• John Roesch

Follow the Yellow Balloons! Finding Sober Support at Concerts & Festivals

Many people in recovery from alcohol and/or drug use remember those early days in sobriety when we were convinced the party was over. No more laughing. No more dancing. No more fun. Fortunately, as time went on we found that in fact, life was better than it had been in a long, long time. We put down our drug of choice, adjusted the people, places and things in our lives and found more meaningful relationships and enriching experiences.

We learned that once we had some solid sober time that it was ok to go to events where alcohol was being served, if we had a genuine reason to be there. In fact, we could go anywhere as long as we remembered our program and used whatever tools we might need to maintain our sobriety (e.g. calling a sober friend for support). We also learned that some events were more challenging than others. For me, it was concerts and music festivals. I couldn’t remember ever going to a concert without drinking and/or getting high. (Not surprisingly, there were far too many concerts I attended and didn’t remember!) I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to stay sober at a show. I wasn’t alone. For some reason drugs and alcohol are accepted, even expected at concerts. They’re everywhere you look and the temptation to pick up can be powerful. Fortunately, thanks to a small group of sober Deadheads who go by the name “Wharf Rats” (named for a Grateful Dead song about a down and out alcoholic), concert-goers can now find sober support groups at many shows and festivals throughout the country. According to Wikipedia,

The Wharf Rats began during the early 1980s as a group of Deadheads under the name "The Wharf Rat Group of Alcoholics Anonymous". The Wharf Rats originally came from a small group of Narcotics Anonymous members who went to a Grateful Dead concert in Philadelphia and located each other by their Yellow balloons with the NA symbol drawn on in Magic Marker. However due to operational differences they soon split off from Narcotics Anonymous, and are not affiliated with them, NA, or any other twelve-step program, though many members of the Wharf Rats are members of AA, NA or other 12-step programs. The Wharf Rats see themselves as "a group of friends sharing a common bond, providing support, information and some traction in an otherwise slippery environment."

Their primary purpose is to support other concert goers who choose to live drug-free, like themselves. They announce their presence with yellow balloons, signs, and the Wharf Rats information table. At a set break during Grateful Dead (and related) concerts they hold self help style meetings but are not affiliated specifically with any 12-Step organization and have no requirement for attendance at one of their meetings besides providing some helpful drug free fellowship. Like Deadheads, members of Wharf Rats come from all walks of life.

As time went on the Wharf Rat model began to be replicated by fans of other bands and today it’s somewhat common to find sober support at concerts. Fans of Phish, String Cheese Incident, Moe, Widespread Panic, Disco Biscuits, Umphrey’s McGee, Yonder Mountain String Band and Government Mule have formed their own sober support groups. In addition to these groups, “sober tents” where folks can find water, shade, support and meetings can be found at most music festivals like Coachella, Bonaroo, Lockn’, and others. As you might imagine festival organizers welcome these groups and are happy to provide space for their tents and tables at the venues. Coachella’s sober support group (Soberchella) just celebrated its 10th anniversary and the group has grown significantly. Another group, Harmonium, is in its 17th year of providing support at a variety of festivals throughout the country.

Harmonium is a 501(c)3 nonprofit group that was founded by a small group of music lovers at the Bonaroo Festival in 2002 and has grown tremendously to the point where they are invited to set up at more festivals than they’re able to staff. According to the nonprofit’s website,

In 2005 the festival began to provide admission in exchange for our service and in 2011 our fellowship had grown so large that the festival began to provide real estate for a lounge and a large, private tent for our meetings. We were invited to the first Lockn’ Music Festival in 2013 which was our first growth outside Bonnaroo and in 2014 saw growth that invited us to 12 total music festivals and another half dozen we couldn’t staff due to proximity to other events we were committed to staff.

In addition to finding sober support at the venues, a number of festivals that include on-site (or local) camping now designate alcohol and drug-free campsites for those who are sober or simply sober curious. Information about sober support groups and campsites can usually be found on the festival’s website. For example, the upcoming Lockn’ Music Festival held over 4 days each August in Arrington, Virginia provides information on its site about “Sober Lockn” a support network that holds several meetings each day of the festival, as well as Sober Camping.

If you’re planning to attend a concert or festival this year, check the event’s website or Facebook page for information about sober support during the event. For more information about sober groups specific to particular bands, the following links can help you get connected. If you know of any groups or networks in addition to those included in this post, please let us know by leaving a comment below.

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