[26 March 2009]
By 1996, Phish had broken through to the big-time. They’d bumped up from theaters to arenas in 1995 and were playing large outdoor amphitheaters on their summer tours. With the passing of Jerry Garcia and the temporary end of the Grateful Dead in 1995, Phish had assumed the title of jam-band kings, and were probably the largest cult band in the world. Since they were able to draw crowds big enough to play arenas, the band decided to end their ’96 summer tour with a two-day festival called The Clifford Ball. Choosing the recently-decommissioned Plattsburgh Air Force base in upstate New York near the group’s home state of Vermont, the band threw a party and invited all of their fans to come. The end result was two days of perfect weather, six sets of music, and 70,000 attendees, which happened to make The Clifford Ball the biggest concert of the year in North America.
And yet, “big-time” was a relative term. There was virtually no hype for the Ball and very little media coverage. Beyond the band’s newsletter, word of mouth, and the corners of the internet where Phish fans dwelt, nobody in the general public was particularly aware of the concert. Most of this story is recounted by former Rolling Stone writer Parke Puterbaugh, the one clued-in media member who covered the event, in the lavish 50-page booklet that comes with the new Clifford Ball DVD set. Fortunately for the fans, Phish themselves were on the ball, so to speak, and had a professional camera crew taping the whole thing. The end result is this seven-disc collection, a disc for each set the band played and a bonus disc. While Phish has put out DVD’s in the past and they’ve released a steady stream of live material on CD since their “breakup” in 2004 (the band reunited to play its first shows in five years on March 6, 7, and 8, 2009), this is the first time the entirety of one of the band’s major events has been released on video.
So what do the hardcore fans get for their $100 (or for the less hardcore, seven spots on their Netflix queue)? Five strong sets, a close-to-fascinating bonus disc, and one flat-out brilliant set.
The first set of the first day starts off in the daylight and ends after sunset. The band has a relaxed, laid-back vibe through the whole set, despite opening with the rocker “Chalk Dust Torture”. It’s the second and third songs “Bathtub Gin” and “Ya Mar”, as well as the late-set goof “Halley’s Comet”, that give this set its feel. Even mid-tempo rocker “AC/DC Bag” features a laid-back jam. It’s a mellow way to ease into the weekend for the band and the thousands of fans, broken up by two moments of energy. As the sun sets, the band launches into “The Divided Sky”, with its 10-plus minutes of high-speed happiness. And they close the set with “David Bowie”, which is typically intense.
The first set also shows how well this concert was shot by the camera crew. The video is crisp and clear throughout, with individual cameras always focused on each band member, plus several angles from off of the stage and at different distances. The editing by Eli Tishberg is sumptuous throughout this collection. There isn’t much quick-cutting here. Instead Tishberg lingers on each band member for longer takes, as well as the audience and wide-angle shots of the band. He also knows exactly when to cut to each band member during each song, highlighting the most interesting musical bits as they happen.
The second and third sets of the first day each have their highlights. The second set has an acoustic section in the middle featuring “Waste”, “Talk”, and “Train Song”, three tunes that didn’t appear in recorded form until later that fall on the Billy Breathes album. It also features the Page McConnell-sung rarity “Strange Design”, a beautiful ballad that wasn’t played often beyond 1995 and ‘96. This set also has the classic “Mike’s Song > Weekapaug Groove” transition, with the excellent “Simple” and the silly “Contact” stuck in between the two songs. The third set has a great performance of the David Bowie song “Life on Mars” that segues into an equally great version of “Harry Hood.” The band says goodnight with its barbershop quartet version of “Amazing Grace”, a curiously short encore.
Phish- Fluffhead (excerpt)
The bonus disc reveals the reason for the quick ending on that first night. It turns out the band wasn’t actually finished playing music for the day. Around 4:00 am, Phish loaded up onto a flatbed truck, accompanied by a horseback-mounted security squad, and proceeded to drive around the camping area, improvising as they went. As a curiosity, this is an interesting extra. The music is here fully intact, and is supplemented with short snippets of video and still photos of fans walking beside and behind the truck. But there’s nothing particularly exciting about the music itself, so my interest waned after about five to ten minutes. Also included on the bonus disc is the band’s soundcheck from the night before the Ball. Apparently with nothing else to do, the band stays onstage for over an hour, hanging out and playing, once again mostly improvising but occasionally hitting snatches of familiar songs and giving shout-outs to various Clifford Ball staff members watching from the lawn. There are captured bits of conversation from the band as well, as they discuss jamming tendencies amongst themselves.
Elsewhere on this disc is a 30-minute documentary covering the planning, preparation, and actual presentation of the event, a short interview with longtime Phish-related artist Jim Pollock, and a short bit of the band’s lighting director Chris Kuroda improvising along with the band. There are also two interesting interview segments with the band from that time period, a discussion of jamming and how to do it right (keep it simple, basically), and a very funny, rambling conversation about the “Long Gig,” in which the band would play for hours, marathon-style, just to see how long they and their fans would last. Apparently this was something the band had had in mind for years before finally pulling it off on December 31, 1999.
The second day of the festival features the weekend’s best set, the second one of the day. But first was the mid-afternoon set, a rambling selection of songs including the bluegrass standard “My Old Home Place”, the jazzy “Cars Trucks Buses”, the complex “Taste”, and the poppy “Sample in a Jar.” There are also strong renditions of “Reba” and “Maze” in this set. Then there’s the second set, which deserves its legendary reputation. “The Curtain” opens the set before segueing into a particularly upbeat “Runaway Jim.” Next up, “It’s Ice” melds into “Brother”, a weird-but-energetic rocker that is always a lot of fun. The whole set crackles with energy. It’s a perfect illustration of how good Phish can be when they are totally on. It doesn’t happen with every show, but when it does it reminds you of what sets the band apart from other jam-oriented acts. The improvisation in this set is focused throughout and all four of them are locked in together. Even the normally laid-back “Slave to the Traffic Light” has an edge as it closes the set.
The third set, while good, can’t quite live up to the second. A strong start with “Wilson” and a cover of Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” is derailed by “Scent of a Mule”, the hyperactive bluegrass-style song that is almost always stopped cold in the middle by a too-long piano solo. This performance is no exception. An uneventful “Tweezer” jumps into the band’s cover of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” that perhaps illustrates the toll that six sets in two days had taken on the band. The vocals, usually spot-on (at least in this song), are a bit wobbly, from both Page McConnell and Anastasio. But that’s part of the charm of this collection. The visual component means you get to see the entire performance, warts and all. And the gimmicks as well.
Fireworks punctuate the end of the first night, with the band playing along to the explosions. The second night featured an acrobat twirling on a rope at the front of the stage during “Run Like an Antelope” while a skier and snowboarder bounced on trampolines during the third set. The Ball-closing “Harpua” was punctuated by what looked like a glider or remote-control plane outfitted with sparklers, flying in the sky above the stage. These gimmicks were probably great additions for the attendees, but they don’t actually add much to the show while watching from home.
Overall, The Clifford Ball is a great investment for the hardcore Phish fan, but probably a little much for the casual listener. The bonus disc does a great job of showing the overall feel and mood of the event without overwhelming the viewer. Still, even to those with casual interest, that second set on the second day (Disc 5) is worth watching to see the band at its very best.