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A Taste of Free: Phish’s Ball Square Jam

Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011

Photo by Dave Vann

The Ball Square Jam (BSJ) performed during the spiral hours of Superball IX created new dimensions. Like and unlike the Tower Jam, Headphones Jam, Soundcheck Jams, Ambient Jam, and sundry others, the BSJ was a “meta” jam. Free from the restraints of the genre they help define, Phish talked to itself, just as Arrested Development, which was generally-free from network exec “notes,” was able to self-referentially reference itself with brazen cleverness. Phish said to itself, and to my stone-cold-sober mind on that stately New York morning, “Here are the elements of the universe, or, in other words, everything is everything.”

When musicians abandon time signatures, keys, repeated chordal patterns and other restrictions, music moves closer to God. When philosophers realize dogma and theism are no longer useful on the path to enlightenment, thought erupts. Physics explodes when scientists understand no one equation (no matter how elegant) can explain the physical reality of the universe. Even the word “universe,” with its monistic constrictions, is no longer found very useful. Society still struggles within self/other black/white and gay/straight dichotomous prisons, but the irrelevance of such notions has been clear for years.

The great pattern of history is and always has been this: things come together, and then they fall apart. A typical Phish jam falls apart and comes together several times, spending most of its time inside a danceable beat. The BSJ discarded that pattern like a training bra. It stayed apart. It stayed free. Its brilliance was it kept hinting it was going to come together. When the drumbeat became regular about halfway through, I had the feeling the balls, lights, speaker towers, USA storage shed, Ferris Wheel, pyramid, race track, wiffle ball pitch, and manufacturing instillations were all going to unify in a glorious ascendancy to jam heaven. But it never happened. The beat simply provided a synapse from one polyverse to another—a plinko polyverse where Trey plays drums.

Not to say the jam had no shape or arc. It did, but its progression cannot be related to J.S. Bach’s infamous tempered clavier. This freedom enabled Phish to poise the ultimate questions: What is possible? What is real? What is perception? And Whaaaaaaaaat!!!??? The BSJ was post-form, post-genre, and post-existentialism. However, the BSJ would not have been possible without everything that came before.

With the Alive One “Tweezer” (or perhaps earlier) Phish joined the ranks of Stravinsky, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Soft Machine, Popol Vuh, and Tangerine Dream. Later jams cemented their relationship to aformality and Fellini’s 8 ½, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane. The BSJ put them in with Miles Davis’s Pangea, Agharta, and Live Evil. The BSJ was not more experimental than the Alive One “Tweezer,” but it had more blood. What was different was a lump at the center of the jam. What was different was the years of pain and triumph. Instead of being up on a stage Phish was locked in a storage shed. Instead of reading music on the faces in the crowd, they read music on the face of God.

Our universe has been falling apart for 8 billion years. Scientists struggle with equations to discover when and if it will come back together. Theologians predict it will all end on this day or that, or every third Tuesday in June. The poets wrap their lines in barbed wire, and the politicians are still selling cake. Phish, on the other hand, figured it all out last summer, and they found the only way they could share: the Ball Square Jam.


There are 27 comments associated with this post

Groucho July 27, 2011, 10:02:39

I loved the “USA Storage Jam”, but not this article. I wish people could write about Phish like how a normal person would talk about them. If a person at a show said something to me like, “unify in a glorious ascendancy to jam heaven”, I’d stare at them for a minute before walking away. Phish fans that think they are so deep and intellectual are really just lame. But, at least you didn’t put “epic” anywhere in your article. Just my 2¢

joshua July 27, 2011, 12:45:31

i think somebody put something in your drink. glad you could enjoy it so much.

Nate July 27, 2011, 13:37:20

This is satire, right?

Uberchef July 27, 2011, 14:11:35

Wow. Super heady.

outthere July 28, 2011, 14:49:46

awesome man!!!
thats what i was feeling!!!

kdub July 28, 2011, 15:22:27

^^ what Groucho said… Folks who review phish, and jambands as a whole, need to get over themselves and their fancy English degrree’s and maybe try to write something people can sorta relate to. I could probably write a whole essay about how this essay is pompous crap, but that wouldn’t be a good use of anybody’s time. But that’s just, like, my opinion, man…

kdub July 28, 2011, 15:26:49 hopefully you were either tripping when you wrote this, or this was meant for some sort of Onion type publication.

