Until this weekend.
The careful planning that went into Super Ball IX was apparent and the smooth-running of the festival seemed to elevate the crowd’s already jubilant mood.
Camp sites were divided into “states,” the seven that Phish has yet to play: North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Wyoming, Hawaii and Alaska, with an additional site called Glen Close Camping (named for actress Geena Davis according to Phish’s FAQ section of the Super Ball IX website, www.superballix.com/faq.html).
Each campsite had their own personality – the shady, quiet Hawaii sat beside sprawling, far out Alaska. The giant campers and RVs of Wyoming dotted the hills sloping down from the concert field and the endless lots of the Dakotas, Oklahoma and Arkansas were made up of one relentless party after another. After the final sets on the concert field each night, the masses would flock to the party states, crossing the bridge constructed over the race-track. Watching thousands of rowdy phish lovers inch up and over was both exciting and amazing.
Though the festival was focused around seven main sets (two Friday, three Saturday and two Sunday, with an additional secret set on Saturday night/Sunday morning), the set-up and additional activities gave phans enough to do throughout the long-weekend stay.
Exclusive vinyl releases happened at the JEMP Records stand on
Friday, Saturday and Sunday with limited copies of Two Sounchecks, Party Time
and The White Tape available. The
Super Wiffle Ball tournament began at 1 p.m. on Friday with 96 separate teams
ready to compete in the uniquely Phish style of the game – with 1 to 5 players
per team, ghost-runners and far fewer rules.
The 101st Running of the First Annual Runaway Jim Memorial 5K Road Race (yes, that’s what it was called, don’t question), was brutally hot and wound around the hilly, hot race track before runners were directed into the concert field, ending beside the Ferris wheel. Racers came out in a variety of creative get-ups, as Uncle Sam, a Reno 911 police force member and with various accessories: capes, hats, tie-dye, knee-high socks and one man even dragged a vacuum along (again, don’t question, just laugh). And don’t be fooled: though you might assume the 11:15 a.m. race time would be too early for festival-goers exhausted from the night before (or still going from the night before…), racers were there to compete with the first place runner, Ethan McBrien coming in at a staggering 15:23. The course, which actually came to 5.5 kilometers or 3.4 miles, was flanked by spectators putting up hands for high-fives and a water station between the 2 and 3 mile mark with a powerful hose pumping out water to drench the baking runners.
For others not so interested in torturing themselves, there were less straining activities including the Ferris wheel ride, art installations and Ball Square where three distinct historical times in American history were depicted: an early American settlement, The Industrial Revolution and the present/future of America, complete with a “storage” facility and giant orb, disco ball-like structure to represent the future. There was also the House of Live Phish, an air-conditioned facility where fans could fill their iPods or flash drives with audio and video from Phish’s June tour and other archives. There were food vendors lining the concert area and within the camp sites and Sierra Nevada broke out hundreds of kegs including those filled with their award-winning pilsner FOAM brewed specifically for Phish.
The weekend was full of quirky surprises, too. During a lull on Sunday I took a moment to catch up on the Yankees/Mets game aired on the big screen on the concert field where movies were also played throughout the weekend. As I sat back in the sun watching the game, actually wondering if heaven might be something like that moment, I began to doze off peacefully…until “Flight of the Valkyries” started blasting through the speakers. Startled, I woke up and looked around just like everyone else on the field. Then I saw the stampede coming, literally, right at me. Hundreds of people dressed in either white t-shirts with red bandanas around their necks or huge bull masks, horns and all, came sprinting at me. Suddenly the field was full of people and “bulls” running around like mad, kind of chasing each other, but kind of just running for the hell of it. The song blared on for a few minutes as they ran and everyone came to a paved circle where many of the runners looped around and around. At this point, others had joined the initial group including someone dressed as “Where’s Waldo,” a man with a gigantic stuffed fish, a man with a large, colorful stuffed animal/boa thing around his neck and a guy in nothing but a small black speedo, blonde mop-top wig and toe shoes holding a huge yellow and red umbrella.
I added this to my list of things I have never and will never see again, except for at a Phish show.
All this and more went on throughout the weekend and was actively documented by Relix and jambands.com who had a tent up throughout the weekend to distribute “Ball Things Reconsidered,” (referencing the short Phish instrumental, “All Things Reconsidered”) their free daily paper discussing everything Super Ball IX.
Days were filled with wandering, experiencing the sights,
sounds and weird happenings of Super Ball and run-ins with friends from all
over the country. During the weekend, I met up with friends from New Jersey,
New York City, various groups from Syracuse and even a couple who traveled all
the way from Portland, Oregon.
Nights, however, were filled with music that never seemed to slump in energy, excitement and surprises even despite marathon days like Saturday which had crowds dancing for sets at 3 p.m., 7:30, 10 and 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning.
