How good of Phish to throw another ball!
The first one, of the Clifford variety, was at the time the biggest marker in the band’s development as a cultural juggernaut. Now comes the tenth, at a time when the band seems to be looking back and looking forward. More than six years into the post-Coventry comeback, barging toward the finale of a tour that’s one of the best of this era (it jousts with fall 2013 for the distinction of best tour in 3.0), it was time for a family gathering of the sort that Phish hadn’t hosted since Superball IX in 2011.
Photo © Aaron Stein
Americans have been using the word “ball” to mean a festive occasion since the 1920s or 30s. Its more specialized connotation, to describe a night of formal dances, was adopted into English in the 17th century from the Old French verb “baller,” which means to dance. Before that, you can trace “ball” through Latin and down to its origin in Greek, in which “ballizein” is taken to mean “to dance” but literally translates as “to throw one’s body,” and to do so in a scandalous way that might be understood only to scholars of biblical history. You see, the Council of Laodicea first used the word in the 360s C.E., while establishing in canon law that Christians should not attend weddings where ballizein – some sort of tossing of the hands in a wanton and lascivious manner – is happening.
Whether Magnaball was seen by its attendees as an invitation to dance all night, perform a wanton throwing of the hands or just to have a plain old good time, I suspect the good people of the Council of Laodicea would have objected gravely to the high ballizein levels at Watkins Glen.
Photo by Patrick Jordan © Phish From the Road
For a span of time in Phish history, festivals were an automatic part of the annual show calendar. They’ve been much harder to come by since the band returned in 2009, with Festival 8 (in Indio, California) and Super Ball IX (also at Watkins Glen) the only prior examples, and it felt like everybody onsite this weekend – band and fan alike – wanted to make the most of it.
This was my seventh Phish festival but my first since Coventry, and I was eager to see what the smaller, allegedly more-manageable festival experience in 3.0 was all about. (Thanks for the ticket, @phishsticks34!) I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t choose to deal with the eight-to-twelve-hour traffic jams again today, but there was something to be said for the slowly building excitement of driving forever into Maine, past residents of tiny towns who’d set up lawn chairs by the side of the road to watch a strange parade.
Photo © Jake Silco
There was a real feeling of leaving one’s everyday life to enter a different sort of space, a strange but familiar country to which the only passport is a ticket stub. The destination was not merely a rock festival, but a wholly fabricated alternate reality. And though the Watkins Glen experience did miss some of the inspired whimsy of the homegrown festivals produced by Great Northeast Productions, the lesson was still clear: that precious alternate reality is one that we bring along with us, no matter where the event happens to be. And the mere hour or so of stop-and-go traffic I experienced upon arrival around 2 p.m. on Friday was definitely an immeasurably valuable improvement!
Looking just at the music, Magnaball was already in very heady company after its first two nights. Judged strictly on the music alone – not considering the totality of the event, including its place in Phish history and experiential factors – it seemed strong enough to compete with IT for the title of best Phish festival other than Big Cypress. The first night’s “Bathtub Gin” and the second night’s “Prince Caspian” (of all things) were on the lips of people having conversations about things like the best-ever jams of the 3.0 era. And moreover, the “we’re all in this together” vibe felt very strong, with Trey calling back to Clifford Ball (the first Phish festival) early on, and the band very clearly seeming to want to live up to the occasion.
Photo by Rene Huemer © Phish From the Road
Sunday’s first set was pretty typical for the era, and pretty much a place-setter for the real action, arriving later. “Punch You In The Eye” may be the best-ever festival opener, so it’s fortunate that Phish wrote it. Aside from “Buffalo Bill” – which brought back memories of the Great Went version – the set contained typical fare, highlighted by a nice combo of “Stash” followed by “Reba,” before an emotional “I Didn’t Know.”
For that one, Trey nodded to the band’s support staff, reading a long list of names and thank-yous. This was only the third Phish festival since 2004, so the truth is we don’t know when we’ll get to do this again. The band itself seems in a very grateful mood, and is not taking anything for granted. Of course, the emotional part of this speech was humorously undercut by the vacuum stylings of Henrietta.
"Waiting All Night" – Photo © Derek Gregory
With the amount of improvisation and goodwill that had gone into the weekend already, there was reason to hope Phish would go for the ring in the closing set of the festival. “Martian Monster” boded very well, appearing as a second-set opener for the first time in its short history. It proved a luxurious, funky runway into “Down with Disease,” which would have been the more familiar opener call.
