Flatbed Truck Jam
Albums: The Clifford Ball
Historian: Ellis Godard
Phish has done so many festivals, so well, for so long, and so differently, that other event organizers are starting to borrow some of their strategies. Their unconventional festival supra-sets have become almost de rigueur, from the candlelight trance at Lemonwheel to the acoustic afternoon set at Festival 8.
Not counting teases at Amy’s Farm and Arrowhead Ranch, Phish debuted both their large festival format and their supra-sets at Clifford Ball. The entire event was a breathtaking visual and aural accomplishment: the coming together of Phish fans on a scale previously unseen, fields and skies alike filled with both wonder and humor, all wrapped in the gloriously warm tunes emanating throughout both shows.
The merriment following the first night – masses of angst-less celebrants, meandering in dance throughout the rain-soaked, tent-strewn parking lots – lasted vigorously until beyond 2am. By 3am the air had chilled, the movements had slowed, the tents had filled, and the merriment had begun to melt into dreamland. I held out until 3:15, by which point my wife and our traveling companion had finally convinced me – just as most of the holdouts had been similarly convinced by tens of thousands of other reasonable people – that we’d seen it all, and needed our rest for the second day.
But just past 3:30, a flatbed truck slowly rolled from behind the backstage area, strung with lights and equipped with mini-rigs for each band member. After flanking the left side of the festival field, it practically tip-toed into the parking lot, through the same gate that 60,000 melting minds had exited only hours earlier, and gradually attracted a menagerie of skateboarders, cyclists, and half-jogging wookies. The dimly-glowing scene continued to crawl, just faster than walking speed, around the south edge of the parking lot, then briefly north near the lot entrance, before circling back.
Throughout, the band noodled – sometimes aimlessly, sometimes like a calmer section from Miles Davis’ A Tribute to Jack Johnson. It’s not likely something you’ll listen to on its own, or add to any particular mix or playlist. (As I faded off, I thought I heard something in the distance – a low, almost annoying drone – and assumed that it was coming from wookies somehow still unspent.) But it’s well worth seeing in context, as much as fans could capture that context with post-Festival, readily available, 1996 technology.
Note that the above clip comes from the officially-released Clifford Ball DVD. Perhaps much of the majesty from the weekend is lost to the experience itself. The Flatbed Jam is perhaps most lost to time, un-capturable in whatever its full glory was, and known fully only to those who were there. But at least you can see and hear more detail in the rest.