Well kiddies, here we are, just a few days away from Phish’s ninth festival since 1996, Super Ball IX, which kicks off this coming Friday. With the greatest of Phish factors coursing through my head – anticipation – the possibilities are endless, especially considering that this is the band’s first festival in the Northeast since the debacle that was Coventry in 2004. Also factoring in is that this is the band’s first summer festival since then as well, so the stage is clearly set. For today’s Postcards From Page Side, I figured I’d take a look at snippets of festivals past, while getting you ready to blow it out this weekend.
Now, to fully grasp the past 15 years of Phish, and the previous eight festivals they have hosted, there are several important points we must first understand. With the Clifford Ball at Plattsburgh in ’96, the modern festival as we know it was born. There was no Bonnaroo, no Outside Lands or the like. There simply was PHISH. The wonder and amazement that something of this magnitude could simply take place was mind blowing. Is it a coincidence that the band has named this upcoming ninth installment Super Ball? The first time that joyous, celebratory word has been used since the inaugural year? Maybe, but I think there’s more to it. I feel that the band is back, comfortable and ready to cast some magic the likes that we haven’t seen in some time. And that, my loyal readers, reaches far more than the music created on stage.
From the Clifford Ball’s artwork, Ball Square (which again will return this year), and the fact that things were taking place on a decommissioned airforce base (a theme that would continue in latter years and festivals), the sheer scope and ambition that went into the first festival was unprecedented and never seen before. Ending a short, but ferocious Summer ’96 U.S. Tour, the band arrived just across the river from their Burlington base at the time ready to deliver, and boy did they. From the often praised “best set ever” of 8.17 II, which included a Slave to the Traffic Light that is many fans’ favorite version, the band was razor sharp. But, Phish had more in store, including what would become another staple of their festivals: playing a secret set at a random time during the weekend.
READ ON for much more on Phish Festivals…
At around 3AM after the first night of music, the band boarded a flatbed truck and played an unannounced, ambient set for those still awake, while rolling through the campgrounds. I mean, if you think some thought didn’t go in to every aspect of this first festival and planted the seed for what was to come in future versions, just think about this act.
But, beyond the music, which deserves its own column for each festival – and perhaps I will delve deeper in future posts – The Clifford Ball was all about the experience. Perfect weather, clear blue skies and a cosmic candy land for adults that simply had never been conjured before. That, in a nutshell, is what the Phish festivals would come to be about in the following years. For many reasons that I just mentioned, but mostly because it was the “first,” The Clifford Ball holds a very special place in my heart, as I know it does for many other fans as well.
The following two years saw the band trek to Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, ME, at yet another decommissioned air force base. Now, to paint the picture of this locale, let me reminisce about a memory of mine that sums it up to perfection. Being in high school, and pining for the days when the old-school newsletter of the band, Doniac Schvice, would arrive in my mailbox, I will never forget the spring afternoon when the Schvice came to my door announcing The Great Went in ’97. Simply showing a map of Maine with a single line going to the very tip, the headline stated: “An easy drive from any direction.” Now, anyone that trekked to any of the festivals in Limestone, or has any common sense about U.S. Geography, laughed at the typical tongue-in-cheek humor that this statement was loaded with. But, with that, it was the place we called home for the next two years of Phish festies.
Like The Clifford Ball, The Went showcased a tour-closing effort that bore some legendary musical results. The Bathtub Gin was and still is lauded as one of the greatest jams the band has ever played, and was recently released by archivist Kevin Shapiro on Live Bait Vol. 5. Other gooey funk segments from the beginning of the band’s cow-funk era were taking shape, including the Wolfman’s Brother > Simple from this weekend, along with semi-bustouts (at least in my mind) of songs like The Wedge. It just went to show that at a Phish festival anything was possible and the rules no longer applied. The band also painted art on stage during one jam, adding it to art painted throughout the weekend by fans, ultimately culminating in a huge fire at the end of the festivities, signifying that the magic we all witnessed and created again would be gone forever, until the next year…
Lemonwheel in ’98 may have been the first festival to really showcase the band’s affinity to art, off the stage at least. Stepping up the concert and festival grounds, Lemonwheel saw an Asian-themed paradise, which really took things to the next level. The music again was stellar, and again, closed the ’98 Summer Tour, a perfect exclamation point to one of the most fun summers the band has ever had, laced with a new cover just about every night. But ’99 is where Phish really took the entire thing to the next level that surpassed even their wildest expectations.
