Vermont Jamrock Titans Phish Deliver Another Festival for the Ages

by Greg M. Schwartz

21 September 2015

Photo: Rene Huemer 
cover art

Magnaball

: Watkins Glen International Raceway — Watkins Glen, NY

2015 has been a banner year for Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio. It was just two weeks after Phish’s glorious New Year’s Eve run in Miami when the surviving members of the Grateful Dead announced that Anastasio would join them for their three “Fare Thee Well” shows at Chicago’s Soldier Field over Fourth of July weekend (as well as two preceding shows later added for the previous weekend in Santa Clara.) Those in attendance witnessed a special moment in rock n’ roll’s space-time continuum as Anastasio filled in for the dearly departed Jerry Garcia to help the Dead deliver a most memorable goodbye to its legions of devoted fans.

Phish followed that historic run by launching their own summer tour just 16 days after the final fireworks at Soldier Field and it’s a tour that’s been widely praised as arguably the band’s best since reforming in 2009 after a five-year breakup. The sonic riches just kept coming as Phish capped their summer tour with Magnaball, their own three-day festival at the raceway in upstate New York where they played their Superball IX festival in 2011. With only 10 such events having now occurred in the band’s illustrious 32 year career, the Phish festival is easily one of the rarest and most precious experiential jewels in rock history. The festival setting takes a regular Phish show and expands it into a higher level alternate reality for an entire weekend with extra activities, art installations, camping and of course more music.

It’s a rare and special band that can still be making some of the best music of their career over three decades in, testament to what a talented and creatively driven group the Vermont quartet is. Phish has won a legion of devotees due to their uncanny knack for topping themselves year after year, time and time again. Fans can (and will) debate endlessly about how the best shows of the current “3.0” era compare with the band’s top performances of the ‘90s, but there’s no doubt that Phish are performing at an unprecedented level for a band at their career mark.

One need only look at where the Grateful Dead was at when they reached the 30-year mark in 1995 to gain an appreciation for what a feat Phish is pulling off. Jerry Garcia was battling a heroin addiction that was clearly affecting his musicianship as well as the Dead’s overall creativity and energy. The last tour had its moments, but was largely maligned. Phish’s Anastasio was headed down a similar path however, with drug problems being the ultimate culprit for the band’s stunning 2004 breakup. Those reasons were only later revealed when Anastasio was busted at the end of 2006 and forced into drug court mandated rehab, which he later claimed saved his life.

Anastasio seized that second chance with a vengeance and has been soaring like a phoenix reborn from the ashes ever since. 30 years after the band formed in 1983, Phish was throwing down a 36-minute “Tweezer” jam in Lake Tahoe in 2013 that was instantly recognized as one of the greatest moments in the band’s career. Likewise for the stupendous 2014 Halloween show in Las Vegas, where the band generated scintillating original music to go along with Disney’s 1964 Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House sound effects album as their musical costume. Longtime fans were jubilantly stunned, with some comparing the mindblowing effect of the show with all-time classics like the band’s legendary New Year’s Eve 1995-96 performance at Madison Square Garden.

Magnaball represented another chance at transcendent bliss, with the band’s third festival since their 2009 return. The festival setting is the ultimate Phishtopia, a national retreat of sorts with the vast majority of over 30,000 attendees camping on site to create their own alternative community for the weekend. Upon walking into the concert area on Thursday night on the eve of the festival, fans were greeted by a variety of psychedelic installations such as “The Glurt Institute,” billed as “a campus of laboratories devoted to the ultra-terrestrial sciences.” It was here that fans could “observe the workings of the Gravity Harmonograph, monitor the growth of cubical crystallization and participate directly with experiments on perception-impaired primates.” Then there was the adjacent lab.

“In 1977, starry-eyed dropouts from the Institute broke off and built their own far-flung annex, The Laboratory, in (what is now) the back of the concert field. These radicals explore magnaphysics with experiments in fractal tunneling, memory-scape trips and tintype exposures in makeshift facilities that encircle their own power source: the vortex pendulum,” the band informed. With technicians in white lab coats ostensibly performing some kind of experiments, the scene had some fans flashing back to that New Year’s ‘95 performance with its “Gamehendge Time Creation Lab.” It was on that night during “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” that Anastasio explained how the band works to create time when they’re not on tour, with the stage transforming into a giant time lab at midnight featuring the band in white lab coats working to create another year.

At Magnaball, the band seemed intent on creating an alternate realm where their music could carry attendees into new levels of sensory experience not obtainable in the everyday consensus reality. This is of course an objective at any Phish show, but the long tradition of the Phish festival demands that everything is done on a grander and more immersive level.

