“I’ve got big balls,” sung Phish drummer Jon Fishman, “Some balls are held for charity, and some for fancy dresses, but when they’re held for pleasure, they’re the balls that I like best!” While I suppose there’s a slight chance he was referencing an engorged scrotum, what he was really talking about (in singing the AC/DC cover, “Big Balls”) was the Biggest Ball Ever, the jam band’s 9th festival since 1996.
Not only was it their biggest festival ever, but it was the best planned and executed Phish festival to date right from the start. Clearly, the organizers had done this before and had learned from their mistakes. The first Phish festival, The Clifford Ball, set the bar for the modern-day super concerts we know and love. This goes not only for Phish’s festivals, but events like Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza (though the alt-rock festival was conceived 5 years before the inaugural Phish festival, it was a touring event, like Warped Tour), Austin City Limits, and many others, take a hint from the Phish organization in ways to please the crowd: art installations, cooling tents, using local resources, even car-side camping all came from the one-band festival that preceded these giant concerts. The Clifford Ball (1996), The Great Went (1997), Lemonwheel (1998), Camp Oswego (unofficial festival, 1999), Big Cypress (1999), IT (2003)–these were events that defined what a music festival had become.
The Phish organization may have followed the footsteps of the Grateful Dead in their musical approach and marketing scheme, but planning and organizing these giant events was somewhat uncharted territory, especially in 1996 when all they had as an example was Woodstock (largely a failure) and day-long touring festivals. They wanted to create a completely unique fan experience, something you couldn’t get at any old concert or any regular camping trip. From the beginning, The band was fully immersed in the planning process. They helped the creative director and the engineers in figuring out what should go where and how, and in their earlier days, even helped build some of the structures. Without the efforts of the Phish organization, and without the compassion for phans that Phish truly had and acted on, we may not have today’s festival as know it.
Super Ball IX was held at the historic Watkins Glen International Racecourse, site of 1973’s Summer Jam that featured The Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead, and The Band. Unlike anything a Phish crowd is used to, the venue was fully prepared for the influx of jam band fanatics that started rolling in on Thursday morning. Even Wednesday night saw a line forming at the gates, and when the crowd thickened, they abided for safety purposes and started letting people in. Many had arrived early in hopes that Phish would pull a Grateful Dead-move and let the audience in for a full blown 2-hour set during sound check. (Alas, while the Thursday sound check would have been nice to hear, listeners had to stay outside the gates.)
Thursday night was a northeastern reunion, with phans finally coming together to make up for the disaster that was 2004’s Coventry. Billed as the last Phish show ever, the event was poorly planned, poorly managed, and even more poorly played. We may have been able to deal with the flood, the mud and the 15-mile hike to get in if anything else had worked out, but it didn’t and no phan was about to let that be their last east coast memory of Phish. So we all found ourselves back in northern New York, just an hour past Ithaca (just?!), and you could feel the excitement and joy as soon as you stepped onto the festival grounds. Well coordinated, mostly car-side camping areas were named after states Phish has never played in (North Dakota, South Dakota, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Hawaii, and a phan-designated area called Puerto Rico) and overflow parking lots surrounded the racetrack, enabling festival city to be in the center of the huge arena.
As phans came trickling in on Friday, others took time to explore the ever-developing Americana theme on the festival grounds. Not only was there a ferris wheel, bocce ball and wiffle ball courts, an air-conditioned charging tent, and a plethora of vendors giving out information and ice cream (thank you, Ben and Jerry’s); there were also giant structures (a storage unit, a water mill, a factory-esq production line) to walk through and on. Each of these buildings was constantly changing, starting on Friday in a wooden, colonial style decoration. On Saturday, they were transformed to more industrial designs. Sunday’s incarnations represented the future, brought in by a secret, late-night, futuristic set Phish played from the storage unit in an area called “Ball Square.”
Phans were treated to balloon structures to play with, original art to look at, and the House of Live Phish, where you could download each set right after it happened, listen to and download past sets selected by archivist Kevin Shapiro. You could even single out each band member in the mix to create a totally unique listening experience.
Friday night saw the first two of seven (announced) sets, and yes, they were all Phish. Thirteen hours, 17 minutes, and 22 seconds (thanks for calculating, NY Times), all by one glorious band and gladly soaked up their loyal phans. The first sets put us at ease when we could tell that they had been practicing, were playing very well, and were feeling the vibe of this festival already. Set one saw bust-outs like Zappa’s “Peaches En Regalia” and a very rarely played “Mike’s Song> Simple> Bug.” Saturday was the big day for all of us, featuring a fully day-time set starting at 3 pm.
A phan-organized beach ball fight was the perfect supplement to the opening “Tube,” and while the next two sets of the day were both phenomenal and surprising, the real gem was the secret, unannounced set that started at 2 am Sunday morning. Spacey, wandering and barely following the melody of the “Sleeping Monkey” we know and love, the boys’ 4th set of the day met very mixed reviews. While some kids were ready to keep the party going and just wanted to dance to another regular set, some of us realized that Phish finally remembered how to jam and were blown away by the improvisational rock music blaring out of that storage unit. Sunday, too, was a day filled with amazing music, happy and safe concert-goers and finally a break in the heat with a little rain in the morning. Another thing most phans are not accustomed to is the weather holding out so nicely as it did this past Independence Day weekend. Besides the blaring heat for Saturday’s 3 pm set, it was easy to stay cool during the day and even got a little chilly at night. Perfect festival-ing weather, if you asked anyone there.
Overall, maybe not in numbers, but in everything else this was the biggest festival, the biggest ball of them all; it was a most super ball. Even if you’re not privy to the ways of Phish culture, even if you hate it and everything we stand for, it’s hard to ignore the roots of the music events standing in their legacy that are becoming ever wider spread, ever more popular and accessible. How can you ignore it anyway? A gathering of 30,000-plus people (that being the smallest festival in Phish’s history), dancing to genuine rock ‘n’ roll and celebrating the freedom to enjoy whatever we want, however we want? Even though in the Articles of Orientation packet they handed out at the entrance, it reminds attendees that “Independence is a theme, not a day.” Phish allows us to be as free and independent as we could possibly be. In the beginning of the festival, in fact after the second song, before he could even guess that the weekend would be such a success, Trey said “Thanks for coming to our party, everyone!”
No, boys, thank you.
Originally published on BreakThru Radio, 7/9/11