With a Phish festival and Dick’s in close proximity to each other, many fans had to choose one or the other. I – of course – made my usual call of both, but the trips so close to each other required some sacrifice. Rather than a sane trip, logistics required my flight to be a red-eye into Baltimore-Washington International.
While that sounds like an insane distance, it’s actually closer than most major northeastern cities (and only two hours further than Buffalo) as Baltimore is almost directly due south of Watkins Glen. As I learned driving from Charm City to Buffalo – well Orchard Park, NY – to see the Grateful Dead in 1989, US 15 is a straight shot from Harrisburg, PA to Corning, NY. Back then it was a winding road, pretty, but slowing down for many small towns. Now it’s largely a freeway. The southern section still retains much of its history, having the occasional town slowdown and plenty of “Gentlemen’s Clubs” and tourist traps sitting on the side of the parkway; but by the time you get past the home of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA, it’s a freeway. It even branded in part as a disembodied section of the controversial Interstate 99* for 12 miles north of the New York state line.
Photo by Rene Huemer © Phish From the Road
The plan was easy. Land at BWI, drive four hours, crash in my hotel. I didn’t count on the storm. It rolled through The City that Reads right before my plane landed, causing accidents everywhere. It over two full hours to make it to the Pennsylvania state line instead of the expected 45 minutes. It was irritating at first, but it then made sense. Weather fueled traffic jams are a festival tradition. It should be expected to hit one! That wasn’t the only reference to past festivals that happened on this drive. In one of the small towns, I passed a car with the plate “GLO STK,” clearly referencing the Great Went epic war.
Not even Camp Oswego was ignored as there was an exit on US-15 with the name Camp Canoe, bringing back memories of the artist who “rowed” a canoe (actually on wheels) down the main drag of that festival in 1999. Beyond that was the fog covered hills in north-central PA which brought forth memories of the ultimate Phish festival idea: it looked like Gamehendge out there!
Photo © Derek Gregory
The trip to Magnaball was a like a highlight show of the travels to earlier events. And while there might have been a terrifying moment as the storm hit its peak and my window fogged up, leaving me desperately hitting random buttons in the unfamiliar rental car as the ethereal voice of Siri floated through the speakers, telling me that now was the moment to somehow merge onto I-180, without a sense of danger and a bit of terror, the reward would be hardly worth it.
After a visit to Barton Hall to pay homage to 5/8/77 and a few traffic hiccups, Magnaball was achieved. It didn’t run nearly as smoothly as Super Ball IX – perhaps due to the rumored on sale of tickets at the show – but it still was reasonably easy to get there hours early. The first day at a festival is always exciting. There are the art exhibits to explore and – new for 2015 – Phish versions of game shows to play. As I walked by, I found a team looking for a fourth person, so I joined them. When we got to play, our question was, “Name a state that Phish hasn’t played.” As long as you can count on a ton of fans not answering “New York” to be annoying, there is no easier question for a Phish fan who loves geography; we swept the board! (AK, AR, HI, ND, SD, WY, for those keeping track at home).
Photo by Partick Jordan © Phish From the Road
A festival isn’t just about drives and art installations. There are also eight known sets of music. That is the underlying point of this exercise, after all. If there were any questions if the band would need a few minutes to settle into the moment, they were answered almost immediately. “Simple” was never common as a show opener, but Magnaball was its second straight time in that role. It wasn’t a perfunctory version, either; there was a brief jam filled with some beautiful Page riffs. It wouldn’t be the jam of the night by any means, but it felt like a promise.
While “The Dogs” had been played at a few shows since the Haunted House set, it usually was just that the main, high-energy jam would get thrown into the middle of another jam. This was the first complete version with the sampled introduction since the debut, showing that the song can work as a standalone as well as the filling of a jam sandwich.
Trey Anastasio and Eliza Anastasio. Photo by Partick Jordan © Phish From the Road
The first big shock of the night came next. For only the third time since Phish returned in 2009, “The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday” was chosen. It wasn’t just queued; it must have been rehearsed. Trey sometimes has problems with these early compositions, especially the ones that are rarely played, but this was nearly flawless, showing off the beauty of the piece. “Avenu Malkenu” also had a bit extra, as Mike threw a second pass into his “If I Were a Rich Man” jam. Four songs into the festival and we’ve had a doses of energy and beauty, showing that this would not be a throwaway or warm-up set by any means.
