Photos by Lori Sky Twohy and Brad Kuntz
“Why would you want to see the same band for three straight days?” a friend asked me as I packed my car for July 4th weekend. I was headed to Watkins Glen for a three-day music festival and each night’s headliner was the same: Phish.
While my friend couldn’t grasp the concept of spending an entire weekend listening to just one band, I couldn’t grasp the idea of missing it. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. Fans from across the country flocked to Phish’s Super Ball IX over 4th of July weekend to hang out with one of the country’s most successful touring acts.
The festival was held at Watkins Glen International Speedway, home to an occasional NASCAR race. The last music festival held at the speedway took place in 1973 when over 600,000 fans descended upon the unassuming town to see the Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers and The Band at Summer Jam.
While many fans would have liked to see an audience that rivaled the ’73 crowd, today’s festival-saturated market, coupled with exorbitant ticket prices, makes it difficult for any festival to come close to that kind of turnout. Regardless, over 40,000 showed up for the 3-day festival.
With an ever-expanding list of festivals to choose from every summer, the crowd Phish draws is a testament to the community it creates. Most summertime festivals showcase dozens (if not hundreds) of artists over the course of a weekend. Many, such as Bonnaroo, are diversifying their lineups to appeal to a broader populace and thus improve ticket sales. Hip-hop artists are being billed alongside bluegrass legends, standup comics and indie rock groups.
Phish, however, adheres to a more traditional style. Even other artists with their own festivals (moe, The Disco Biscuits, Warren Hayens) invite colleagues to share the stage with them. Phish relies on their broad musical canon and the atmosphere their concerts have cultivated over the last two decades to attract a crowd.
And whatever they’re doing, it’s working.
Fans showed up in droves early Thursday morning to get a good campsite and spend the day soaking up the scene. The early birds were rewarded mid-afternoon when the band took the stage for a half-hour sound check. A crowd formed along the chain link fence separating the main stage area from the campgrounds. People dragged coolers, chairs and Frisbees to the back of the lawn to enjoy a sneak peak of the weekend’s musical offering.
The band played through Undermind, Sleep Again, My Soul and Ginseng Sullivan; then closed out the prep show with an extended jam. When the brief set ended fans slowly dispersed and headed back to their campsites to rest up for the long weekend ahead.
Conversations following the sound check gravitated towards guesses at what Phish would play throughout the weekend. Every Phish fan has his own opinion, and each is convinced beyond reproach that he is right. Arguing goes nowhere, but it’s a great way to pass the time and match wits will fellow Phish connoisseurs.
I, personally, argued that the band would cover Katy Perry’s Firework Sunday night while holiday pyrotechnics lit the sky. Many scoffed at my prediction, but just last summer I witnessed a cover of I Kissed A Girl sung by Fishman, and hoped the band would continue the trend.
The festival grounds were housed on the track’s infield. All thoroughfares leading into the arena were lined with vendors (both licensed and illicit) hocking all sorts of merchandise. Food vendors cooked up grilled cheese sandwiches and veggie burritos while concertgoers sold beer out of personal coolers. Tables lined the streets with jewelry, T-shirts, glasswork and homemade art all on display. Less enterprising salesmen walked the aisles selling packs of cigarettes and glowsticks to anyone who may have arrived underprepared.
Security was minimal at the entrances to the infield and anyone without a bag was let in without a second glance. Once inside, fans were privy to an array of official vendors selling the same trinkets as those in the campgrounds but for a higher price. This year’s festival also featured “Ball Square,” a colonial style village that walked patrons through America’s past, present and future.
Ball Square featured, among other things, a community of artists who were creating screen prints using a steamroller and constructing masks of Sunday’s Bull Run. Also included in the village (supposedly the future ofAmerica) was a mysterious building labeled “Self Storage USA” with a series of closed aluminum doors.
Outside of Ball Square was a drive-in-like movie screen that showed movies throughout the day, all with an American theme. A Ferris Wheel loomed over the entire grounds providing picturesque views of Seneca Lake to those who were willing to wait half an hour in line for a ride.
With fans packed in and ready to start the weekend, Phish took the stage just before 8:00 p.m. as the sun set to the crowd’s backs.
After hours of debate amongst friends over what the band with open with, they started right up with Possum, perhaps as a tribute to the backwoods feel of Watkins Glen.
The rest of the set was cover-heavy, featuring Zappa’s Peaches en Regalia, Bowie’s Life on Mars, Ween’s Roses Are Free, Son Seal’s Funky Bitch (often mistaken for a Phish original) and the ever-popular Quinn the Eskimo by Bob Dylan.
