Lost amidst the excitement of last week’s summer tour announcement was the Dry Goods preview of the long-awaited release of a seven DVD box set chronicling The Clifford Ball, the band’s inaugural Phish-only mega-festival in 1996. After staging seven larger-than-life weekends, all begging for their own DVD release, the band is finally dropping a long-overdue audio-visual treat. This box set will recap every single note played that weekend in Plattsburgh, NY, including a disc of extra footage of the late-night “Flatbed Jam,” a thirty minute mini-feature with band interviews, an interview with artist Jim Pollack, August 15th’s 90-minute soundcheck and more. Needless to say, this will be special trip down memory lane for all who attended and a glimpse into the weekend that started it all for those who didn’t. A weekend highly deserving of recognition, the Phish community would never be the same afterwards.
The Clifford Ball was a game changer. As Trey said in Billboard Magazine in September of 1996, “We realized that there is another whole level of concerts that hasn’t been explored yet.” Needless to say, Phish pioneered that exploration. Never before had a single band staged a festival of such magnitude all by itself. What Phish presented to its fan base on the weekend of August 16-17 of 1996 was something far more than a concert. From the moment of arrival, fans were given site maps and greeted with an interactive experience that transcended music. As the 70,000 fans explored the fantastical psychedelic playground, they were greeted with bizarre performers mingling about, art installations, human gyroscopes, and several carnival rides and activities. This was a 24-hour experience, and there would only be less than six hours of Phish per day.
With a mid-day orchestral performance coupled with a glider plane’s graceful stunts, Ball Square, the festival’s center of activity, snowboarders ripping high-flying stunts on trampolines during “Tweezer,” and a risque trapeze act by a female acrobat during Antelope, the entire festival seemed as imaginary, hallucinatory, and improvisational as Phish’s music itself. The band had created an experience– a mini-civilization– that mirrored the values and freedom of their transcendent jams. There was a constant sense of disbelief throughout the weekend that emanated from the band and audience alike; we had discovered a new way to do things and the results were other-worldly. Complete with its own “Ball Radio” station delving into the archives and giving reports on the weekend’s happenings, The Clifford Ball was truly something groundbreaking in the music industry. With the super-saturation of summertime festivals these days, it is hard to remember back to a time when they were few and far between. As they consistently did with their music, Phish pushed the envelope of what was possible in a live music experience, creating a brand new festival model.
It wasn’t just the various forms of entertainment that made The Clifford Ball so unique, it was the emerging sense of the Phish community that permeated the weekend. Collecting the diverse energies of Phish’s unique fans and allowing that energy to guide the festival; when the shows were over the all-night fun was just beginning! Meandering down the endless airstrips after the shows, one was greeted with a selection of dance parties featuring different types of music, all being spun by fans. There was nothing official here, just the Phish community going off in the way they knew best. Between the disco trucks and the large PA’s set up by smaller bands, the conclusion of the official music only meant the beginning of the non-official madness. This is when the fans took over, putting on their own impromptu all-night events. This pattern would be built upon throughout the band’s career, as fans continued to play a larger role in the late-night entertainment over subsequent festivals.
A weekend that would forever change the face of Phish’s summer celebrations, The Clifford Ball was a revelation. Once you arrived, you didn’t have to go anywhere for the entire weekend. Cars were parked and not revisited until it was time to leave. Everything you needed was provided. From food vendors, to ice trucks, to the 24-hour general store, this was the way to throw a party! As the final notes of “Tweezer Reprise” blared through the speaker towers closing the final set of the weekend, everyone knew that the community had arrived. Awestruck by the massive Phish experience, fans floated on cloud nine, not believing what they had just witnessed. The Ball was a weekend-long lucid dream; it was heaven and you could control your destiny. With no next show to get to and ultimate freedom from authorities, the weekend served as a colossal decompression tank, akin to a real-life “choose-your-own-adventure” book.
After this August weekend, the paradigm had forever shifted. Soon Phish found Limestone, ME, and our own sacred decommissioned air force base, to continue this summertime tradition. Next came The Went, and then The Wheel. Oswego, Big Cypress, IT, and Coventry would follow, but none of these indelible memories would have come to fruition had it not been for The Clifford Ball– “A beacon of light in the world of flight.”
What are your memories of The Clifford Ball? Respond in Comments below!
DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY:
Here’s the phenomenal soundtrack to the first Phish festival day ever. With a stellar three set performance, The Clifford Ball was off and running, blazing a new path of how to throw a concert. All three sets were crafted masterfully, while the second and third were especially sick, featuring a monster Mike’s Groove and 2001 > Disease, respectfully. This day was properly capped with a spirited rendition of “Harry Hood,” affirming that everything in the universe was indeed as perfect as it seemed
I: Chalk Dust Torture, Bathtub Gin, Ya Mar, AC/DC Bag, Esther, The Divided Sky, Halley’s Comet, David Bowie
II: Split Open and Melt, Sparkle, Free, The Squirming Coil, Waste**, Talk**, Train Song**, Strange Design**, Hello My Baby, Mike’s Song > Simple > Contact > Weekapaug Groove
III: Makisupa Policeman, Also Sprach Zarathustra > Down With Disease, NICU, Life on Mars, Harry Hood#
E: Amazing Grace
**Acoustic mini-stage. #With fireworks.