“So who else is playing?,” a friend asked me before I set out for Super Ball IX, Phish‘s midsummer festival in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. “No one,” I replied, “it’s just Phish.”
For many, this concept is hard to understand. There’s a standard routine for veterans of Bonnaroo, Coachella, Rothbury, or any of the thousands of other festivals spawned in the last decade: myriad bands, overlapping sets, an insurmountable offering of genres and styles packed into every day. The modern festival can be downright imposing and daunting. At each of Phish’s nine festivals to date, there’s always been only one band. Just Phish. And that’s the best part of the whole thing.
Because a Phish festival isn’t just about the music, although that is certainly the spotlit centerpiece, the main event. It’s about the entire Phish experience, the playground for the imagination that their music inspires and encourages, and the community of fans united in their love and devotion to one band. Super Ball IX was a paean to Phish, a celebration of the musical virtuosity, artistic playfulness, nerdy goofiness, and downright good times that are hallmarks of the live Phish experience. When engorged to festival proportions, the result is an event unlike any other.
The last Phish festival held in the Northeast was 2004’s Coventry, the band’s breakup show, in which nearly everything went wrong. Super Ball washed away any lingering bad tastes of Coventry even before the first note. Weather was ideal: mid-high 80s during the day, a cool 60 degrees at night, and one light early morning shower. There was no mud, no record-breaking humidity, no thunderstorm deluge. Staging the event at Watkins Glen International, a NASCAR venue, meant good access roads and little traffic. Since the site normally accommodates 100,000 or more race fans, Phish Heads were treated to a logical, party-tested infrastructure, something that hasn’t been true for some of Phish’s more remote festival locations.
Yet despite all the amenities, the wonderland of art installations, the craft beer tent of over 50 brews, the zany sporting events, and the ubiquitous Phish festival Ferris wheel, at the heart of Super Ball IX was eight sets of top notch Phish, with well-chosen songs (no repeats), rarities and covers abounding, and inspired moments of sublime improvisation, some of which will become part of Phish lore for a long time.
Yes, everyone is there for one reason: just Phish.
Friday, July 1st
Phish began their marathon weekend with a solid set featuring two big jams and a host of rare and regular covers. The bust out of the weekend was David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?”, a song Phish had nearly abandoned since the mid-90s. Other highlights included a triumphant “Bathtub Gin” jam, pushed faster by drummer Jon Fishman, that stayed relatively true to the song’s structure, a nasty funk jam on “Wolfman’s Brother”, and Zappa’s “Peaches en Regalia”, a rare, old school favorite.
But the real improvisational heat came in the second set. Phish opened the set as they have only once or twice in their career: with a free-form jam. This jam, with Fishman maniacally laughing, served as an appetizer to the weekend’s many adventures in ambient, noisy, or spacey textures. Here, it led into the Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless”, a song that has seen a lot of action this summer, much to the delight of Phish Heads. Phish stretched the Byrne/Eno composition, playing with the tune’s propulsive rhythms and settling into a funky, percussive pocket. As the jam faded into ambiance, the signature riff of “Chalkdust Torture” emerged, creating a rare second set spotlight for this blues-rock anthem, before leading to the meaty funk of “Sand”.
The true gem of the show was “Simple”, a song that provided exquisite jams last summer at the Berkeley Greek Theater and Long Island’s Jones Beach. Guitarist Trey Anastasio crafted a serene solo over his band’s quiet accompaniment before time began to slow and stretch. The jam abandoned its regular meter while keyboardist Page McConnell and bassist Mike Gordon assaulted the crowd with droning blasts of sound. As the ambient chaos grew, Anastasio teased the main riff from Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun”, injecting some ’60s magic into this 21st-century psychedelic beast. The jam built to a noisy, mindblowing peak around the Hendrix riff, before fizzling out into the high-powered ballad “Bug”. All throughout their June tour, the band auditioned a more noisy, spacey improvisational style, and it had clearly matured into the sound of 2011 Phish. Friday’s second set confirmed this, Saturday would cement it.