Rollin60'sCubNasty July 28, 2011, 15:36:32

There needs to be a balance with this kind of language. I understand the set was free form beyond free form but the over abundence of bold uncommon words came off like George W. Bush on acid(it’s probably a good thing author noted his sobriety)

Joe July 29, 2011, 15:02:47

people- you are all victims of “common sense.” Wake up and realize that language (and music) are meant to be used. they are tools that we can use in creative ways. this article is great. The BSJ was a different kind of jam- allow the brother to explore the possibility of the jam. take it easy, maybe go check out some of the music the guy is telling us about. get over yourself and what you think you know.

Loubert July 29, 2011, 16:01:28

Im not one, for all fancyed up english either hahaha…........... Wow this article is bringing me back yo, i just listened to the ball square back to back times. I would call it epic if groucho wasnt so against that term. Id say my favorate super ball moment was antelope

Joe July 29, 2011, 16:28:56

thanks for the post Loubert. reminds me that we all love Phish cuz its fun rock n roll based music. I dont want to offend anyone-sorry if I did. But this guy, sure his language was high, but the article is a new fresh take on The Phish. Don’t be afraid of high language- it’s a gift. When people talk like that they are trying to help you out of the doldrums of ordinary reality. sure, they may also be just trying to sound cool, but hey, aren’t we all??

David Paul Kleinman July 30, 2011, 09:03:37

I’m not sure how else I could have written it. The “this was my experience at the festival” bit seems overdone. The second-by-second note-by-note analysis would read like an insurance policy. There was no attempt to “sound smart.” I’m sorry if I spend my time reading and teaching philosophy. What a lame way to spend my time.

vanessa steinberg July 31, 2011, 01:36:51

David, I was there. You have every jam identified but not sure how since they didn’t announce titles or anything. You don’t even explain what the Ball Square Jam was – I am assuming it was their late-nite set from inside the storage shed? You quote so many genius things as comparible measures to the show/jam that you lost everyone in the article. What about the song was so incredible? Plus you argue your theory without explaining how the music of that night achieved your points.

Jake July 31, 2011, 15:34:00

I appreciate what this essay is trying to do, but I have some issues with your references to a variety of different musics, composers, etc., without really explaining what you mean by them. You write that “With the A Live One “Tweezer” (or perhaps earlier) Phish joined the ranks of Stravinsky, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Soft Machine, Popol Vuh, and Tangerine Dream.” What exactly are you trying to say here? I cannot figure it out. Stravinsky, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Tangerine Dream all sound extremely different, and none of them sound anything like the A Live One Tweezer. Are you trying to say that Phish is “great” by comparing them to “great” composers? Or something else? As Ives would say, there’s a lot of manner here, but no substance.

David Paul Kleinman August 1, 2011, 12:12:14

I think there are two main criticisms I should address. I’ve called it the “Ball Square Jam” because that is the title of the track I downloaded from If someone wants to call it something else, this wouldn’t bother me and as a journalist I would adopt the popular nomenclature. I thought most readers would have accessed the recording. The essay was written quickly three days after SuperBall, and was kept intentionally short. I don’t feel it is necessary to justify brevity, but regarding the influences. . . Stravinsky: I was mainly thinking of the “Rites of Spring.” The story is a bit involved, but I think you would agree that playing the ‘Alive One’ “Tweezer” for a neubee would be similar to the initial reaction to the piece’s dissonance and unresolved chords. Check here: Also check this interview with Trey: Steve Reich: I have a difficult relationship with Reich. . .mainly because I feel “Music for 18 Musicians” is the only thing you need to listen to. I am by no means an expert in modern classical music, but if you listen to the way the rhythms of that composition seem to change even though they stay the same, I think you will hear similarities in parts of “Tweezer” and the “BSJ.” Philip Glass: The piece I thought of most was “Glassworks.” Check it: Listen to the way the melodies interweave, trip over, and “talk” to each other.
Trey has discussed this technique several places: Soft Machine, Popol Vuh, and Tangerine Dream: Knowing these bands as I do, I have trouble understanding how anyone cannot see the connections between many of Phish’s experimental jams and the innovative work of all three groups. I could add a few more along with Zappa and Sun Ra and the Davis albums I mention. . .it is clear this music laid the groundwork for Phish’s approach and style of improvisation. Also: suck it.

