Music

Phish: The Clifford Ball [DVD]

A lavish seven-disc package presents all six sets of Phish's first major festival event.


Phish

The Clifford Ball

Length: 540
MPAA rating: N/A
Contributors: Trey Anastasio, Jon Fishman, Mike Gordon, Page McConnell
Label: Jemp
UK Release Date: Available as import
US Release Date: 2009-03-03
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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.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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