Super Ball IX
Phish’s festivals are like Candy Land for grown-ups. With only one band playing, attendees at Super Ball needed something else to fill the day. Art directors Russ Bennett and Lars Fisk created a wide variety of absurdities to play in and observe round the clock, while event organizers scheduled a variety of hangover-friendly sporting activities. A weekend-long wiffle ball tournament took place, while the less organized played bocce ball. For the true festival overachiever, Super Ball IX hosted the Runaway Jim Memorial 5k, a footrace along the Watkins Glen racetrack that was surprisingly heavily attended. Many participants donned costumes; however, the naked runner was forced to borrow a pink tutu to complete the race.
The center of the magic was Ball Square, a set of buildings and installations representing revolutionary America, industrial America, and “the future.” A burlesque show, a human-sized hamster wheel, a freaked-out marching band, a “time machine” with 3D projections, and countless other toys and tricks kept attendees distracted for hours. Nearby, a big screen TV showed archival Phish video, movies, and the Yankees games live, and even staged a late night Stop Making Sense dance party.
Set 1: Possum, Peaches en Regalia, The Moma Dance, Torn and Frayed, NICU, Bathtub Gin, Life on Mars?, My Friend My Friend, Wolfman’s Brother, Roses Are Free, Funky Bitch, Quinn The Eskimo
Set 2: Jam->Crosseyed and Painless->Chalkdust Torture, Sand>The Wedge, Mike’s Song->Simple*, Bug, The Horse>Silent in the Morning, Weekapaug Groove, Joy, Character Zero
Encore: Show of Life
*with Third Stone From The Sun (Hendrix) jam
Saturday, July 2nd
Sets: 3 (plus secret late night set)
Phish treated the sun-drenched 3pm crowd to a funky Saturday afternoon, running through many of their funkiest tunes – “Tube”, “Ocelot”, “Camel Walk”, “Cities”, and “46 Days” – with a subdued, deliberate laziness that perfectly suited the hot, still air. A smoking version of “Timber Ho!!” and the surprise debut of the Rolling Stones’ “Monkey Man” rounded out the daytime fun.
The second set opened with “Runaway Jim”, featuring an onstage trophy presentation to the winners of the Runaway Jim Memorial 5k earlier that morning. A standout version of the rare “McGrupp” followed, with McConnell’s piano solo taking an added push from Fishman, giving the jazzy moment an atypical, delicious flow. After excellent versions of “Birds of a Feather” and “Stash”, Phish delivered the best version of “Scents and Subtle Sounds” since the IT festival in 2003, with an inspiring jam and (thankfully) its previously severed introduction now re-attached. The set closed strongly with a typically blistering jaunt through “Run Like an Antelope”.
Phish opened their only third set of the weekend with one of their most idiosyncratic cover choices, launching into the pointed groove of TV on the Radio’s “Golden Age”. A song that has been begging for lengthy improvisation finally got its due, with Anastasio playing muted, staccato riffs over a steady bass and drum cadre, while Gordon and McConnell danced around melodically. After this stellar jam bled into “Prince Caspian”, Phish took out another of its jamming workhorses, “Piper”. This version made up for short, uneventful versions earlier this summer, as the band worked its way through multiple distinct jam sections, often tight and laid-back. Eventually, Anastasio sounded the “Tweezer” riff out through the spacey denouement of “Piper”, beginning an infectiously danceable groove of dirty, slow funk, with more muted pulses from Anastasio and globular masses of sound from McConnell. A standout “Twist”, with Fishman continuing his tour-long joke of “What!?” screams and a long ambient outro, rounded out the jamming highlights of the night, preceding a too-short “2001” and a pedestrian version of “Harry Hood”.
