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Published: 2015/08/29
by Dan Warry-Smith

Phish, Magnaball, Watkins Glen International, Watkins Glen, NY- 8/21-23

It’s tough to match the sheer joy of a Phish festival. Even if you’re Phish, hosting another Phish festival. Even if it’s the tenth installment of such an event, wherein the band builds an autonomous zone of communal revelry for its tens of thousands of fans, and mass celebration typically leads to watershed musical moments. The modern festival template – pioneered by Phish and the same team of collaborators that have delivered unforgettable weekend experiences since The Clifford Ball in 1996 – has been broadly borrowed, replicated and popularized over the past decade and change. But even the Bonnaroos and Electric Forests of the world are hard pressed to compete with the all-encompassing bliss of Phish’s four members, in a field in the middle of nowhere, giving their all to those who love them the most.

Watkins Glen International Speedway may not be as remote as Loring Air Force Base in rural Maine, or Big Cypress Seminole Reservation in the Everglades. It may not possess the locational relevance of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom or the climatic perfection of Palm Springs in October. But the storied race track nestled in the rolling hills of the Finger Lakes Region of Western New York has proven to be the best locale for the titans of the jam-rock world to call home for three nights. SuperBall established this in 2011 and the double-digit milestone was reached and resoundingly ratified this year, with MagnaBall.

All the necessary elements were in place when the late August weekend commenced. The forecast called for no rain amidst moderate heat, the announced sell out was revealed to be a half-truth as many ticketless adventurers were admitted at the gates, and most importantly the band was coming off a fantastic summer tour primed to make festival number ten an all-time classic. As Phish fans can attest, the audience on any given night is always ready for greatness. It’s the times when the band can click and find its sweet spot that things truly get raised to the next level. At MagnaBall, the table was flawlessly set and Phish responded in turn.

From the opening riff of “Simple” to a top-ten career version of “Bathtub Gin,” the first set of Friday’s kickoff show established a high bar. Setlist treats like “The Dogs,” “Avenu Malkenu” and the super-rare “Mock Song” provided a thread of specialness that led into a cohesive and fiery second set highlighted by the improv-heavy run of “Chalkdust Torture,” “Ghost” and “Rock & Roll.” There was ample room for open-ended jams on Saturday too, with “Tweezer” and “Prince Caspian” combining for over thirty minutes of locked-in exploration ahead of a deep version of “Light” and a not-so-secret “secret set” of pure sonic conjuring that left jaws agape and spirits flying well past midnight. The final foray on Sunday wavered between triumphant and poignant as “Down With Disease” segued seamlessly into “Scents & Subtle Sounds” before “What’s The Use” brought the massive crowd to a hush with its heartrendingly gorgeous breakdown.

After the quintessential “You Enjoy Myself” signaled the end of the affair, the immediate comedown set in like air escaping a balloon. All of the vacuumed joy of the weekend, built to via months of anticipation and excitement, dissipated into the crisp night atmosphere. There wasn’t quite a sense of sadness, but certainly there was awe. All in attendance, wandering their ways to campsites and soon enough back home, felt the power of the collective euphoria as it fizzled into memory. The good fortune of being present for such a magical time was not lost on Phish’s faithful followers. They’ll be ready to do it again, throwing hesitance to the wind in the search for transcendence once more, when ever the eleventh Phish festival rears its happy head.

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