For those that haven’t experienced a Phish show, even without all the extras of their festival universes, the actual performances are just as engaging. The band covers years of material, original and covers, with drawn out jams (though they are not as frequent as in the past) and an unbelievable light show run by lighting manager Chris Kuroda.
Sets during the weekend varied and saw buried favorites brought back to life including David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?,” not played by the group since 2003. The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Frank Zappa, Talking Heads, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley and The Beatles were all covered and Phish’s own songs spanned from “AC/DC Bag” and “Possum” originally released in the late 1980s to “Backwards Down the Number Line” and “Joy” from 2009’s Joy (JEMP Records), the group’s 14th studio album.
The Vermont four-piece builds their own festivals for apparent reasons. Without the expected time restrictions of multi-band festivals and other normal venue shows, the group can explore more freely and comfortably and audiences don’t have to worry about missing a band or a set – it’s all in one place.
On Saturday, the freedom was completely explored as the
group kept coming back for more and more…and more. The day set jam was lively,
with beach balls bouncing and faces burning in the hot sun and 90 degree
weather as they broke into “Tube.” Shining covers of “Boogie on Reggae Woman”
and “Cities” had people moving and a jamming “Suzy Greenberg” came near the end
of the set, bringing the day’s excitement to a climax.
When the band came back for the second set, they introduced the Runaway Jim race winners before breaking into the bopping song singing, “I had a dog, his name was Jim.”
They made their way through the long middle set to a grooving “Birds of a Feather,” an anthemic “Sample in a Jar,” a sweet, hopping “Heavy Things” and a frantic “Run Like an Antelope.”
At the pace the group set, it was hard to imagine an equally energetic third set, but the explosions kept coming with the funky, bass heavy “Tweezer,” bluesy, swinging “Julius” and bursting “Backwards Down the Number Line” back-to-back with the crowd-pleasing, “Twist.” As dusk and darkness settled in, the glow sticks came out, with hundreds, perhaps thousands, tossed into the air with every heavy punctuation of the music off the stage. Though you might assume the audience or band would tire with the non-stop rate of the show, the energy kept coming with the danceable “Golgi Apparatus,” that had everyone shouting about “the ticket stub in your hand.” The set closed up with shouts to the Beatles with “A Day in the Life” and the Stones, “Loving Cup,” finally ending with “Tweezer Reprise.”
But the night was far from over. Fans disbanded when the show ended just after midnight, but soon rejoined for the “Storage Jam” secret set that happened at Ball Square around 1:30 a.m. The “Storage Facility” which had rooms of art open to wander through by day became a jam space for the band who completely dove into their experimental side for the late-night set. The jam had the band switching instruments and exploring completely far-out themes on their regular instruments as well as electric drums and synthesizers. Most of the set was loose jams, not culminating in whole songs or grooves until an appropriate, “Sleeping Monkey” finally appeared from the improvisational hour. Bodies were scattered, sleepily on the grass as Phish tucked them all in with the tune, nearly 12 hours since the start of the 3 p.m. set.
The final day saw similar energy resurged as the band opened the final night with Bob Marley’s “Soul Shakedown Party,” a fitting song given the festival’s atmosphere. Lively tunes in between included “Reba,” “Down with Disease,” “Party Time” and “Meatstick” with a barbershop quartet version of “The Star Spangled Banner” closing up the night before the encore of “First Tube” and fireworks erupted into Independence Day.
During the Sunday set, vocalist and guitarist Trey Anastasio also took a few minutes to explain some of the method to the madness that was Super Ball IX. He talked about the band’s van driving skills: Page McConnell is best, Jon Fishman can go the longest and Mike Gordon shouldn’t be allowed behind the wheel. But Anastasio also told a story about the band’s trip to Colorado in 1988 when their Plymouth Voyager broke down with all of their equipment inside. They had to put it in a storage facility while they looked for a replacement to avoid anything getting stolen, but were locked into the facility in the process. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, the foursome played and realized that through the music, they could free themselves from their current state of entrapment. Part of that musical movement from the storage facility included a mental projection of Super Ball IX.
Phish has a way of taking things far beyond the norm and not by superficial means. They constantly challenge themselves to be more creative, explore different genres and artists and new ways to connect with their insanely adoring following.
For example, at a point during the never-ending Saturday sets, the band played a short riff. A huge part of the crowd instantly responded with “Doh!” in Homer Simpson fashion. A friend quickly explained that this was a tradition going years back when the band would play short ditties that would have the audience shouting, turning their backs to the stage, falling to the ground, etc.
It’s weird. But it’s amazing. And like the rest of the weekend, the personality that pervades the experience is something whole in itself. The music is incredible and the years of practice and never-ending tours are audible in the band’s performances. The comfort on stage is clear and comes across as well and that same feeling seems to blanket the crowd that comes to see Phish take the stage again and again and again.
Though our very own New Times proclaimed there would never be another Watkins Glen – there was and it was incredible. Here’s hoping there will be many more.