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Published: 2009/03/01
by Brian Ferdman

Phish The Clifford Ball

JEMP/Rhino

Prior to 1996, there had never been an event like The Clifford Ball. Music and art festivals had surely existed, and hippie camping gatherings had been happening for nearly 30 years, but never before had one band decided to put on a massive event by themselves, featuring no one but themselves. Of course, by 1996, Phish’s audience was packing standard concert venues, so the band had the drawing power to throw their own two-day festival on the grounds of the decommissioned Plattsburgh Air Force base. Over 70,000 fans made the trek to upstate New York for what would become the largest concert event of the year in North America. In turn, Phish rewarded the crowd with six stellar sets and a bonus, unannounced 3AM set performed on the back of a moving flatbed truck throughout the campgrounds. The madness and brilliance of this festival has now been lovingly documented and preserved on DVD.

As we await the return of Phish in 2009, there are many lingering questions about the quality of the band’s upcoming performances. However, back in 1996, such questions would be considered absurd. Phish of 96 was a finely tuned unit at the top of their game. With Page McConnell’s sprightly piano serving as the nimble foil for the fiery guitar work of Trey Anastasio, Phish was capable of rocking with unbridled energy (“Chalkdust Torture,” “Down With Disease,” and “Brother”), jamming through mind-melting explorations (“David Bowie,” “Split Open and Melt” and “Tweezer”) and gracefully winding through beautiful improvisations (“The Divided Sky,” “Harry Hood,” and “Slave To The Traffic Light”). In addition, the band was utilizing an acoustic mini set to play around with more emotional numbers (“Waste” and “Strange Design”) and their barbershop quartet songs (“Hello My Baby” and “Amazing Grace”) were still being featured. These were the days when Phish were at their most diverse but still nailing every song. Sure, they were making little mistakes (as they do a few times here), but they were playing with such confidence and strength that they could easily plow through a wrong note and wind up nailing a dazzling riff seconds later. It was thrilling to experience in person back then, and it’s no less thrilling to experience through this release.

Visually, you can’t ask more from a concert film than what you get from The Clifford Ball. A seemingly endless array of cameras shoot the proceedings from nearly every angle imaginable, and the entire affair is edited by someone with intense knowledge of the little nuances of this band. Indeed, this detailed camerawork enables the viewer to witness not only the spectacle of acrobats, aerial ballets, and fireworks but also the minute interplay between band members, such as Page’s impromptu signal to have Trey stop playing guitar and utilize his percussion kit during a bouncy “Cars, Trucks, and Busses.” The audio is wonderfully dynamic, providing not only a vibrant mix of sound but also the little chats between the musicians. Put the sound on the Dolby 5.1 mix, and it’s easy to believe one is sitting in the middle of that concert field, surrounded by the cheering throngs.

As if six discs of musical genius aren’t enough, the real gem of this set might be found in the seventh and final disc. A cleverly edited 20 minute documentary captures the spirit, ethos, and intricate planning of the festival with lots of humorous moments on display. The entire 3AM flatbed truck jam has its own track, as does the nearly hour-long edited version of the pre-show soundcheck, which features Trey bantering with his bandmates about the perils of mimicking one another too often while jamming. Phish artist Jim Pollock gets a brief featurette, and after the festival is over, the band watches tape of their performance and discusses the successes of The Clifford Ball. Additionally, they speak with great enthusiasm about their desire to eventually play one long set that lasts for over 36 hours, an idea that morphed and manifested itself in the midnight-to-sunrise set of Big Cypress, the high watermark of Phish’s career.

Handsomely packaged and including a lengthy, photo-laden booklet and several souvenir postcards, The Clifford Ball does a stellar job of capturing the atmosphere of a groundbreaking artistic event. Its creation was the product of Phish at their peak, and this DVD could become as the Rosetta Stone for the uninitiated. With great setlists, virtuoso playing, pulsating energy, and pranksterish humor on display, The Clifford Ball easily serves as Phish’s definitive DVD release to date.

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