“We’re bigger than Portland,” Anastasio remarked from the stage at the band’s Great Went festival at the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine in 1997, noting that the crowd of over 60,000 had become the biggest city in Maine that weekend. That second Phish festival (following 1996’s Clifford Ball) was also where some fans started to speculate about the band having some larger metaphysical goals as well. The fact that the Great Went took place on the 10-year anniversary of the Mayan Harmonic Convergence at an air force base with a documented history of UFO incidents had some fans wondering if the band was attempting to initiate contact with Earth’s ET visitors, ala Close Encounters of the Third Kind with the overtones of music, light and color.

Regardless of whether that goal was sought and/or achieved, the band delivered an inconsistent yet ultimately peak performance that seared the minds of many in attendance permanently. It’s interesting to note the contrast in that weekend’s performances with the consistency that Phish delivered at Magnaball. Anastasio left the stage after the first set of the Great Went complaining to his band mates that they weren’t “hooked up,” (a scene immortalized in the Phish documentary Bittersweet Motel.) Yet the band rebounded strongly that night and the next day delivered a second set still praised as one of their greatest performances of all time, featuring such a sensationally triumphant jam on “Bathtub Gin” that it ultimately birthed a Facebook group titled “The Great Went Bathtub Gin Changed My Life.”

Yet the third set that followed was devoid of big jams and was viewed as somewhat anti-climactic in comparison to the previous set. 1998’s Lemonwheel Festival at the same venue seemed to recognize and correct this, with a much more consistent performance over the course of the weekend yet one that lacked the bigger jams. This was the era when Phish was purportedly at its peak, yet the strength of the band’s performances over the past few years raises the question of whether “the best is yet to come,” as the band sings in the scorching title track of last year’s Fuego album. The consistent strength of each set at Magnaball in addition to a number of memorable jams suggests that Phish is indeed a band still on a career ascension.

The band gave a hint of their intentions at Magnaball with a soundcheck jam on Thursday that featured drummer Jon Fishman dropping a few vocal lines of “Feel the Bern,” referencing his openly public support for the presidential campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. The drummer even launched his own Twitter page specifically to advocate for Bernie, while also becoming the only member of the band with an active presence to engage fans on Facebook. The soundcheck was all jam and no actual songs, foreshadowing some high level improv to come.

Phish hit the ground running at Magnaball on Friday evening by opening with “Simple,” the classic anthem that instantly unites all fans behind the lyric, “We’ve got it simple because we’ve got a band.” They dropped another sign that they meant business by proceeding directly into “The Dogs,” one of the instant classics from last year’s Halloween show. But the real indicator of how “hooked up” the band was came with the 23-minute set closing performance of “Bathtub Gin,” which saw the band gelling at the height of their considerable improvisational powers. It was here that bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell, Anastasio and Fishman were able to use their Jedi skills as tone scientists to reach that special sonic space known by some as “the X-factor.” It was a jam that took on a life of its own much to the delight of all, and yet it was merely the end of the festival’s first set.

A variety of fan favorites filled a jammy second set with six of the seven songs clocking in at over 10 minutes, highlighted by a vibrant rendition of the new song, “No Men in No Man’s Land.” Debuted at the tour’s first show in Bend, Oregon, the funky rocker has some fans hearing a tribute to the Grateful Dead’s mid-’70s versions of “Dancing in the Streets.” The song also shows Phish going in a deeper thematic direction, with undercurrents along the lines of the Dead’s classic “Throwing Stones” in lyrics like “And the truth will rise above, and fiction fall beneath, although the lies may bite, the truth has all the teeth.” The song seems to parallel Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign to speak truth to power, making for a bolder lyrical statement in 2015 than Phish is generally known for.

Phish dropped another clear sign of intention to deliver a higher level show when they opened Saturday’s three-set performance in the afternoon with “The Divided Sky,” one of their seminal instrumental songs. Appearing as an opener is an ultra-rarity for the song, which here even seemed to affect the weather as cloudy skies suddenly began parting to let the sun shine through. “How Many People Are You” was another newer song with a high-energy groove from Gordon, also with lyrics that perhaps seem to challenge the Phish Nation to be more of a collective social force. The second set was the one that really had fans buzzing afterward, with a “Backwards Down the Number Line>Tweezer>Prince Caspian” sequence that featured some of the weekend’s best jamming as the band’s collective energy flowed freely. The new “Blaze On,” also debuted in Bend, was a highlight of the third set with its New Orleans-style beat and quasi-libertarian lyrical vibe generating a huge dance party that led to a hot “Possum>Cities>Light” sequence.

Then there was the unannounced yet fully expected late set, a bonus fourth set that began around 1 am as the band played behind the giant movie screen set up in front of raceway bleachers which had been showing old black and white sci-fi flicks on Thursday and Friday. This unique setting is where the band was able to throw off all expectations and just surrender to the flow. The set started in an ambient mode similar to the “Temple of Fire” late night bonus set from 1998’s Lemonwheel Festival. But the “Drive-in” jam soon evolved to explore bold new improvisational territory that made it far more compelling.