Between covers, Phish threw in, among others, Bathtub Gin and Wolfman’s Brother. It wasn’t until the second set that the band seemed to settle into their familiar groove, starting with Crosseyed and Painless and Chalk Dust Torture, a crowd favorite. The next hour was kicked off with an excellent version of Sand and continued with an uninterrupted marathon of tunes including Mike’s Song, Simple, Bug, The Horse, Silent in the Morning and Weekapaug Groove. Just as the audience thought the set was over and took a second to catch its collective breath, Trey opted for a ballad with Joy and closed out the set in style with Character Zero.
With the evening’s main course completed, many returned to camp to relax and prepare for another day. Some stayed behind and meandered to the movie screen where the Talking Heads movie Stop Making Sense was being shown. Still others chose to wander the grounds, searching for ground scores or lost paraphernalia.
I spent a half hour or so listening to David Byrne before deciding to return to my tent for some R&R.
Saturday morning marked a festival first for me: exercise. While I didn’t participate in the 101st running of the 1st Annual Runaway Jim 5K, I was an active spectator. I lined up on the track to cheer on two of my friends along with thousands of others who ran a lap around the NASCAR circuit in the 90-degree July sun.
The race was open to anyone who wished to join. Among the competitors were serious athletes (certainly a minority) marching band members, costumed hipsters and even a naked guy. Fans lined the speedway to cheer for friends and strangers alike as contestants raced for a chance to take the stage on Saturday night.
I spent the remainder of the morning baking in the sun at a friend’s RV campsite where there was no shade to be found. I made my way back to the main stage around 2:30 in order to catch a 3:00 set. Fans took full advantage of the midday sun, inflating hundreds of beach balls and tossing them about in unison as Phish opened the set with Tube. For about five minutes the field looked like a popcorn machine, with an constant flitter of colorful balls floating everywhere.
The band pressed on into a set that never seemed to develop a real flow. While the songs were all good, the set lacked the cohesiveness characteristic of most of Phish’s late night shows. It felt as if they had simply thrown together a series of songs they wanted to get out of the way before the evening shows.
Regardless, each song was well done and the crowd seemed satisfied with the show. Tube was followed by two songs off their newest studio release: Kill Devil Falls and Ocelot. The new tunes were followed by a few classics: Page’s ballad Lawn Boy and The Divided Sky.
The band also debuted two new songs in the set: Suskind Hotel (a Trey/Mike tune) and Monkey Man (a Rolling Stones cover). Suzy Greenberg was the most notable song also played in the set. While I prefer Suzy at night with the lights in full effect, it was nonetheless a great rendition.
Saturday night’s back-to-back sets were by far the best of the weekend. Nothing matched the energy of the second set, which progressed well into Sunday morning.
The band took the stage while the sun still shone and busted right into Runaway Jim. Trey announced the winners of the morning’s 5K and handed out trophies to the luck winners right on stage while the rest of the band noodled the verses idly in the background.
The set slowed down after that with McGrupp and the Watchful Horse Masters, but definitely picked up momentum over the next hour with incredible versions of Axilla, Birds of a Feather, Stash, Sample in a Jar, Heavy Things, Horn, It’s Ice, The Mango Song, Rift and a rarely played Scents and Subtle Sounds. Just when the set seemed to be coming to a close, Trey plucked out the opening riff of Run like an Antelope. The ensuing jam was a 15-minute crescendo, which spurred fans to let the glowsticks fly and put on a fan-created lightshow that rivaled the master work of Chris Kuroda.
The band left the stage around 9:45 p.m. In the 45-minute interlude that followed fans roamed the grounds collecting glowing debris and recounting the set with friends. The house music faded around 10:30 and Phish picked up right where they had left off.
Heads bobbed, arms flailed and hips shook for more than two hours as Phish churned through Prince Caspian, Piper, Tweezer, Julius, Backwards Down the Number Line, Twist, Also Sprach Zarathusa, Harry Hood, Cavern, Golgi Apparatus and A Day in the Life.
I assumed the set had reached its end when the band played 2001. Little did I know that was just the climax of the plot. We still had the falling action – Hood, Cavern, Golgi and Day in the Life – and even an epilogue – an encore featuring Loving Cup and (of course) Tweezer Reprise.
My hunch paid off. My friends and I made our way to the aforementioned Self Storage USA building and staked our claim right next to the building. We then sat down and waited. And waited. And waited.
As we sat, a crowd had begun to pack in behind us, until we were among a few thousand people surrounding the makeshift building waiting to see what would happen. We were rewarded around 1:30 a.m. when an emotionless voice came over the sound system and told us to prepare for the future of music.
