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