Rumors of a secret 2:00 a.m. set had been circulating all day, and a good number of Super Ballers headed to Ball Square after the show ended. Around 1:30 a.m., a building fabricated to look like a self-storage facility came to life, beaming lights and sound, while the silhouettes of the band were visible inside the structure. Playing “anonymously” inside a storage unit, Phish created an experimental, free-form jam that pushed the limits of their improvisational spectrum. Utilizing many more electronic filters and contraptions than onstage, the jam was a cinematic exploration of psychedelia, more resembling an ever-evolving blob of sound than any distinctive melodies. Voices and instruments sounded warped and altered, incorporating bits of pre-recorded tape loops (an avant-garde technique new to Phish), and unleashing washes of dissonant sound and snippets of melody over the transfixed crowd. In a final moment of absurdity, the band gradually coalesced the musical fracas around one of their silliest songs, “Sleeping Monkey”, delivering a version with all the electronic filters and effects still in use, providing one last jolt of craziness to the night.
Set 1: Tube, Kill Devil Falls, Ocelot, Lawn Boy, Divided Sky, Boogie On Reggae Woman, Camel Walk, Cities, Poor Heart, 46 Days, Suskind Hotel, When the Circus Comes, Timber Ho!!, Back on the Train, Suzy Greenberg, Monkey Man**
Set 2: Runaway Jim, McGrupp, Axilla, Birds of a Feather, Stash, Sample in a Jar, Heavy Things, Horn, It’s Ice, The Mango Song, Rift, Scents and Subtle Sounds, Run Like an Antelope
Set 3: Golden Age->Prince Caspian>Piper->Tweezer->Julius, Backwards Down the Number Line, Twist, 2001>Harry Hood, Cavern, Golgi Apparatus, A Day In The Life
Encore: Loving Cup, Tweezer Reprise
Set 4: Jam->Sleeping Monkey
**Rolling Stones cover; Phish debut
Sunday, July 3rd
Phish began their third day with Bob Marley’s “Soul Shakedown Party”, letting the crowd know that they were far from done. A “greatest hits” set of old school songs and rarities followed, with only one song written later than 1992 (and it was a rarity). The highlight was certainly “Col. Forbin’s Ascent->Fly Famous Mockingbird”, a duo of rarely played Gamehendge tracks that often feature a narration between songs. Sunday’s version made up for recent lacks of quality narration, as Anastasio told a lengthy, lovably rambling story about breaking down nearby in 1988 and jamming while locked in a storage unit. Simultaneously explaining Saturday’s late night freakout and adding to Phish mythology, Anastasio explained that they eventually realized they could control reality with music, and suggested that all of Super Ball was merely a mental projection through music begun in 1988. The set ended with an exemplary version of “Reba” followed by an exclamatory “David Bowie”.
With a name like Super Ball IX, there had to be at least one major onstage ball joke, and it came with the Phish debut of AC/DC’s adolescent “Big Balls”, sung by a sneering Fishman with the rest of the band giggling away. The band brought out Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” for the second time this summer, as the spaciest of Zeppelin’s originals is an ideal match for Phish’s equally psychedelic sound right now. The huge “Ghost” jam that many fans pined for was cut off before it could stretch its legs, but the set still delivered unique improv later with “Light” and “Waves”. “Light” featured more muted string, slow jamming from Anastasio, then took a weird turn before alighting into a pointillistic groove. “Waves” contained a serene outro jam, with swelling blobs of sound that grew in timbre and changed the rhythm. This mellow ambiance morphed into something sinister, reminiscent of elements from the previous night’s secret set. Now after midnight, Phish closed with an a cappella “Star-Spangled Banner”, and a “First Tube” encore provided the backdrop for a tremendous fireworks display.
Set 1: Soul Shakedown Party, AC/DC Bag, The Curtain, Col. Forbin’s Ascent->Narration->Fly Famous Mockingbird, Destiny Unbound, Big Black Furry Creature From Mars, Wilson, Mound, A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing, Time Loves a Hero, Reba, David Bowie
Set 2: Big Balls***, Down With Disease->No Quarter, Party Time, Ghost->Gotta Jibboo, Light, Waves->What’s the Use?, Meatstick, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan, Star-Spangled Banner
Encore: First Tube
***AC/DC cover; Phish debut
The Culture of Super Ball IX