B-row August 1, 2011, 16:05:27

“When musicians abandon time signatures, keys, repeated chordal patterns and other restrictions, music moves closer to God” Try explaining that one to Bach…

joe August 1, 2011, 16:31:07

this is a horribly written piece. so much so i thought it waas a joke. my 9 yearold can write better

BD August 1, 2011, 17:17:39

I liked what you were trying to do. This audience is harsh. You wouldn’t think you’d have to dumb things down for Phish fans but I guess that’s the case. I always thought Phish and jam band music in general was all about art, experimentation, and expression. I am surprised by the reaction you got. Keep writing, maybe just find a better venue for sharing it.

Pete August 1, 2011, 19:41:19

Is this review serious? Why do people feel the need to talk so fucking pretentiously when it comes to anything Phish related? I’m not trying to hate, but while your stone-cold-sober mind heard “Here are the elements of the universe, or, in other words, everything is everything,” my dosed-the-fuck-out-of-this-world mind heard “my sleeping monkey has revived.” I could continue, but I think that says enough.

kevin p. August 4, 2011, 00:11:55


conrad fishwater August 4, 2011, 01:01:38

Speaking as a pure blood Panic fan, I liked the article. I grew up in New England and saw Phish many times- the last time being a memorable Gamehenge at Great Woods in ’94. The article contains endless polysyllabic language and the references are, for most of us, obscure, but nonetheless, worthies some admiration. The man can write. Personally, I like the “simple man’s” narration of a concert/jam/moment too, but I’m surprised at the reaction. I thought Phish lovers saved their venom for Panic fans.

Jimmyz August 5, 2011, 07:51:07

David, no qualms with your retort (you are obviously entitled) except when you end your explanation with “Suck it.” Maybe you are being irreverent, but to this reader you come off as a whiny victim. Take the high road next time you decide to engage in a dialogue with readers. Just because some of them make a less than eloquent dig at you (as is the online custom) doesn’t mean you should lower yourself, too. Lame.

Nobodysjam August 6, 2011, 10:35:16

Jimmyz, I think you missed the point…or maybe you’ve forgotten,...nothing sucks like an Electrolux

Nobodysjam August 6, 2011, 10:35:16

Jimmyz, I think you missed the point…or maybe you’ve forgotten,...nothing sucks like an Electrolux

RonDavis August 7, 2011, 10:28:08

Nice essay. Along with all the love and free hugs there is quite a bit of hate in this community. I liked the god found at show, or god found in music, or god found in ourselves while listening to music at a show, idea. So it seems we can look and pray and read for god till the day we die, but really all we have to do is wait for our favorite band to come to town and go check em out. My guess is most of us that keep seeing the same band over and over and over have had some kind of god type moment and we never acknowledged that moment for what it was.

Harv August 17, 2011, 15:03:02

Bottom line….....this is an exponential over analyzation. It’s just a JAM in the same way that a drum circle at anyones tent is just a JAM. It weaves, climbs, dips, dives and molds together. It is the nature of music. To relate it and re-relate it and compare it and over-compare it to god, Stravinsky and the Universe seems to be overkill. The real question is. HOW DID IT SOUND?

Brandon C August 20, 2011, 12:14:03

Good music transcends, that’s why I go to shows,that’s why I listen… He made total since to me and if your confused then go read Gravitys Rainbow…

Rocko May 29, 2012, 19:04:59

Im a little late but I “got” your article and no, you didn’t use to many “big words”.
I think it sad how quickly people want to reduce others spiritual experience to “what where you on?” or “pretentious”, the most abused word on the internet is pretentious.
In the words of Bill & Ted “ We mock what we don’t understand!”
Im just glad the band can still let loose .

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