We wanted to celebrate the release of 7-DVD Clifford Ball set today with a remembrance of that weekend from our pal Neddy…
“Beautiful man… I don’t know how you do it…”
The Clifford Ball. It was the end and the beginning. It was, yeah, just a couple Phish shows, but it was also the rift between two eras. For me and the band. In my mind there are some distinct periods in the history of the band which I described in my blog here. The Ball was a distinct shift where Phish went from being a band that was big enough to tour with their own grand piano and fill arenas to a band that was big enough to put on a massive festival on their own and compel tens of thousands of people to schlep to remote locations. This was the birth of “big Phish.”
It was also a distinct shift for me. The summer had officially started with my graduation from college in May. When the summer ended I would be in graduate school. It was a real life bar mitzvah moment: time to become an adult. The woman I love(d) would go from being a girlfriend to being the person I lived with. But before all that, there was the summer. Phish announced their dates in the spring – a pretty minor stretch of shows, 11 in total, all in the middle of August, starting out west and working their way toward the big bash at an Air Force base in Plattsburgh. The highlights were a you-crazy? 4-night run at Red Rocks and something they were calling The Clifford Ball, which, to hear the Phish literature describe it, was just about as much fun as you could have in upstate New York.
READ ON for more of the Clifford Ball installment of Nedstalgia…
It couldn’t have been more obvious or worked out more perfectly. The decision and planning pretty much worked itself out without any input from us. The Big Squeeze and I would spend June & July working and making a little dough, then we’d pack up the NedMobile and head west for some fun, hitting every show on the docket on the way back. Plattsburgh was just a short stretch of highway from home base in Syracuse, so we’d be perfectly positioned to get on with our lives and leave the summer behind us after the last notes were played.
Clifford Ball was the transition, the end, the last hurrah and yet, in so many ways, it was just the beginning. Those two shows remain some of my fondest Phishmemories. In the wide and storied rainbow of Phish shows through the years, these two are like the strong, bright green of the center: a perfect segue of the yellows of the shows from the early 90′s – the tight, full-band jamming, the greater-than-the-sum persona, the glory of composition coupled with the freedom of no-net jamming – and the deep blue of the later decade and beyond, where everything that had been so precisely built up was now toppled, rearranged and
reconstructed as a funked-up, ultragroovy party. The Clifford Ball shows embodied all of this. And were pretty fucking good on top of all that.
I love the fact that this has come out on DVD. Phish has always been a visual phenomenon: it’s never been enough just to hear the music, the full effect came from seeing the band, the looks on their faces as they moved from one piece to another, the way the lights played the music, the silhouettes of trampolining bassist and guitarist flying through a homemade cloud that threatened to pour the surrealistic rain all over the helpless crowd. Still, I’ve never had much interest in watching a Phish show on DVD. The memories were always more than sufficient. It’s the old man in me, but I’d rather not have the way I remember it sullied by reality.
For the Clifford Ball, it’s different, though. You really do need to see what was going on. You need to see that Mr Sausage stand that prompted some impromptu cheekiness from Trey during a segue jam. You need to see Ben & Jerry and the total “WTF!?!?” looks on their faces as they hop on stage and sing a verse of “Brother.” You need to see the ridiculous little acoustic setup the band had for their miniset, complete with a wimpy old piano for Page to play on. You need to see it all.
Because as much as I can remember what was going on around the band influenced the music. The show before Clifford Ball was in Hershey, PA and features a fantastic, underrated version of Reba. What you don’t realize is that the reason it is so good is that during this tune there was a dude near the front with a little girl on his shoulders and the entire jam Trey was looking at this kid getting off on the music and just feeding off of it in some weird trancelike state. What he saw was directly channeling into the music.
This phenomenon defined the Clifford Ball for me and made the otherwise sick playing and tight jamming that much more otherworldly. The first night climaxed with a monster third set that concluded in literal fireworks at the end of Harry Hood. It was a living metaphor: having a tune like Harry Hood that builds to explosive strength and sparkles with colorful flashes of guitar, bass, drums and piano be “accompanied” by a brilliant fireworks display. Was the band igniting the fuses themselves or were the explosions overhead igniting the band?