1999 was also the only year to ever see two festivals – a mid-summer tour stop at Camp Oswego in upstate NY, and the penultimate Big Cypress to close out the millennium in the Florida everglades. Oswego was definitely a great time, and there are three things I remember from this stop: Icculus, Tweezer > Have Mercy and the scorching heat. While the festival again served as a climactic point of the summer, the band was only halfway done with their tour this time, adding a different spice to the usual blowouts.
However, when people talk about Phish, one of the first things to come up undoubtedly is Big Cypress. I could write a book about this experience, but will try and summarize what happened here in a few sentences. In short, it was the single, most magical, musical experience of my life. Being outside for New Year’s Eve, watching the band play the final set from 11:35PM until SUNRISE!!! on January 1, 2000, with not a single break in the action was the ballsiest statement I have ever seen a band make.
Besides showcasing bustouts from the ’80s in Light Up or Leave Me Alone and Corinna, the band delivered a few songs as if the world was truly ending due to the rumored Y2K. For a perfect example, listen to the Mike’s Song from December 30, in which I was scared straight. At one point in the jam, with the band enveloped in more fog and red lights than I imagine exists in hell, it sounded like a VCR was on the fast rewind button and pictures were racing through the screen at lightning speed – backwards. I mean, that is the perfect INTENSE snapshot, juxtaposed with the release of an all-night set that transformed anything festivals, and Phish for that matter, ever stood for and would never be duplicated again.
After the hiatus, we didn’t see another festival until August 2003, when the band went back to a familiar model: a tour-closer in Limestone, ME. Simply dubbed IT, from Jack Kerouac’s epic novel, On The Road, which I coincidentally packed and read three more times while doing that entire summer tour, this festival was like having an old friend or flame back in your life again. A celebration of an overall solid summer, with some more eye candy in the likes of Sunk City and the masking tape forest, which allowed fans to continue to contribute to one another’s art as the weekend went on. With IT, I feel the band captured some fo the magic of previous festivals and seemed back on the right track for the future ones.
That is, until Coventry. Coventry was a bittersweet experience, mostly because at the time, it signaled the last shows ever for the band, or so we thought. Compound that with the worst rain and mud you could imagine leading up to the shows, the band had to turn people away at the gates. The music suffered as well and it felt more like a funeral at times than the typical celebration of other festivals, but understandably so. Regardless, this was the one hiccup in Phish Festival history and has long since been forgotten by many. However, I like to think that now that the band is back, we can all look at this as “what doesn’t kill you, makes your stronger.”
And so we come to 2009 and Festival 8, the last festival prior to this weekend’s impending Super Ball IX. Another first, taking place on Halloween and on the West Coast in Indio, CA, this festival was definitely different. It had a smaller crowd of only around 40,000 fans, compared to approximately 60-90k from previous affairs and saw the band CRUSH the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street as the Halloween cover album. Festival 8 took place not on an air force runway, but on nicely manicured polo fields. This weekend may have been one of my favorites ever for logistical and convenience reasons (and definitely being older), but the music was still awesome, with one of the all-time great Suzy Greenberg’s, featuring Sharon Jones and a reprise jam. This is a location I hope Phish one day returns to for some show of sorts.
So, that brings us to today. Wednesday. Hump Day. Two days away from the next chapter of Phish lore and legacy, which will take place in another first: a NASCAR racetrack. I hope that the secret set involves Page whipping around the track at Dale Earnhardt speed, while playing Somewhere Over the Rainbow on theremin. No, you say? Well, if one thing has been learned from past Phish festivals, it’s to expect the unexpected. Travel safe, fans! See you this weekend! Enjoy, it will be over before you know it!