The garage doors on the building were removed one by one, revealing fog glass behind which we could distinctly make out four silhouettes. Suddenly, light burst out from within the glass room and music began to play.
The half-hour of ambient jams that followed was entertaining, but somewhat disappointing. While I can appreciate the complexities of the improvisational style they played, I was hoping for something more cohesive (and more like music). What we were treated to was a series of seemingly interconnected sounds. Every time the band got close to syncing up, someone would drop off the beat and the jam would take a new turn. It was impressive, musically, but disappointing from a fan’s perspective.
The jam ended as Trey serenaded the crowd with Sleeping Monkey, the only song to come out of the late-night set. The lights dimmed and the doors were replaced. The crowd, wanting more, continued to hum and sing Sleeping Monkey as it dispersed into the night.
I spent the remainder of the night dancing from shop to shop and wandering the campgrounds making friends. I returned to my site just in time to watch the sun rise with my neighbors and make an effort at an hour or two of sleep.
While a Phish festival may seem a far cry from a traditional 4th of July celebration, the word that best summed up Sunday’s festivities was certainly, “patriotic.” Phish fans have earned a stigma over the decades as a liberal, counter-culture bunch. As such, they are typically branded as apathetic subset of the population, atypical of the “ideal American.” This most likely has roots in the group’s predecessors, primarily the Grateful Dead, although there were others.
Some might love America for its military might and prowess. Some love capitalism and democracy. Others (like myself) cherish its freedom of speech. There are so many defining characteristics of this country, that a true patriot cannot possibly love every single one of them. In fact, many of them are in direct opposition with each other. Some may love our willingness to go to war while others love our freedom to protest for peace. Neither is more patriotic than the other.
Climbing off my soap box and returning to my original point, however: Phish’s crowd proved it was just as proud to be American on Sunday as any flag-waving, PBR-drinking, Toby Keith-listening, gun-toting, Palin-voting crowd in our great nation. And the band did everything they could to swell that pride.
After neglecting sleep on Saturday night, I spent most of the day Sunday resting in the shade. I missed out on the running of the bulls, which I heard was anticlimactic and downright silly. With my manna replenished by late afternoon I set out for the main stage around 6:00 p.m. to catch the weekend’s finale.
Sunday’s show opened with a Marley cover: Soul Shakedown Party, a song whose significance was lost on many of the younger concertgoers. Following AC/DC Bag and The Curtain was Colonel Forbin’s Ascent coupled with Fly Famous Mockingbird. Trey’s narration between the two songs was the first since the band reunited in 2009.
In the Super Ball narrative, Trey explained the meaning behind Saturday night’s Self Storage USA Jam. He told the story (all true according the guitarist) of the band’s last trip in theFinger Lakes, when their van broke down. They decided to store it in a Self Storage USA facility, but got trapped in the building in the process. Seeking a way to pass the time, they decided to do what they do best: make music.
Trey’s story derailed from there, but he ultimately concluded that their music became their reality and, thus, the entire Super Ball IX festival was simply a figment of their imagination and in reality, they are still trapped in a storage facility making music.
Sunday’s set break lasted over an hour, a period which was unbearable in the midst of the anticipation of the final set. I had been insistent about the Katy Perry cover mentioned earlier, and was eager to see if my obscure prediction would be accurate.
The second set opened with a rocking cover of AC/DC’s Big Balls, which interchanged an occasional lyric with “super balls.” Down with Disease followed, to the delight of many who had been waiting to hear it all weekend. Markedly absent from the set (and consequently the entire weekend) was You Enjoy Myself.
A surprising and incredibly played cover of Led Zeppelin’s No Quarter was next, succeeded by Party Time, Ghost, Gotta Jibboo, Light, a very trippy rendition of Waves, What’s the Use and a dance-along with Meatstick. Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan appeared to be the last number in the set, until all four men began to congregate at center stage. Roadies set up vocal mics and they performed barbershop quartet rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. The clocks had just struck midnight on Independence Day.
They returned shortly after for an perfectly placed encore of First Tube as fireworks exploded in the sky to the north. Once again, Kuroda was given a run for his money and fans seemed torn between the incredible lights on the stage and the beautiful explosives illuminating the sky. The band finished and walked off and the fireworks show continued for another ten minutes. Fans stood glued to the ground watching in amazement, most smiling from ear to ear.
“Why would you want to see the same band for three straight days?” my friend had asked me prior to the show. Upon reflection, I think I spent three straight days with friends talking, laughing, listening to music and, above all, celebrating the founding of our country. And where better to do all those things than at a Phish festival?