The American rock festival season has a wide menu of options here in the early 21st century, dispelling any trite notions that “rock is dead”. But there seems to be only one band that has the dedicated fan base to stage its own mega-festival with no supporting acts, and that band is the Phish from Vermont. No one besides Peter Jennings and out of touch parents seriously refer to the jam rock titans with a “the”, but it’s become a running inside joke for fans ever since Jennings referred to the band that way on the ABC 2000 broadcast (which featured “Heavy Things” from Phish’s Big Cypress festival on December 31, 1999, the largest ticketed millennium party on the planet with 80,000 revelers for the legendary all-night performance in the Everglades).
Inside jokes are part of what helps Phish endear themselves to their dedicated followers even more, enhancing a soul connection that most bands can only dream of. Such humor was on display throughout the Super Ball IX festival, including how it was billed as the “Biggest. Ball. Ever.” The band’s ninth festival was not technically it’s largest in size – if attendance is the measuring factor – as in fact it was the smallest with around 30,000 tickets sold. But the Vermont quartet delivered a monumental series of performances (seven scheduled sets over three days plus one bonus set of experimental late night action at the Ball Square) that conjured a Scott Pilgrim vs the World status – “an epic of epic epicness”. In comparing the Super Ball to previous Phish festivals, there was a general agreement amongst those in attendance that the musical consistency level across the weekend was at an all-time high.
Super Ball IX
(3 Jul 2011: Watkins Glen International Watkins Glen, NY)
The spiritual power of Phish can be hard to describe to the uninitiated. For most of their fans, Phish is the best rock ‘n’ roll band on the planet and no one else is even in the same league (save perhaps for the Grateful Dead). Utilizing names of some of the songs played, one could describe the Super Ball as a “Soul Shakedown Party” where “Birds of a Feather” could “Run like an Antelope” in a new “Golden Age” teeming with “Scents and Subtle Sounds” and find their “Destiny Unbound”. If this sounds like a Phish show is more than just a concert, that’s because it is. There’s a metaphysical journey involved and the sky’s the limit when it comes to potential gonzo adventures and even fairy tale romance. Phish plays a key role in keeping the New Left counterculture of the ‘60s alive, having inherited the cosmic torch from the Grateful Dead in the mid-‘90s. This didn’t happen by design, but by destiny – Phish was simply in the right place at the right time.
The advanced skills of guitarist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman as tone scientists parallel the avant-garde jazz pioneer Sun Ra, a major influence on the band. In Sun Ra biography Space is the Place, author John F. Szwed wrote a passage that would resonate with many Phish fans too: “With music he would reach across the border of reality with myth; with music he could build a bridge to another dimension, to something better; dance halls, clubs, and theaters could be turned into sacred shrines, the sites of dramas and rituals. And though people would be drawn to hear the music, it was they who would become the instrument on which it would resonate, on which he would create the sound of silhouettes… the images and forecasts of tomorrow… all of it disguised as jazz.”
As with all past Phish festivals, the Super Ball festival grounds were tricked out with an array of colorful scenery and diversions so as to create a sense of an alternate reality Phish-topia. There was a sense that almost anything could happen, best illustrated by first-time bust-outs of the Rolling Stones’ “Monkey Man”, AC/DC’s obvious but obligatory “Big Balls” and a rare and coveted performance of “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” on the final day of the festival. The latter is one of the key songs in Anastasio’s legendary “Gamehendge” cycle, a mythological concept album of sorts about the peaceful lizard people who are forced to mount a revolution against the evil King Wilson and his “foul domain” of “avarice and greed”. The ever rare appearance of the song used to be accompanied by a narrative story from Anastasio, generally tying in some current event or local scenery with the ongoing revolutionary efforts in Gamehendge. But since the band’s most welcome return from a five-year breakup in 2009, Anastasio had held out on delivering the narration the few times the song has been played.
