couple hundred people. Some factions on the East and West coasts hold weekly meetings that are not tied to live shows. And recently, Dark Star Orchestra, the nation's leading Grateful Dead cover act, began bolstering its detail-minded concert re-creations by inviting the Wharf Rats to have a presence at Dark Star shows.