The “Disease” is quite good, going for a bright, emotional peak. When that jam fell away, the band did what it did many times at Magnaball – it took a moment to breathe and let the next musical idea emerge. As a new jam started to take form and started to sound very hot, Trey found his way into the opening of “Scents and Subtle Sounds” and engineered another in a series of good segues from this summer. This “Scents” is not to be overlooked. Like in the song’s previous appearance at the Mann, it still didn’t feature the typical “Harry Hood”-like closing jam, instead moving straight to five minutes of pure Type-II improv. This made its way into another move familiar from earlier this tour, a drop into “What’s The Use?”
Photo by Rene Huemer © Phish From the Road
After “Dirt,” the clarion call of “Mike’s Song” rang out. The jam is notable as Page forewent his customary organ vamp to explore atypical textures, underlined by Trey’s funky rhythm parts. The composed ending gave way not to the briefly resurrected “second jam,” alas, but to a “Fuego” that colored within the lines.
“Twist” was relatively short but featured a very interesting ending including a Trey/Mike duet (recalling a portion of the Coventry “Harry Hood,” under extremely different circumstances) and an out-of-nowhere blues rave-up. From there, there’s another taste of very stylish, funky, space-age jamming before an excellent transition to “Weekapaug Groove.” Even when Phish didn’t go deep this weekend, it found all sorts of interesting and creative sequences featuring pure improvisation.
"Reba" – Photo © Derek Gregory
“Weekapaug Groove” felt fresh, and the closing round of vocals was circumvented by a Trey-led transition back into “Martian Monster,” in a wonderful dose of bleeding-edge Phishiness. If history was somehow different and this sequence happened in a previous era, people would point to this “Martian Monster” reprise as vintage Phish, the sort of thing we wish they would do again. Well guess what? They’re doing it. A “You Enjoy Myself” encore left many people feeling like they were right at home, on a racetrack in New York State.
On the whole, the last set of Magnaball was a witty one with one very good jam, some excellent transitions into and out of songs, and almost zero downtime. The second-set set list is very sweet, letting the band play to the back of the field while still taking chances and moving in the moment. It’s a level of consistency and quality that should yield major replay value. Sunday’s biggest “problem,” as it were, is that it just wasn’t Saturday and it wasn’t Friday. If the same music was played at a standalone, midweek show earlier in the tour, it would have gotten good reviews and been taken as further evidence that Phish has found yet another late-period high point in creativity. And its tentpole jam, the “Disease,” is quite worthy on its own but is dwarfed by some of its brethren from the weekend, which cover similar territory.
"Reba" – Photo © Jake Silco
Looking deep into the details, the sort that ultra-experienced fans use to sort out the very excellent from the excellent from the great from the good and so on, Sunday’s music is a candidate to be underrated. By happenstance it hit a trifecta of Jaded Vet pet peeves – there not only was no “second jam” in “Mike’s,” but instead of that we got an un-jammed “Fuego.” And the transition into “Scents” bypassed the intro to the song, whose reappearance at the Mann was much celebrated by fans who associate the original arrangement with the song’s brief history as a major jam vehicle in 2003.
But as simply a great Phish show – well, it qualifies, easily. And it was an exuberant finale to one of Phish’s best-ever festivals. For years, Phish kept improving while it was unclear just how big it could get and what its broader cultural impact would be. We're now well into a period in which Phish has shown it can find creative inspiration even while its place as a pop-cultural phenomenon remains more or less static. The band has counted its blessings, and we’ve done the same.
This enchanted weekend proved another welcome indicator that we can all – fans and band included – have a ball when Phish is playing the tune.
"Martian Monster" – Photo © Derek Gregory
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
"You Enjoy Myself" – Photo by Rene Huemer © Phish From the Road
Photo © Scott Harris
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March 27, 1993
25 years ago
Set 2: Buried Alive > Halley's Comet > It's Ice > Bouncing Around the Room, Chalk Dust Torture, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Avenu Malkenu > The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Mike's Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Hold Your Head Up > Cracklin' Rosie > Hold Your Head Up, Poor Heart > Golgi Apparatus
 Beginning featured Trey on acoustic guitar.
 Fish on trombone.
 All Fall Down signal in intro.
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