On Friday afternoon, while a steady rain fell on Lollapalooza in Grant Park, Patrick Whelan watched warily as a handful of teenagers and 20-somethings ran for shelter beneath the nearby trees. There, waiting for the storm to pass, they drank beer and lit joints. Whelan sat in a folding chair a few feet away, the pungent smell of pot wafting toward his space, a small tented lounge he had named Sober Side. The name was a nod to the South Side. At the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee, his tent was named “SoberRoo”; at the Lightning in a Bottle music festival in California, he had called it “Lightning Without a Bottle.”
He visits about 10 festivals a year, and the name of his tent changes each time.
But its goal never does.
For the duration of whatever enormous two-, three- or four-day music festival he happens to be parked at, Whelan and his handful of volunteers act as a makeshift support group for those suffering with or recovering from drug or alcohol addiction. During Lollapalooza weekend — which was the group's debut at the 23-year-old music festival — Sober Side offered support meetings three times daily, at 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Smack in the middle of Lolla.
Specifically, C3 Presents, the organizers of Lollapalooza, put Whelan and company at the west side of Grant Park, at the top of a small hill, near a medical tent (as Whelan requested) — but also, somewhat awkwardly (however unintentionally), at a nexus of temptations: Just behind Sober Side was a craft-beer tent. Just in front was a wine tent. Most ironically of all, Sober Side was in thumping range of Perry's, the stage devoted to electronic dance music, a corner of Lollapalooza not particularly known for its sobriety.
Leaving the group's 4 p.m. support meeting Friday, a 20-something man from Chicago who said he was recovering from drug and alcohol addiction looked around at the beer tents and floods of festivalgoers smoking and drinking: “I actually just heard about (Sober Side) and thought it was so smart. I am really grateful, because, you can see, for someone like me who's sober, walking around here, you're constantly bombarded by, you know, triggers ...”
That 4 p.m. meeting drew a half a dozen people. By Saturday afternoon, attendance jumped to 10.
A woman from Kentucky dropped a blanket inside the tent, stretched out and waited for the meeting to begin, a big placid smile on her face. A man from New York slumped in a chair. A woman from Texas folded her legs beneath her. (Many of the attendees asked to only be identified by first name, or not at all.) Then Whelan explained why he was there and who he was and opened the meeting. They passed a yellow balloon around. With each pass they talked about recovery and temptation and how things were going at the festival.
The New Yorker took the balloon and said this group was exactly what he needed and that his day was “great so far.” Then he passed the balloon to Nick Keaton, a volunteer for Whelan.
“At a place like Lollapalooza,” Keaton said, “most of us know how to find a way to ruin a good time.” He said he saw an Eminem show in 2004 and doesn't remember a thing about the show. But he's been sober now for six years and saw Eminem on Friday and remembers everything.
Festival after festival, Whelan — who is 48 and said he's been sober himself for 16 years — tends to draw primarily concertgoers. But concert staff have attended meetings. And so have band managers and the occasional band member. “We also get roadies, people who bust their tails setting up gigantic festivals. They need a place. At something like Lolla, a small city within a larger city for three days, it makes sense.”
Sean Brickell, a 63-year-old owner of a Virginia public relations firm who travels with Whelan to the festivals and helps organize the tents (and whose son is a recovering addict), added: “We also get those people who come to our tent and say ‘I am here with my boyfriend or girlfriend or best friend and they're not answering their cellphone. I'm afraid of what that means right now.' And so we offer support for those people as well.”
Whelan said: “And we get people who walk past and say, ‘I'm not sober but I'm glad you're here.'”
In the next breath, they were quick to point out: They were not there to provide medical care or act as baby sitters for the wasted. Though the group has the policy of anonymity that defines most support groups, it is not affiliated with any recovery organizations or 12-step program. It is casual. Indeed, though Whelan's tents are a staple of many festivals, his footprint here was modest — folding chairs and a couple of tables stacked with complimentary inspirational stickers: “One Show at a Time,” “It Takes Hope in a Dopeless World.”
The group — which has no name (preferring to tailor its identity to each festival it attends) — began at Bonnaroo 12 years ago. Whelan, a salesman for a coffee and tea wholesaler in Louisville, Ky., was a self-identified “Wharf Rat,” a member of the loose network of Grateful Dead fans who acted as a support group for fellow recovering Deadheads. After the Dead split up in 1995, Whelan began working with jam bands such as Phish and Widespread Panic, who “would let us establish a sober presence at their concerts.” At the 2002 debut of the jam-band friendly Bonnaroo festival, Whelan informally gathered a support group of about 35 people. He returned year after year, and received an official festival tent in 2006.
“And so when people who worked at Bonnaroo moved to work at other festivals, they would often ask about having us there too,” he said.
At Lolla, outside the thin fabric of Whelan's tent, festivalgoers filed past on their way to Perry's. Some read the name of the tent loudly and laughed. A guy in a Bulls jersey said, “Hey, sober tent! Sober up!”
Inside the tent, the group could be seen clearly, but no one in the circle of chairs acknowledged or seemed to even hear the hecklers. Instead, they passed the balloon, talked of being strong ships and hoping for calm seas. A woman from Florida said she just stumbled on this meeting by chance, and that she was surprised it was here. She said she was at Lolla with her mother, and her mother was driving her crazy: “In the past, I would have found a bar. I am incredibly grateful this exists.” She said she had been sober for 19 months.
Then everyone stood, slung their arms together and asked for serenity to accept things they can't change and courage to change things they can. Then they broke the huddle and sprinted off to hear some music.