After a solid “Free,” Trey took a moment to talk about the Clifford Ball. Back then there was only one child born to the band – Eliza. He remarked that there are now eleven children, but today was Eliza’s 20th birthday. Eliza made a brief appearance on stage, Trey led us into a rendition of “Happy Birthday,” and there was a brief pause. If her quasi-eponymous song would ever get performed again, now would be the time. Instead we got “The Wedge.” Perhaps Eliza doesn’t like that the song pre-dates her by nearly five years, but it could have been worse; she could have been ‘Tela Multibeast Purple Humpback Whale Anastasio’. Regardless, “The Wedge” still resonated with the event. Nineteen years since the first major event: the discovery of the cow funk, the Indian Reservation all night set, the hiatus and the breakup, rehab and recreation, military bases, a desert oasis, and a race track, indeed: we could have come so very far in at least as many years.
"Bathtub Gin" – Photo © Derek Gregory
The surprises weren’t over yet. The first “Mock Song” of 3.0, –in fact only the second “Mock Song” ever – followed. I’m not sure that there was much of a clamor for this one, but this was a better arrangement that the one from The Gorge, with a very cool Page solo and more of a reggae feel. In addition, the line “Fewer, Pink, Kyle, Ball” was changed to “Clifford, Super, Magna Ball” – we’ve known them all, indeed. Keep this up and this will become a real song!
One of the most welcome trends of this era of Phish is what it has done for “Roggae.” The jams in it have been stunning, melodic pieces of soaring beauty. This one was no exception. They’ve gotten very good at peaking as a way of counterpointing the underlying power of the theme. It puts pressure on a song when everyone expects bliss, but they haven’t given us a reason not to yet.
Photo by Rene Huemer © Phish From the Road
After what has already felt like an incredibly strong first set, Phish would be forgiven if they just played a quick peak jam in the closing “Bathtub Gin” and called it a break. That is not what happened by any means. The jam immediately leaves the structure of what the song does and runs off and plays. This “Gin” follows the pattern of many favorite jams in that it does more than one thing at a time. It’s completely improvisational, has multiple parts, but still manages to be danceable. Intense at parts, a complete dance party at others, this jam would have been an obvious highlight of many tours, let alone the first set of a festival. When it finally gets to the peak, tens of thousands of people all engaged in a massive dance party for twenty minutes. It was joyous, the kind of moment that causes us all to go to bizarre places and camp for three days. While not sounding at all similar, the bliss was reminiscent of another famous “Bathtub Gin” at a festival, the 8/17/97 Great Went version. The joy given there will not fade any time soon.
After a long setbreak filled with high-fiving and people glowing over the set, the band came back out into the chilly evening and opened with “Chalk Dust.” There used to be two kinds of “Chalk Dust Torture”: those that had a quick high energy jam followed by the chorus, and the kind – usually played to open a second set – that were open ended and never finished. Recently a third category has emerged. The song has its final chorus sung but rather than draw it to a conclusion a second jam emerges. It might not yet have the legend of the “Mike’s Song” second jam, but it is always welcome. This one went on for another eleven minutes or so. If you’re looking for a repeat of the soaring energy bliss of the “Gin,” this doesn’t reprise that, but it rather is dark and melodic. The first is great for dancing rapturously in a field at a racetrack; this is more reflective, a good listen on a Sunday morning as you’re fixing your brunch sort of track. Phish play in many styles after all and appeal to many crowds.
"Harry Hood" – Photo © Derek Gregory
The fun of Phish is that you never know what will happen. If I told you that “Ghost,” “Chalk Dust Torture,” and “Bathtub Gin” were all played in succession and two of the three had very interesting jams, no one would expect that it was “Ghost” that just got the quick run through. The jam is more brief than bad. It hits a few quick interesting spaces before resolving into “Rock and Roll.”
The Velvet Underground cover – along with the traditional prayer of “Avenu Malkenu,” the only non-originals of the night – has largely returned to its previous role of being an upbeat rocker to put an exclamation point on the show. Played this early, it promised a bit more. And indeed, it did deliver. Two or three times Trey tried to signal a return to the final chorus, but they wanted to keep going. A slow funk jam gets created. It’s beautiful and you can dance to it and I could have heard Phish play it all night. That’s why I admit to an initial groan while when the “Hood” fired up. Do you mind people? I was enjoying that!
