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Published: 2011/07/05
by David Steinberg

A History of Phish’s Summer Festivals

Superball IX is part of a noble Phish tradition: the summer festival. Tracing the rise of the band and then their sudden collapse, these events are defining moments, each a document of its era. They may not have been the best shows, but they always were the most memorable event of the year. Between the art and the surprise sets and the random encounters that happen when thousands of people camp together, the Phish festivals transcended the concept of being a concert. Phish had a chance to create their own events and in doing so redefined what an event could be.

The Proto-fest Amy’s Farm – 8/3/91

While some might argue that Ian McLean’s Farm in 1987 was home to the first festival, Amy’s Farm seems to fit that bill better. Coming at the end of the Giant Country Horn tour, Phish staged a free (Well almost… there was a nominal parking charge) show at the home of famed First Fan Amy Skelton. While drawing nowhere near the crowds of later festivals, some of the ideas were already starting to form. There was a parking/camping area and a blocked off concert area that was only open at show time. The sides of the concert venue had food vendors; albeit without Mr. Sausage. It felt like a miniature version of what would evolve.

Other than some “I Love Lucy Theme” teases, a Jamie Janover sit in, and an incredibly long held note by Trey at the end of “Stash,” this show is largely remembered for the first encore. The infamous Dude of Life came out to perform three of his songs, one with the aid of Page’s wife to be.

While the guests helped, the one thing that makes this event feel like the root of what was to come happened in the camping lot. After the last notes of “Harry Hood” rang out and the space was cleared, a rumor started to circulate. Phish was going to play a fourth set late that night. It might not have come to fruition at the Farm, but late night bonuses would become a defining characteristic.

A Beacon of Light in the World of Flight – the Clifford Ball 8/16-17/96

The first airmail flight from Pittsburgh to Cleveland was made by a plane named Miss Pittsburgh – a vehicle owned by a Clifford A Ball. The festival named after him resembled Amy’s Farm in roughly the same way that Miss Pittsburgh reminds one of a 747. All of the elements are there but the difference in scope overwhelms the similarities.

No one really knew what to expect from a festival held on an Air Force base in northern New York. Perhaps Phish themselves weren’t sure. Any idea that sounded cool was added to the mix. Stilt walkers greeted fans walking into the event. There was a town center with a ball based theme and a room where you could record a confessional for the band to view. An orchestra played between sets. Planes flew overhead with funny messages behind them such as, “A dime from here would penetrate.”

Even Phish’s sets were infused with randomness. “Harry Hood” had a massive fireworks show at end of the song. Acrobats came out and performed during “Tweezer” and “Antelope.” For some reason Ben and Jerry came out and sang during “Brother,” demonstrating why they made ice cream instead of music.

The two defining moments of the Ball came at the end of each of the shows. Sometime in the middle of the night, Phish got on the back of a flatbed truck and drove around the campground while playing a jam. Some people ran after it, others just slept through it. Even for those who missed it, it was something incredible to hear about the next day. The encore of the event didn’t get quite as favorable of a review. The “Harpua” was supposed to end with a stunt plane flying overhead, but there was a miscommunication. The band couldn’t see the plane and the story wasn’t able to coordinate. The unfinished “Harpua” and the confusion surrounding it was one of the few complaints. A band with no hits or radio airplay drew 60,000 people to an Air Force base in the middle of nowhere. They were onto something here!

An Easy Drive From Any Direction – The Great Went 8/16-17/97

The one problem with Plattsburgh is that it was just too darn easy to get to. A real festival should be played at the very tip of Maine. That at least seemed to be the logic behind The Great Went. Take I-95 to the end and then drive another 50 miles north on US 1. Eventually you’ll get to Limestone, ME.

The Great Went was one of the biggest events to ever hit Aroostook County, even bigger than the Potato Blossom Festival! Residents as far south as Houlton sat in their yards and watched the endless traffic stream by. People even stood on overpasses on I-95 to check this out. The circus had come to town.

Once fans made it past the endless two lane highway, there were some twists to the event. In addition to a town square – now complete with a building filled with fighting remote controlled appliances and the debut of the Bubble House, perfect for your need to be immersed in soap bubbles – there was also a corn maze (albeit non-challenging as the corn wasn’t high enough) and a giant clothesline.

On stage, Phish quickly tried to alleviate Clifford Controversy by ending the “Harpua” as part of the “soundcheck,” a.k.a. the first part of the show. By the end of the second night though, there would be a new one.

One of the booths in the square had a place where you could paint pieces of plywood. The art was all collected and during the second set of the second night, right after an all time great version of “Bathtub Gin,” the band created their own and passed them over to the giant sculpture that had been erected. During “Harry Hood,” Trey asked for the lights to be dimmed so we could all look at the sculpture. This led to the spontaneous occurrence of a glowstick war, birthing the tradition that would last for years.

The second setbreak was filled with discussion about how great the “Gin” was, how cool the glowsticks were, but also about Trey’s speech about the art we had collectively created, how it symbolized the connection that they had with us. And that’s why it was so stunning during the encore when the giant matchstick caught on fire and torched it. Perhaps a statement about the ephemeral nature of the artistic process, how the improvisation can only exist in the moment, it still was rather shocking to see.

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Comments

There are 2 comments associated with this post

Dave July 6, 2011, 19:12:33

Very nice roundup! Really got to what IT is all about. If someone were to ask me, “what’s the deal with you and those festivals?” I would refer them to your summary. Though I’d like to hear a retrospective of Big Cypress and 8 as well, even though they weren’t summer fests. 8, in my opinion, was a sea change for Phish fests. Some of the most original art installations, and by far the most extensive lighting and visual stimuli than any other event. I imagine you’d be able to put together an eloquent summary of how these two events fit into the Phish festival context. Cheers! Well done! See you at Festival X!

axilla_stink July 7, 2011, 21:35:47

I was lucky enough to be up at sugarbush in 94 and 95 and to me these shows seemed overlooked…but superball seemed to be just as intimate.

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