During that sublime second set on the 17th, they dropped this rope down on the side of the stage and this female acrobat proceeded to do all these death-defying stunts to the side while the band jammed on Antelope. All the while, the band is looking up and watching these gleeping amazing things that this woman is doing. And the music reacted to it in an utterly subconscious way… this woman was playingthe band with her entire body, suspended high above the ground. It was the Big Ball Jam on steroids and it was powerful thing. You’ll never appreciate that in mp3 form. Later in the show, they upped it even more when they brought out these giant trampolines (how’s that for meta?) and had these other acrobats doing tricks during Tweezer. By this time, the sun had gone down and the Clifford Ball was winding down after two full days of era-shifting, adult-blooming music. But in grand Phish fashion, they may have saved the best for last. With the lights swirling and the tramps a-trampin’, this Tweezer was smoking. It isn’t just the music that makes it special (although that’s a forward looking funk-o-rama), but the way the band bounced and hurtled with each leap the acrobats were taking. All this seemed to cohere the band, locked them in, they were all focused on the same thing and yet not focused at all. Truly a sight to behold.
Of course, there was a whole bunch more to the Clifford Ball — the port-o-johns and the giant displays of artwork, the masses of people camping together and having fun, but when it all shaked out it’s the music and the memories. We spent our two weeks out on the road with Phish in pursuit of great music. We were hooked on the entity that Phish had become in our 5 years of dogged sycophance. We wanted to be as close as we could to the source of this nectar that fed our souls and our lives. So close, we could touch it. It was really all that mattered, the only place where there was nothing separating us from the music. A rare case of obsessive-compulsive disorder: we needed our Phish experience to be as clean and as pure as possible. There was only one place for us: the front row.
From Utah to Red Rocks to Wisconsin to Hershey, we were there, arms on the rails, absorbing every note like sweaty sponges, dancing our asses off to completely undistilled Phish, strong, warm and sweet. It was some effort to get there, but it was always, always, always worth it. Of course, at Clifford Ball, everything was super-sized, which meant our effort had to be. The stage area was separated from the camping area by the entire length of a runway (this was an airport after all) and they had barricades for those waiting to get in. As we waited there, it was clear there was going to be some crazy running involved to get to the stage. It’s always kinda crazy when you wait to get into a Phish show, your normal sense of morality and reality somehow get shifted as you talk to everyone around you. The anticipation and the energy is disproportionate to the true weight of the situation. In short: we were all nuts. But a decade plus later, I still get a little giddy and nervous thinking about these situations. So, finally, after what seemed like too long the gates are opened on the first day and it was no less than the start of the NYC Marathon. That first day, my like-minded buddy had his schwerve on and bolted from the pack and with me close behind, we took the honors dab smack in the middle on the rail. Good times.
The first day’s show was a monster event. Just top to bottom glory. Setlist and playing perfectly meshed with the energy and the crowd and the moment. Should we have been surprised? It’s amazing to me listening to these now and remembering how I felt then: man these guys were good. And only getting better. How was it possible? And yet it was. The music was that perfect summation of the previous 6 years of chops honing and gig grueling and the wonderful omen of that “best is yet to come” feeling.
This all came to a head in the magnificent third set. The band was totally settled in as the lights were now in full effect. They now were officially a band that could master a festival of this size. It was ALL Phish: from the Mr Sausage stand next to the stage all the way back to the guys still putting bracelets on anyone who was still straggling in at the gate. No words needed to be said to sum this up. It was all evident in the music. It’s hard to go back and realize how momentous this was, but this was a band playing with utter and supreme confidence the way rarely a band has before or since. I streamed the 2001>Down With Disease yesterday from livephish.com in my office. Usually I can keep the volume down and keep my composure. With that combo I had no choice but to plug in some headphones and just crank it up. Just four guys just Vulcan mind-melding on stage in front of 50,000 people in Nowheresville, NY. Tectonic plates shifting below our feet. I had walked across my own stage in cap and gown a few months back, and by the time I left the dais and got back down to Earth, I had a diploma in my hand and was ready to start the rest of my life. By the time the last firework had exploded on the night of August 16th, the band had broken through. They’d played better shows before and put on bigger and better festivals since, but this was a moment.
The next day, things were even more out of control. The energy from the previous day/night’s show and the fact that everyone was now settled in after a full day of music and partying only fed everyone’s half-crazed ideas. There were a lot of people in Plattsburgh that weekend and while most of them couldn’t have been bothered, a good number wanted to be as close as possible to where the magic was happening. The starter waved his flag and the race was on. I can honestly say it was my greatest performance in a pair of sandals, ever. I was the wind. And there I was, not first out of the gate, but paced well enough that I made it to the end without losing steam. First to the rail. Center cut. Bring it on.