Photo © Jake Silco
Any lingering regret though can’t really survive “Harry Hood.” If for nothing else, at a festival show with an amazing “Bathtub Gin,” it just felt right to also have a massive glowstick war during “Harry Hood.” It’s less nostalgia than an accidental homage. The “Hood” itself was quite interesting. Sacrificing the build jam for a voyage, this jam wanders all over the track. If you’re the kind of person who needs to find something – anything – to complain about with a Phish show, the “Hood” peak was sacrificed in exchange. However, if you’re reaching the point of saying, “Well they ended one cool jam but immediately followed it with another one, but that one didn’t manage to also hit a soaring peak at the very end,” just to find something to point fingers at, well that shows the power of this show.
It wasn’t over yet. After a quick breather with “Waste,” perhaps the most popular of the new songs of this tour, “No Men in No Man’s Land” had one more jam to come. This was more of a fast funky jam than the reflectiveness of the “Chalk Dust” or the “Hood,” but it’s the perfect way to start to wind things down. We’ve done a lot tonight; now let’s dance our way home! Before we do though, there’s one last thing. We’re going to give you a “Slave!”
Photo © Andrea Nusinov
Sets with both a “Hood” and a “Slave” feel somewhat unfair. We’re not going to give you one of your favorite late set songs. Here, have both of them! It might rob the other two nights of possibilities, but it it’s always great when it happens. You don’t mind if I give you one more moment of euphoria, do you?
After the encore, a pretty “Farmhouse” – appropriate for the rural setting – and the always fun “First Tube,” it was time to reflect on a great night. One of the games people like to play when they talk about Phish shows is to break it up into quarters, putting an imaginary break halfway through each set. The reason why that became popular is that there has been a bit of a rut in the past few years, where the third quarter always had the best – the more cynical would say “only good,” but let’s not listen to them, ok? – music of the night. This tour has broken with that with great first sets and jams late into the second. In fact, with the early “TMWSIY,” the great “Gin,” and the late “Hood,” “No Man’s,” and “Slave” combination, it could be argued that all three of the other quadrants managed to surpass the third, not because the third was bad, but because the others were so good. That may or may not be true, but Phish delivered an amazing complete show to open Magnaball. If this turns out to be the warmup night, Magnaball will be the stuff of legend, passed down from generation to generation to while away the long Finger Lakes region winter nights.
* The Interstate highway system has a naming convention. One aspect of it is that north-south roads have odd numbers that increase from west to east. Interstate 99 is not just kind of a weird highway that doesn’t really connect cities – well it’s now two different highways near each other that don’t connect to each other even – but it’s completely misnumbered. Having I-99 being west of I-81 annoys people who care way too much about such issues. I’d mock such people more but back in the early days of Ihoz.com, I was kind of one of them, as http://ihoz.com/I99.html shows.
Phish Summer 2015 – Setlists & Recaps
07/21/15 Setlist – Recap – Bend 1
07/22/15 Setlist – Recap – Bend 2
07/24/15 Setlist – Recap, Recap2 – Shoreline
07/25/15 Setlist – Recap – LA Forum
07/28/15 Setlist – Recap – Austin
07/29/15 Setlist – Recap – Grand Prarie
07/31/15 Setlist – Recap – Atlanta 1
08/01/15 Setlist – Recap – Atlanta 2
08/02/15 Setlist – Recap – Tuscaloosa
08/04/15 Setlist – Recap – Nashville
08/05/15 Setlist – Recap – Kansas City
08/07/15 Setlist – Recap – Blossom
08/08/15 Setlist – Recap – Alpine 1
08/09/15 Setlist – Recap – Apline 2
08/11/15 Setlist – Recap – Mann 1
08/12/15 Setlist – Recap – Mann 2
08/14/15 Setlist – Recap – Raleigh
08/15/15 Setlist – Recap – Merriweather 1
08/16/15 Setlist – Recap – Merriweather 2
08/21/15 Setlist – Recap – Magnaball 1
08/22/15 Setlist – Recap – Magnaball 2
08/23/15 Setlist – Recap – Magnaball 3
09/04/15 Setlist – Recap – Dick's 1
09/05/15 Setlist – Recap – Dick's 2
09/06/15 Setlist – Recap – Dick's 3
Limited Edition MagnaBall Poster by Jim Pollock
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Mike Gordon: January 22, 2016
2 years ago
 Mike Gordon debut.
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