In their more than thirty years as a band, Phish has made incredible music from coast to coast and beyond, from Toledo to Trento to Tokyo. But what sets a festival apart from any other concert I’ve seen, different from MSG or Halloween or any other celebrated event, is that the atmosphere is so overwhelmingly “home.” Magnaball, a tiny city of art and music, was created entirely for us. It’s a place for everyone to come meet and revel in all the myriad, unique ways that we express our joy and individuality. These expressions which may make us feel weird in “real” life, but in the context of a festival, with the music as our drawstring, we come together and feel unified. The experience was revelatory for me. But first, the afternoon set.
Photo © Jake Silco
The weather at the southern tip of Seneca Lake has been spectacular this weekend, but when the band came on around 4pm, gloomy clouds clung stubbornly above. “Divided Sky” acted as an invocation and swept the air clean, opening the possibilities of the day. “The Moma Dance” meant it was time to get up and stretch, put on our captain hats, exercise our funk muscles and get ready for a Magna-sized day of music.
“Mound” felt like more calisthenics, hop and clap and get your chops loose. “Army of One” was perfect for that moment: the sun had warmed us through, so soak it while you can, with winter just a few short months (and one more titanic three-night stand) away. The delicate balance of “Scabbard,” a perilously intricate weave of danger and serenity, drew my attention skyward again, one of many blissful moments to come.
Photo © Andrea Nusinov
“Sample” got a huge ovation in our corner of the field, and “Tube” got everyone’s get down revved up for a surprisingly spirited “Halfway to the Moon.” You can tell that Phish does indeed love Page’s composition by the way it’s progressed these last few years, and this version was certainly a standout. The “morning” workout continued with Fish practicing his woodblock tapdancing on some funky “Camel Walk” steps, following which Mike’s “How Many People Are You?” gave us an early thrill, as Fishman’s screaming vocals will attest. “Circus” was a chance to breathe and reflect on the changing beauty of the carnival that has rolled into Watkins Glen, and for just a moment it seemed like Trey would take the Los Lobos song for a Wingsuit ride, but we instead were treated to more percussive excellence with a swaggering “Undermind.”
With all of our stretching and warm ups complete, it was time to drop into fourth gear to make sure all engines were thrumming for the main event. My show neighbor thoughtfully advised me that he would be running like an “Antelope,” and we were off. I have seen this proud beast more than any other Phish song, and this is my instant favorite, hitting all of my “Antelope” G-spots by taking a smooth detour through the trees before hitting full, spine-tingling stride and actually launching itself into low earth orbit. Not even kidding about that a little bit. Trey slyly asked if we were all now awake and ready for a Phish show. Yes, sir, and good morning!
Photo by Patrick Jordan © Phish From the Road
I thought that a huge, exploratory “Wolfman’s” would be a great way to start what I expected to be the centerpiece of our Magnaball experience. The band had different ideas, though this syncopated and fierce lycanthrope shouldn’t be ignored. “Halley’s Comet” bop would also not be the vehicle to take us to our ultimate destination, but it was a celestial harbinger of the arrival of IT. IT came in form of “46 Days,” which was played through the first chorus, but what is normally only the first jam simply became the jam. IT was recognizable by the dark fabric that used to wrap around 2.0 Phish like a holocaust cloak, but the garment IT wears is now tinged with the brighter energy of Joy and Fuego.
Photo by Rene Huemer © Phish From the Road
The most exciting thing about the last two days, for me, has been the band’s willingness to take breathtaking risks. Phish’s confidence is flowing from the stage night after night, and in the most welcoming of environments, where everything has been intended all for our delight, they took full advantage. As the coals of the day ran out, a nebulous, stellar nursery emerged from the cool Finger Lakes evening, rich material for the creation of new cosmic bonfires. I am a fan of “Number Line,” so I was happy happy, even though I thought it might signify a less exploratory set of music than I had expected. I couldn’t have been more wrong about that, and I would later be happy for that touchstone of rock sanity as the band set to taking my mind apart, piece by piece, so it could be reassembled and strengthened in the process.