The masterful jam also explored ambient territory reminiscent of the late night “Storage” jam from the Superball four years ago, but the 52-minute “Drive-In” jam picked up around the 11-minute mark and soon rocked the cosmos in way that made it arguably the band’s greatest festival bonus set ever (though attendees of the IT Festival in 2003 may still favor the “Tower” jam where the band played atop the Loring Air Force Base’s lookout tower.) The “Drive-in” jam switched tempos, keys and moods like an eight-armed alien tourist at a Vegas buffet, with each band member at times taking control with their own sonic directions. McConnell even busted out his rarely used theremin for some extra psychedelia as the crowd hung on every pass through the therematic wormhole.

There was certainly some “memory-scaping” going on during this set with “perception-impaired primates” consuming their fourth set of the day in one of the most psychedelic settings imaginable. Lighting director Chris Kuroda beamed all kinds of mind-bending imagery onto the drive-in screen, a veil the band could only occasionally be glimpsed through. There was a collective sense of awe and wonder both during and afterward, as fans attempted to put their minds back together from the reality-bending set.

The third day couldn’t help but have weighty expectations, especially in lieu of the climactic performance the band had delivered on the final day of the Superball. Intention to meet those expectations was again acknowledged with a “Punch You in the Eye” opener, one of the band’s most unique and beloved songs. “PYITE” tells the tale of a would-be revolutionary in “Gamehendge,” the mythical land where Anastasio set his college musical thesis wherein noble lizard people revolt against a corrupt dictator named Wilson who has the lizards on the verge of extinction from “doing things smart people don’t do.” The Gamehendge allegory has taken on an extra resonance in 2015 with Bernie Sanders’ rising popularity amongst Phish fans who feel he is their long sought representative to take on the greed and avarice of “Wilson’s foul domain.” A gorgeous jam on “Reba” highlighted the set, along with Fishman “sucking love” on his vacuum cleaner during “I Didn’t Know” to thank all involved with staging the festival.

The band went big for the festival’s final set, opening with new fan favorite “Martian Monster” (debuted on Halloween) to ignite an instant cosmic dance party. A segue into the ever-cathartic and anthemic jam vehicle, “Down with Disease” followed to keep the energy soaring. The triumphant opening combo was a reprise of how the band opened their Los Angeles Forum show on July 25, aka the Day Out of Time (the Mayan New Year’s Eve), which was also the night before lighting director Chris Kuroda’s 50th birthday. The band has never openly discussed an interest in the universal timing frequency of the Mayan calendar, yet has often played big shows or ended tours on related dates, offering subtle hints over the years about their metaphysical interests. Band archivist Kevin Shapiro actually did acknowledge this on the festival radio station “The Bunny,” speaking briefly about the significance of the Day Out of Time and the research of Mayan scholar/prophet Jose Arguelles before playing a big jam from a July 25 show from the ‘90s.

Phish kept doling out the treats with the rare and coveted “Scents and Subtle Sounds,” a majestic tune with sublime harmonies played only a handful of times since its introduction to the repertoire in 2004. The bluesy interdimensional interlude of “What’s the Use” followed, another rare fan favorite to make this final set an instant keeper. A raucous “Mike’s> Groove” followed, with a “Fuego>Twist” sandwiched in between as the band rocked out to the delight of all in a high-energy sequence to wrap the set, featuring teases on Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song.” Then just when everyone thought that “Weekapaug Groove” was closing the set, the band pulled another ace from their sleeves by segueing back into “Martian Monster” for yet another blastoff to the groovy space landscape that’s become so popular since the Halloween show.

The encore featured a surprise performance of the quintessential Phish song “You Enjoy Myself,” complete with a massive fireworks display during the closing vocal jam. Encoring with “YEM” after opening the set with “Martian Monster>Down With Disease” paralleled the Day Out of Time show in LA and in retrospect seems to have perhaps foreshadowed the recent announcement that Phish will play three mid-January shows in the Mayan Riviera. When it was all over, fans still had the rest of the night to enjoy the Magnaball landscape and camping scene with uplifting vibes all around.

In the end, it’s not just the music but the sense of community and being part of a genuine counterculture tribe united toward a more harmonious future for mankind that makes the Phish festival such a unique and special experience. When the band is really clicking, it feels like the entire cosmos is aligned in harmonic unity. Fans get the opportunity to see “phriends” they might not have seen in over a year, or maybe even in four years since the band’s last festival appearance at Watkins Glen. And then there’s the kindness and generosity of strangers helping strangers, because “we’re all in this together,” where one fan might witness another losing his valuables during a late night misadventure and return them the next day. It’s all part of what sets the Phish Nation apart from the rest of the music industry, for there is no other active band that is still going so strong 30-plus years in and has such a long and storied symbiotic relationship with its fans. Magnaball showed once again how rare and special this type of relationship between a band and its fans is.

Topics: magnaball | phish
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