Just How Good Was the Music at Magnaball?
Before we begin, I want to say upfront that I did not attend Magnaball. Due to other vacations and obligations this summer, I was forced to choose between Magnaball and Dick’s. I chose Dick’s because of the low risk of impacting rain, zero risk of crippling heat and humidity, preference for Colorado over upstate New York, and Dick’s stellar batting average. Along with Star Lake, Dick’s likely has the highest percentage of great shows out of any current venue. As we know now, I may have made a poor choice: Magnaball was blessed with perfect weather, and the band played three shows for the ages.
But were these three shows simply great for an era when the band members are in their fifties? Or, did Magnaball stack up to the great festivals of the 90s? Now, you may be saying to yourself, “How can someone who didn’t attend Magnaball properly rate it?” My response is that is precisely why I’m well-suited to write this. I’m basing this list on the replay value of the music alone – announced sets only – so no Storage Jam, Tower Jam, etc. It has nothing to do with the vibe, weather, traffic, your pimp RV, coming of age moments, or any other factors that can't be captured on the recording. It’s all about how well the music holds up after the festival is long over. Now that we’ve laid the ground rules, let’s run the numbers.
Tiers represent hard borders in the rankings. Shows can be shuffled within a tier with minimal argument. However, moving between tiers requires a much stronger case.
1) Big Cypress
The Meat: I’m not sure what even needs to be said here. 12/31/99 is greatest Phish show ever. You either know this to be true, or you’re tired of hearing it. But how else can it be described? The first set contains a top-two version of “Split,” and that’s just the appetizer. The second set spits out an almost unimaginable collection of Phish’s greatest improvisations ever: 23-minute “Disease,” 31-minute “Rock and Roll,” 21-minute “Crosseyed,” 36-minute “Sand”-> “Quadraphonic Toppling,” 25-minute “Drowned” -> “After Midnight,” 35-minute “Roses Are Free,” and so much more. Any one of those pieces is enough to make a good show great. Now imagine getting all of them, plus several more hours of brilliant music, in one single set.
The Achilles Heel: I guess you can argue that 12/30 was merely spectacular and not the second greatest show that Phish ever played.
X Factors: The 12/31/99 second set went from midnight to sunrise. Enough said.
12/31/99, Big Cypress, FL – Set II, complete.
The Meat: This festival is loaded with replay-worthy riches. Start with the “Ya Mar” and “Birds of a Feather” from the opening set. Move on to the “Disease” and “Waves” in set two. Next, play the perfectly flowing fireball set three. When you’re ready, move on to the greatest “Chalk Dust” ever played and the mesmerizing 30-minute “Ghost” from day two. Then, go back and listen to the whole two days from start to finish to discover so much more.
The Achilles Heel: Perhaps the only flaw of this festival is the final set leaned too heavily on a 39-minute “46 Days.” Take a moment to process that.
X Factors: Mike and Fish were absolute beasts for these shows. Nearly every jam had extra gas coming from the rhythm section. It’s perhaps the pair’s finest festival showing.
8/3/03, Limestone, ME – "Chalk Dust Torture"
The Meat: These three days are stocked with improv-heavy play from the opening “Simple” to the closing “You Enjoy Myself.” Start with the best “Bathtub Gin” in twelve years. Then, take in the glorious “Tweezerpants,” brilliant “Blaze On,” and smoking “Light.” All four jams are among the best of the year, with the “Gin” and “Tweezerpants” ranking among Phish’s finest improvisations in the 3.0 era. In between those tent-pole moments, there’s plenty more to keep your ears happy for days.
The Achilles Heel: If we are being fair, Saturday’s day set and Sunday’s first set are somewhat of a letdown given the level of play around them. The third night, although still great, was a significant drop in quality from the first two.
X Factors: Before anyone complains that I have Magnaball underrated at third, think about this: a 20-year, 200+ show jaded vet just rated a festival in 2015 higher than The Great Went, Lemonwheel, and Clifford Ball. If it wasn't for somewhat weak first sets on days two and three, Magna would have overtaken IT as the best Phish festival that wasn’t Big Cypress. And if we include the "secret" drive-in set, Saturday goes down as one of the greatest single shows in Phish history. That’s an incredible feat for a band in their thirty-third year of existence.
The Meat: If you are not familiar with the music of this festival, you should be. The “AC/DC Bag,” “Drowned,” and “Split Open and Melt” are among the best – if not the best – versions of each song. Then, listen to the “Jibboo,” “Stash,” “Walls of the Cave,” “Twist,” “Down with Disease,” “Chalk Dust,” “Seven Below,” and the “Dickie Scotland” “Piper.” It’s a wealth of thrilling improvisation unlike any Phish festival, other than Big Cypress.
The Achilles Heel: For as great as many of the jams are, much of the music played at Coventry is painful to hear. Just try listening to the “Glide,” the composed section of “Stash,” the “Harry Hood,” or even first half of the “Drowned” – which again is among the best versions ever – you’ll understand the dichotomy when you hear it. This ranking is just about the replay value of the music on the recordings, but it’s near impossible to separate the music from the emotional horror that so many experienced that weekend. The 36-hour traffic jams, being told to turn around and go home, the toxic mud, the fear that Trey’s health was so bad he might not even make it to the end of the shows. And most of all, that this festival would be “the last Phish concerts ever.”