Anticipation built as the band moved through the song – would there be a story? When the music slowed and Anastasio began weaving his latest tale, there was a mass celebration amongst the faithful. One fan was even seen being triumphantly held in the air by another, almost like a pitcher and catcher celebrating together after getting the final out of a no-hitter. Story time with Trey has indeed become that rare, for the stats would show that this was the first “Colonel Forbin’s” narration since Anastasio’s memorable birthday show in Las Vegas on September 30, 2000.
The red-headed virtuoso pulled out another mind-bender, weaving a tale from the band’s early days regarding a breakdown of their Plymouth Voyager in the area near Watkins Glen, while on their way to play shows in Colorado in 1988. He told of how the band had to find a storage space to put the vehicle in so that their gear wouldn’t get stolen, but how they were accidentally locked into the storage space and had nothing to do except jam until someone got them out. The jams got longer and weirder he said, until they finally started to realize that they could control reality through music and that the Super Ball was a mental projection through music that they started in 1988! The story hinted at the seemingly Jedi-like abilities of the quartet to telepathically communicate with each other during their exploratory jams. This skill is probably more attributable to years of dedicated practice, but that hasn’t stopped “Trey is a Jedi” stickers from appearing in the lots.
The festival’s overall vibe was also enhanced by the plethora of extracurricular activities arranged for further fan fun. This ranged from a Wiffle Ball tournament, a 5K road race and a bull run to a pinball lounge and movie screen at the Ball Square showing live sports and classic flicks like Talladega Nights, Team America, Caddyshack, Boogie Nights, Scarface, Jaws and the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense. The Ball Square also featured a trilogy of time zone installations devoted to an early American settlement, the industrial revolution and the future. Then there was the perennially popular ferris wheel as well as a human sized hamster wheel. The latter was it in psychedelic fashion and provided the opportunity for some hilarious hijinks.
The Wiffle Ball tournament saw most teams show up with special t-shirts designed just for the festival as their uniforms. One squad even had their own cheerleaders, the colorful Team Ma Craw, dressed in vibrant blue, green and purple tie-dies. Their cheerleaders had pom-poms in the same colors and trash talked opposing hitters with salacious sexual innuendos that caught some of those opposing players off guard. This helped Team Ma Craw score a 2-1 win the first day, although they were knocked out by some ringers on Saturday. Team Ma Craw offers one of the more inspiring stories from the Phish Nation, for the name is based around raising awareness about the plight of fan Judi Crawford, who has a rare form of leukemia and is in need of a blood stem cell transplant. Daughters Rina and Laurel got Ma Craw into Phish a few years back, and now when Ma Craw goes in for chemo treatments, the family puts on a version of Phish anthem “Down with Disease” and dances the the session away.
There are over nine million people registered with the Be the Match donor registry but no match has yet been found for Judi Crawford. Rina Crawford’s participation in the burgeoning School of Phish group on Facebook led to other fans joining the cause to raise awareness about the Be the Match registry, hence the Team Ma Craw Wiffle Ball team. “I’m so glad to have a team,” says Judi Crawford, who couldn’t make it to the Super Ball but plans to be in the front row hoping for an epic “Down with Disease” at Phish’s next show on August 5 at The Gorge Amphitheater. Team Ma Craw passed out business cards to curious fans at the Super Ball, quoting from Phish’s “Tube” with the line, “But rather give myself to science… I felt that I could help.” Those that would like to offer themselves to science as potential donors (in a process similar to giving blood) can join the Be the Match registry at: http://www.bethematch.org.
Another worthy cause being promoted at the Super Ball came from The Coalition to Protect New York. The grassroots organization was selected by Phish to promote their opposition to hydrofracking, the controversial natural gas drilling method that appears to be endangering water supplies across America due to the undisclosed chemical formula used in the drilling process (undisclosed due to a 2005 loophole known amongst environmentalists as “the Halliburton exemption”, which then Vice President Dick Cheney helped push through Congress so his industry pals wouldn’t have to disclose their so-called proprietary formula.) The Coalition was also to receive a donation from The Waterwheel Foundation, which oversees Phish’s charitable activities.