Photo © Derek Gregory
With “Tweezer,” IT began to work like a Guild Navigator, using the multicolored vortex located within the Ferris wheel to take us to realms both known and unknown, arriving in celebratory fashion at a place where everyone dances with abandon, arms raised and smiles wide. From there, IT ushered us through a dark corridor, an arm around the crowd to protect it from the chaotic forces in the shadows, and we boarded the Dawn Treader. I’m sure if you asked most fans to name the jam of the night, close to zero would have said “Prince Caspian.” And again, I thought those opening chords meant a pleasing though more traditional end to the set. And again, I was utterly, staggeringly wrong.
The “Caspian” jam began traditionally enough, but then just before the five minute mark, “Caspian” donned his crown and showed everyone what he is capable of. There were some hints of the menacing Dick’s version, a brief return to the “Caspian” melody, and then IT revealed what he had brought us to see. With the power of three decades of collaboration, a doctorate in quantum metaphysics, and the psychological wizardry of “Tweezer” still lingering like dry tinder, “Caspian” danced a funk-magic spell that transformed the entire site into a radiant burst of elation, joy, and oneness. During that peak at the end of “Caspian,” I experienced the spiritual unity that is, to me, the core of the Phish experience, in the most pure and transformative way since I started coming to shows in 1995. Those are the best words I can find at the moment, but it’s still only Sunday morning.
"46 Days" – Photo © Derek Gregory
And yet there was still more than an entire set of music to take in. “Meatstick” was a good way to get dancing again after the break, but I was particularly excited for “Blaze On” and its potential for good time grooves. This version did not disappoint, blazing impressive new trails in only its eighth performance. More ambient bliss, more multi-faceted rhythms, and more pressing the envelope ensued, reminding us that jaw-dropping improvisation can and will appear at any time this weekend. “Blaze On” got decidedly bizarre before the band touched home base with a happy segue into “Possum,” but “Cities” took us right back to the outer limits, just this side of the tracks from where all the rules break down.
But “Cities” just danced on the edges, where the plinko meets the darkness, before more “Light” bloomed to banish any fears of getting too far gone. Keep in mind that even being just enough far gone, we’re still floating in the iridescent atmosphere of a gas giant, populated by floating violet alien jellyfish that flit and dart to clavinet, Mu-Tron, echoplex, and otherworldly drumming, and respond with a call like a whale playing a harmonica. Somehow, in the middle of this extraterrestrial dance party, the “555” slides by, getting us out just before the locals decide to eat our minds.
Photo © Jake Silco
After such an excursion, “Wading” is like a pull from the oxygen tank, and another chance to bask in the magic of the many moments Phish has taken from their days and sent off to their fans. “Walls of the Cave” closed the third set with another fist-pumping assertion of the greatness of our four musicians, and a “Boogie On” “Tweeprise” encore put a cap on the non-secret portion of Saturday night.
As for the “Drive-In Jam,” I surely can not do adequate justice to a piece of art this dense and layered before I get carted off back to the laboratory for two final sets of experimentation. The experience was surreal, and yet completely familiar, like a recurring dream made real in the hazy, cool early morning breeze as you drift between the conscious and the other-than-conscious. It began with ample mystery and developed into a transcendent Hearts of Space ambience that I want to revisit again and again. That was just the beginning of the fifty-two minute minutes of magic as the many faces of Phish unfolded beneath the grandstands. This is a movie you’ll have to see for yourself, if you haven’t yet had the pleasure.
Photo © Scott Harris
I’ve only begun to process the experience of my first Phish festival, but I can tell you that the strongest memory I will take home is that of all the friends I encountered, some unknown until this trip, that were given the chance to gather and be quite simply their truest selves for a few brief days. A festival allows Phish, and their fans, a moment to be free to celebrate the power of music in the way we love best. Our trip is short, friends, and I can only say thank you to all of the people who worked so hard to make it as special as it can possibly be. You are all beautiful, and I’ll see you tonight.
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
MagnaBall Triptych by Drew Millward
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