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The music seemed to get better and better each day...

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Unlike many festivals (talking to you Outside Lands, Austin City Limits and Jazzfest) Super Ball IX did not sell out beer rights to corporate titans like Heineken or Miller Lite. Attendees had stellar beer options like Magic Hat, Hoegaarden, Sierra Nevada’s Foam and many more.

But of course all the extracurriculars at the Super Ball wouldn’t count for nearly as much if they weren’t merely the icing on a stupendous musical cake from Vermont’s finest. The music seemed to get better and better each day, with the energy building from one peak to another and each set seemingly more climactic than the last. An early highlight during the festival’s first set on Friday evening was the Rolling Stones’ “Torn and Frayed”, a nod to Festival 8, the band’s previous festival over Halloween weekend in 2009 where they donned the Stones’ Exile on Main Street as their musical costume.

Vigorous workouts on fan favorites like “Moma Dance”, “Bathtub Gin” and “Wolfman’s Brother” signaled that the band was on and in it to win it, as did a huge set closing jam on Bob Dylan’s “Quinn the Eskimo”, easily Phish’s greatest performance of the song. The second set featured a gorgeous jam on “Simple”, which segued into a music of the spheres teaser jam on Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun” that seemed truly channeled from the heavens. This segued into “Bug”, one of the band’s more spiritual tunes, which was jammed in monumental fashion with Anastasio ripping off crescendo-ing trills at the end that recalled Jerry Garcia on the climax of a “Morning Dew”.

Saturday’s afternoon set open with a scheduled beach ball war that went into instant overdrive when Phish opened with “Tube”, which features one of the most electrifying grooves in rock history and whose rare appearance in the show opener slot is a known inside indicator of a barn-burner to come. This was also the set that ended with the smoking first time bust-out of “Monkey Man”, dipping further back into the Stones’ catalogue to 1969’s Let It Bleed.

The second set opened with “Runaway Jim”, where Anastasio introduced the winners of the “101st Running of the First Annual Runaway Jim Memorial 5K”. The set closed with a brilliant quadrilogy, starting with “The Mango Song”, another rarity long beloved for its unique melodic and lyrical catharsis. It received more jam treatment than usual, with McConnell stepping up beautifully on piano before segueing into the title track from 1993’s Rift. This led to a magnificent “Scents and Subtle Sounds”, an underrated track from 2004’s Undermind. The song features some of the band’s most illuminating lyrics and most majestic harmonies, carrying the Phish Nation to yet another mountaintop (even conjuring a few screams of joy when the tune reached its climax.) Phish then capped off the monster set with a scintillating rendition of “Run Like an Antelope”, one of the band’s most beloved jam vehicles. The tune set off a massive glowstick war in the crowd to raise the energy level higher still, as full psychedelia was activated (a phenomenon that spontaneously began at Phish’s Great Went festival in 1997 and which has been a Phish tradition ever since).

It all set the table for one of the weekend’s grandest moments, when the band opened the day’s third set with just the fourth version of their uplifting cover of TV on the Radio’s “Golden Age”. For any fans who ever liked to feel that Phish is helping to create a better and more harmonious world through music (perhaps in conjunction with the looming conclusion of the Mayan calendar in 2012), this song seemed to be confirmation of just such designs – “All light beings. Come on now make haste. Clap your hands. If you think you’re in the right place… The age of miracles. The age of sound. Well there’s a Golden Age. Comin’ round, comin’ round, comin’ round!” Debuted by Phish in the fall of 2009, the song seems to be a thematic extension connecting back to the Halloween ‘98 show in Las Vegas. It was there that the band’s musical costume performance of the Velvet Underground’s Loaded included a stirring performance of “New Age”.

Phish took “Golden Age” into a groovy syncopated jam that had the entire concert field getting down in harmonious bliss. Another highlight was the neo-classic “Backwards Down the Number Line”, from 2009’s comeback album Joy. For any die-hard who may have experienced a moment of existential crisis at some point about why they were still seeing this band 100 times, 200 times or even 400 (!), the song provides the answer. The lyrics hint at how the Phish experience is not just about a quest for transcendent music, but also the transcendent friendships made along the tour trail.

The high energy third set set was scheduled to conclude the evening’s festivities, but word had made it around earlier in the evening that fans should proceed directly to the Ball Square afterward for more fun. It was there that the band delivered an hour long bonus set of mysterious and ambient experimental jams in full surround sound. The band was not even fully visible, but silhouettes could be seen here and there inside one of the buildings as Phish engaged in one of their famous instrument changing jams. The experimental set finally concluded with a most psychedelic rendition of “Sleeping Monkey”, the only official song of the set.

After the top quality of the first two days, anticipation ran extremely high for the festival’s third and final day. Phish came out swinging for the fences by opening with their ultra-rare cover of Bob Marley’s “Soul Shakedown Party”, just the sixth performance in Phishtory. This was soon followed by Anastasio’s story about controlling reality through music in “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent”, which was followed by companion song “The Famous Mockingbird” and another rare treat with “Destiny Unbound”. This set off yet another mass celebration that was boosted still higher when Mike Gordon used his Lovetone Meatball bass effect to push the groove into overdrive for what again felt like an all-time greatest version. “Big Black Furry Creature From Mars” then saw actual friendly moshing take place, as fans reveled in the hardcore psyche-punk song. “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing” was another highlight from 2004’s Undermind, with the band hooking up for one of their trademark “hose” jams, where the music blissfully flowed over the crowd. Jam staples “Reba” and “David Bowie” combined for a half hour of groove ecstasy to close the set, with the former even featuring the now rare whistling section, much to the delight of the assembled.

The Super Ball’s final set kicked off with a moment everyone had been waiting for when drummer Jon Fishman took the mic for a raucous rendition of AC/DC’s “Big Balls”. This served as prelude to a stellar jam on “Down with Disease”, which has arguably become the quintessential Phish song. The jam segued beautifully into an electrifying cover of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”, where McConnell’s psychedelic keys and vocals led the way. The climactic final set ultimately concluded with an acappella rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” followed by a galactic cowboys riding into the sunset encore of “First Tube”, complete with a magnificent fireworks show.

When it was all over, the blissed out crowd just sat and reveled in the moment before ambling over to the Ball Square and out into a raging campground scene that partied all night and into the dawn. Phish may not be jamming in quite as deep and exploratory manner as they were in the mid-to-late ‘90s, but the band is riding a high and powerful wave of energy and enthusiasm that has most fans feeling like the golden age of Phish is now. The band’s uncanny knack for topping themselves exhibited itself once again at the Super Ball, leaving most in attendance feeling like this was not just one of the greatest events of the year, but one of the greatest weekends of their entire lives.

Greg M. Schwartz has covered music and pop culture for PopMatters since 2006. He focuses on events coverage with a preference for guitar-driven rock 'n' roll, but has eclectic tastes for the golden age of sound that is the 21st century music scene. He has a soft spot for music with a socially conscious flavor and is also an award-winning investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @gms111, where he's always looking for tips on new bands or under the radar news items.

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