Few music forums have made as large an impact on the jamband scene over the past decade as the Yahoo! Group the NYC-Freaks List. Started by a Long Island-based scientist named Aaron Stein—a music fan who first carved a small place in Phish lore when Trey Anastasio acknowledged him from the stage at Clifford Ball for riding the rail every show of the band’s summer tour—as a way to meet likeminded music fans in New York, the Freaks List has grown to include several hundred regular concertgoers, musicians, writers, promoters, managers and other passionate music fans.

While not as heavily trafficked as many public message boards, the invite only list’s active members have helped propel the likes of Robert Randolph & the Family Band, the Benevento/Russo Duo, Bustle in Your Hedgerow, RANA and others to national recognition. The band’s annual party The Freaks Ball has also grown with New York’s live music community to boast performances by the likes of Robert Randolph & the Family Band, The Benevento/Russo Duo, RANA, The New Mastersounds, Apollo Sunshine, Chris Harford & Band of Changes featuring Dean Ween, Ollabelle, American Babies, Skerik, Mike Dillon, Bustle in Your Hedgerow and many others. After bouncing between venues for a few years, this year the Freaks Ball lands at New York’s Sullivan Hall on January 23. In addition to Metzger, who will debut a new project for the occasion, the lineup will feature New Orleans slide guitarist Anders Osborne and Hoboken, NJ rockers the Black Hollies. Below, Stein and Freaks List moderator JR Hevron discuss the list’s evolution, this year’s Freaks Ball and the challenges of keeping over 400 internet denizens engaged and focused.

First off, can you start by giving us a little background about when and how the Freaks List was first conceived?

A: Essentially, I started the Freaks list because I was sick of going out to see music by myself. When I first moved down to the area, I had a few friends in town who’d go out to see music with me, but not as often as I’d have liked. I was seeing a lot of the same people out at shows so I knew I wasn’t the only one. Around the same time I was pretty heavily involved with the Spreadnet and there were a few that were living in NYC as well and we’d hang out every once in a while. After one particularly raging evening at the Wetlands seeing the Justice League of America with Jimmy Herring, I knew there was a community in waiting and the NYC-Freaks list was born. That was 10 years ago this week.

The Freaks List started with a focus on Widespread Panic. Is the list’s name a reference to any particular show or comment from the band?

A: Not consciously, no. Yes, the initial kernel of the list were certainly Panic freaks, but my vision extended beyond that group to music freaks of all shapes and sizes. I specifically didn’t want to call the list something “Panic” or “WSP.” We’re all freaks and all freaks are welcome on the NYC-Freaks list (provided they pass a rigorous hazing period).

JR: I never really attributed it to Panic. The whole notion of freaks goes way back to the Grateful Dead and likely beyond that. I was never a huge Panic fan, but I got onto the Freaks List pretty early on. I started the Galactic-NY list (offshoot of the national Galactic list) for the same reasons. I kept seeing cross postings to NYC-Freaks and realized that I should get on. It immediately opened up my music world. I suddenly knew all of the people that I had been seeing out at shows by name. There were so many like-minded hard core music people out there who didn’t even know that they were waiting for something like the NYC-Freaks to come along. Since the list started, I don’t think that I’ve ever gone to a show where I didn’t know at least one person.

The members of the NYC-Freaks are credited with helping launch the career of Robert Randolph. He even wrote a song about the NYC-Freaks. How did you initially hear about Robert and how would you say the list helped develop his career?

A: Personally, the first time I heard of Robert was the first time I heard him which was playing with MMW on Halloween in 2000. I was sort of blown away, but didn’t think much about the guy or his own music. He had actually played with NMAS a month earlier—a show I didn’t go to—that had a lot of folks on the list buzzing. That November he had a sort of residency at the Lakeside Lounge that I was lucky enough to hit a couple of times and I really fell head-over-heels in love with his music.

We were lucky enough to get him to play the Freaks Ball and actually booked him for a few legendary shows in 2001 and 2002. It was the passion for his music from members on the list that really provided the fuel for Robert as he went from a talented musician to a full-fledged star. I think the most important thing that we did for Robert’s career is that we provided a catalyst for him. When you have 100-200 of the most passionate, vocal, addictive music fans going rabid for you at the start of a music career that you aren’t even sure exists yet, it helps quite a bit. There’s little doubt in my mind that the Freaks gave the confidence to Robert to quit his day job and pursue his dream.

At the same time, Robert helped turn the Freaks list into something more than just a bunch of music fans.

JR: The whole Randolph thing was inspiring to watch. There was something raw and vibrant and old-school and untouched about his music at that point. And everyone had that experience of feeling like they were getting in on the ground floor of this big secret and rallying around it. I was there for some of the of the Lakeside Lounge shows and was totally blown away.

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