X Factors: To many in the Phish community, giving any praise to Coventry is equivalent to sympathizing with Nazi Germany. It’s understandable. Talk to anyone who was there. We all have horror stories. We all had moments when we broke into tears. But for our purpose here, we are discussing the music. And the compelling music of Coventry is powered with an intense level of emotion that is not part of any other Phish experience. Being able to latch onto what was going on inside the band member’s heads through the sounds coming out of their instruments may still be painful, but it’s also special and in a strange way, magical. We all seek to feel a connection when we listen to Phish, and this is that connection in its darkest and rawest form. If Coventry had been the last Phish shows ever, I might not be able to write what I’m writing now. But knowing the band is now healthy and happy, these two shows offer some of the most intriguing and powerful two days of music for any fan to revist.
8/15/04, Coventry, VT – "Split Open and Melt"
5) The Great Went
The Meat: The Great Went is chock full of magical nuggets of jammy goodness. Your starting point should be the brilliant second set on day two – a set that many fans consider one of the band’s greatest sets ever with its deep “Down with Disease,” soaring “Gin,” funktastic “2001,” and blissful “Harry Hood.” Backing up that pinnacle set are top notch versions of “Theme From the Bottom,” “You Enjoy Myself,” “Wolfman’s” -> “Simple” and “Halley’s Comet” -> “Cities.” To many who love the band’s 1997 sound, this is Phish at its finest.
The Achilles Heel: If we are really being honest with ourselves, the first set on day two is below average for the era, and the closing festival set is nearly devoid of jamming in a year known for legendary jams.
X Factors: A “Makisupa” into “Harpua” (that concluded the “Harpua” from The Clifford Ball) is classic Phish and couldn’t have opened the festival better. And have I mentioned the second set on day two?
8/17/97, Limestone, ME – "Bathtub Gin"
The Meat: This mini festival is much maligned, but the truth is there's more interesting play in 7/18/99 than in the entire Clifford Ball and Lemonwheel combined. Don’t believe me? Check out the 22-minute “Gin,” 35-minute “Runaway Jim” -> “Free,” and 25-minute “Piper.” Then, head over to night one for a 20-minute “Tweezer,” 23-minute “Down with Disease,” and a brilliant “Wolfman’s Brother” -> “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” > “Timber Ho” sequence.
The Achilles Heel: Oswego had only five sets, and the play was somewhat inconsistent. Some odd setlist choices definitely hurt the flow compared to festivals with better crafted sets.
X Factors: The third set contains the first “Icculus” in four years, sending off those who had been chasing the rarity quite happy.
7) Clifford Ball
The Meat: This is a magical event filled with tight, confident play. Highlight jams include a monster “Mike’s Song” and a brilliant “Down with Disease” that still holds up today as one of the band’s finest versions.
The Achilles Heel: Unfortunately, the improv highlights end with the “Mike’s” and “Disease.” Yes, there are plenty of tight versions of other songs. But by 1996, Phish had proven they had the ability to do so much more. Compared to the jamming displays of 1994 and 1995, the play from these two nights in Plattsburg was in many ways a step backwards.
X Factors: The Clifford Ball was a spectacular milestone for Phish with some fantastic highlights. If we are allowing other festival factors to be included, this moves up several places. But sadly, outside of a few tracks, the recordings from these shows probably don't do much more than collect dust unless you want to relive your personal memories of being there.
8/16/96, Plattsburgh, NY – "Down with Disease"
The Meat: Although it doesn’t contain the peaks of The Great Went one year earlier or Oswego one year later, there is still plenty to enjoy, especially the sublime “Wedge” > “Reba” > “Gumbo” -> “Sanity” > “Tweezer” segment from the second set of day one.
The Achilles Heel: There is nothing bad in six sets. The problem is there's not much that stands out either, especially for the era. This may be Phish’s most consistent and solid festival. Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of being a little boring to go back and listen to unless you’re reliving the memories of a great time in Limestone, ME. This festival is a classic example of how shows that make for great times in the moment might not make for great recordings years later.
X Factors: If the ambient fourth set on day one counted for this exercise, Lemonwheel would move up a few spots in the rankings.
9) Festival 8
The Meat: The band covered Exile on Main St with a full horn section and backup singers for Halloween. They played a very rare acoustic set with some gorgeous versions of Phish classics. They encored with “Suzy Greenberg” with horns.
The Achilles Heel: See those three sentences above. That’s the end of the highlight reel.
X Factors: If this festival was graded on concert grounds and amenities, it would be number one on the list. I still give it a slight edge over Super Ball IX based on the Exile set and rare acoustic set, both of which I find more fun to listen to than just about anything from Super Ball. However, if you dislike the Rolling Stones, feel free to place Festival 8 last. Also, please seek help to understand why you don’t like the Rolling Stones.
10/31/09, Indio, CA – "Loving Cup"
10) Super Ball IX
The Meat: This festival is filled with tight play, fun setlists, and lots of “micro moments.” If you are seeking out jams, there’s some fun play in the “Golden Age,” “Crosseyed and Painless,” and “Down with Disease” to start. But nothing ever leaves the comfort zone. You’re better off focusing your attention on blistering covers (“Monkey Man,” “No Quarter,” “Roses Are Free,” “Soul Shakedown Party”) or rare Phish originals (“Scents and Subtle Sounds,” “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” > “Fly Famous Mockingbird”).
The Achilles Heel: In seven sets of music, there isn’t a single deep jam to write home about. Everything is a little too "safe."
X Factors: Super Ball proponents should not take this last place ranking as an insult to what was by all accounts a truly spectacular event. As mentioned previously, you can easily bump this festival up a spot if Exile on Main St isn’t your thing. Even a last place Phish festival is still a better time than 99.9% of the other things you could have been doing that weekend. Phish is a great band that has put on ten legendary festivals. One of them had to finish at number ten.
7/2/11, Watkins Glen, NY – "Storage Jam"
If you have your own Phish Festival Power Rankings, we’d love to hear them in the comments below.
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