Phish's story of philanthropy - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Phish's story of philanthropy

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

He first tickled the ivories at 4 years old, but it was 30 years ago when music really changed his life.

"We are lucky we found each other," Page McConnell said.

McConnell is one of four longtime friends whose jam rock earned them a huge cult following. He's the keyboardist for the Vermont-born band Phish.

"We've got a couple things working in our favor and the biggest is that we actually like each other," McConnell said. "We are friends. The four of us are very close."

And have been-- even during a breakup in 2004. Five years later they reunited. Back on tour. Back to making music. And since then, it's only gotten better.

"We are closer now than at any time in our 30 years," McConnell said. "It's actually gotten tighter, especially since we broke up and got back together. I think there's a new level of appreciation and it just feels more fun than the old days, really."

Phish's sellout shows propelled the musicians to super stardom. Ticket sales top 500,000 a year-- and that's not counting festivals. Phish has reeled in millions of dollars-- and has given millions away.

"It's exciting. It's very, very cool that part of the band grew with the band," Beth Montouri Rowles said.

Montouri Rowles oversees the band's charitable giving through its WaterWheel Foundation.

Beth Montouri Rowles: It's so fulfilling to do work like this and for me to be working for a rock band and have this opportunity to be philanthropic as part of my job is very cool.

Reporter Darren Perron: A lot of people are envious, I'm sure.

Beth Montouri Rowles: I would be, you know!? If it weren't me! (laughs)

The band's philanthropy work had humble beginnings until it partnered with Ben & Jerry's. The two came up with the flavor Phish Food. Part of the proceeds from the ice cream benefits the WaterWheel Foundation. The partnership began in 1997. Since then, about $3 million from Phish Food sales have gone to charities. The band has donated another million-- money raised from ticket sales. One dollar from each ticket goes to WaterWheel. Merchandise sales also help the cause.

"We give back because we can," McConnell said. "We give back because it's the right thing to do. We give back because it feels good. It sets a good example."

A good example for the tens of thousands of fans hooked on Phish, most who have grown up with the band.

"More recently our fans have become very generous as they've grown older and have the resources to give some money," McConnell said.

Phish spreads the wealth. Hundreds of nonprofits have benefited, helping women and children, the environment, food banks, communities that host concerts and more.

Darren Perron: Is there something you can point to and say we are most proud of that?

Page McConnell: I think we are really proud of all of it, but the Irene benefit stands out in its own way.

The biggest fundraising effort took place after the biggest catastrophe to hit Vermont in nearly a century-- Tropical Storm Irene.

"You can't overstate the devastation this small state experienced," McConnell said. "The Irene benefit was something of a different scale for us, though, for sure."

A surprise benefit show organized in two weeks raised $1.2 million for flood relief.

"I'm proud of the way we pulled that together and the awareness we raised and the money we were able to generate to give to these organizations," McConnell said.

Phish's generosity, Montouri Rowles says, has helped to change people's perception of the band.

"The fans are extremely generous. I think back in the day there were stereotypes of what Phish fans would be. There were communities with concerns when the band would tour through. But they always were, after the fact, 'I don't know what we were worried about, these guys were great. This is a great fan base,'" she said. "And they are. They really are."

And lucky for Phish fans, Vermont's most famous rockers are still lured to the stage by the love of music.

Darren Perron: You're still having a good time doing it?

Page McConnell: Having more fun than ever. I really am. (laughs)

Phish has four sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden Friday night through New Year's Eve. And the band is hosting pre-show fundraisers to benefit the WaterWheel Foundation.

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