The daytime/afternoon set was kinda exactly that. A warmup. A light snack. They couldn’t have asked for a better afternoon, but save for a nice Reba (still my favorite Phish song), they managed to dump a bunch of songs I don’t care for (or didn’t at the time) into one set. In a way, perfect for me. The rest of the afternoon was a perfect, lazy affair with an orchestra brought out to play for those who were sticking around. Having an fullorchestra come out and play between sets is one of those “only Phish” moments. The fact that some people in the crowd were taking a setlist during this set is quintessential “only Phish fans!” ridiculousness.
The second day (and indeed the whole weekend) was all about the 2nd set. I may be biased… well, yes I am terribly biased, but this is a definitive Phish set. This is the first tape you gave your buddy when you were trying to turn them on to the band and one you could return to continuously and hopefully still do. But first things first: yes, that was me. The band comes out for the evening affair and Trey looks out into the crowd and says something to Mike and then declares they’d like to pay tribute this guy who’s been front row center very show on the tour. Finally all that hard work paid off! [note: The Big Squeeze still gets annoyed about this anecdote because she was right next to me for every show as well and had to put up with my blathering about Phish minutiae in the car driving across the country and back.] So, after all the Phish shows before that and after from the front row and further back, the great ones and the not-so-great ones, that’s still, by far, the coolest thing that’s happened to me when it comes to live music as a whole.
But, there’s no point of being up that close if not for the music, so what makes it that much cooler is that it was the first moment of a whole string of amazing moments. That 8/17/96 second set. Standing next to me (on the other side) was an old friend, BZ and we’d had many a deep conversation about Phish past and future. We had often remarked on how so many awesome, next-level sets started with The Curtain (at least back then) and we had our laundry list of personal experiences. So, when the band launched into this directly after Trey’s lil tribute we both looked at each other and got a groovin’…. this was gonna be good and we knew it. Fighting off a bunch of gawkers and their “he was talking to you?“‘s I dove right in.
We were right. I use hyperbole all the time when talking about the music I love and Phish specifically, but I have to say that the set struck us at the time and has proved to be on many, many, many listenings perfect. This is the Phish I loved and love. I mean, was there a wrongly-played note? A setlist choice that could have been made differently? I see very little way to improve on it.
Pure, vintage Phish, unadulterated by anything but the space between us and the stage. I turned around in the middle of Runaway Jim and looked behind me. Just a total mass of humanity stretching out into the night. All grooving on the same thing I was grooving on. Four guys playing instruments. This was the Goldilocks of Phish sets: everything was just right. Not too long, not too short, perfect bYou don’t have to buy the DVD, you don’t have to possess the entire show. You need this set, though. Download it here.
Third set was another weird mishmash at a higher level than the 1st, but never reaching that Etch-a-Sketch “we’re making great art without letting our pencil leave the paper” level of awesomeness of the second set. The highlight was certainly when the band ceded the tramp skillz to the acrobats during Tweezer as mentioned above. During the Reprise, though, to end the set, and continuing on with the encore there was a last bit of oddity related to something that wouldn’t translate without the visuals. There was this small airplane flying overhead just kind of doing circles and Trey kept looking up at it. Reprise was a rager, of course – my absolute favorite way to end a Phish show – but this plane flying over was kinda bizarro.
Then the band came out for the encore and we’re all wondering how they’re going to cap this amazing weekend. Harpua – BANG! Big surprise. Crowd goes nuts. But here’s where things get weird: this plane is flying over and Trey’s telling his story and looking at this plane like he’s waiting for something to happen. And it’s kinda clear to me that they’ve got something worked out – some way of linking the story to the plane. This is Phish goddamnit, they don’t go about trampolines or airplanes willy nilly. The problem is: nothing’s happening. Nothing at all. And Trey kinda looks pissed about it. Like the greatest thing was supposed to happen, the capper to a whole bunch of greatness, and then… fizzle. And that’s just about how they ended. The story trailed off, the plane kinda just flew off, and the band left the stage without finishing the tune. Wha? Tha? Fuh?
And that’s how this review’s gotta end as well. Cause I put on the 8/17/96 2nd set a little while ago and the band just drifted into a you’ve-landed-on-one-of-Jupiter’s-moons section in the middle of It’s Ice and I just can’t concentrate any more….