A Beacon of Light

cliffordLost 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.


"Ball Square" (Todd Wickesty)

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.


The Clifford Ball

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.

phish-clifford-ball-96-1A 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!





8.16.96 The Clifford Ball SBD < LINK

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.

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46 Responses to “A Beacon of Light”

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  1. Tadcaster Says:

    This weekend was a life-changer for me. I’m very excited for the DVD.

    Surprisingly tough to find nuggets at the Ball. Did anyone else find it dry where they were camping?

  2. dvsgel Says:

    The Divided Sky pause with the sun perfectly divided on the horizon was one of the most incredible/memorable Phish events I’ve been a part of. Can’t wait to see how that was captured on the DVD.

  3. Matso Says:

    I remember walking out onto the concert grounds and being absolutely overwhelmed by the sheer size of it and by the massive crowd which was filling in on all sides. It was clear from the previous year at Sugarbush (with all of the people jumping the fences) that the band needed to find a bigger venue or context for its end of summer party.

    But I was a bit shocked by just how much bigger it was all getting and by how far away the band was going to be when they finally took to the stage. Could Phish still bring the atmosphere of its more intimate venues to this open-ended field under such an enormous limitless sky? How would we follow along? Might not all those precious notes and that killer vibe get lost in all that space?

    My concerns were answered quickly. The Chalkdust was a bit disorienting: the sound was still a bit muddy at first, I didn’t know whether to look at the stage or the plasmatron, and there was just so much going in every direction I looked. But then came the Bathtub: I was still warming up and a bit distracted. And then, almost imperceptibly, I found myself coming to and waking up to the music.

    And it was good. So good it almost hurt.

    All of sudden it was the Hose. And it wasn’t just 1,000 or 15,000 or 25,000 people getting off – it was 70,000 people getting off. In a post about the first night at Denver 97, you mentioned how afterwards your buddy said that he’d never felt energy like that from a room before. I think I could say I shared a similar feeling once the Clifford Ball got going.

    From there on, it just got better and better (the 2001>Disease was so damn sweet) until I had an out-of-body experience during the second set the next night, which remains one of the single best sets I’ve ever experienced (During the Jim, I remember I had this yokel running on the spot next to me for the whole thing with the biggest shit-eating grin I’ve ever seen. Damn if that didn’t put a smile on my face too!)

    If 12/29 is the Phishiest night of the year, then Day 2 Set 2 of any Fest may be the Phishiest set of the year – see Went, Lemonwheel, Oswego, Big Cypress (!), and IT for further evidence.

    Shame about the Harpua, but there so much else to process and be happy about, it was a minor blemish on an otherwise perfect 2 days.

  4. A.Hill Says:

    ” the weekend served as a colossal decompression tank, akin to a real-life “choose-your-own-adventure” book”

    Love this line.

    The Ball was my 3rd show. I was 16 and as much as it was all down hill after my 1st show, The Clifford Ball was my first real introduction to the world surrounding Phish. The other 2 shows I had attended were pretty much in-and-out experiences whereas the Ball afforded me time to to really soak in the non-musical aspects of seeing a Phish show. So in that aspect it was a huge game changer for me in addition to how it wsa the impetus for the festival culture thast is so rampant today. Man, I love the Phish!!!

  5. wharpua Says:

    I know that I may catch some flak for this, but I think that Great Northeast Productions deserves a lot more credit for the role that they played in establishing and producing *all* of the Phish festivals.

    To say “The band had created an experience… something groundbreaking in the music industry… creating a brand new festival model.” Well, the band had a whole lot of help in order to do so.

    The grief people gave them following Coventry is a whole different discussion that I don’t think anyone would like to revisit any time soon, but Great Northeast is still deserving of all our thanks for being the ones to implement the band’s vision several times over.

  6. bhizzle Says:

    dvsgel – the “Divided Sky”! One of my memories from the Ball. The most significant memory was getting there and just trying to process the enormity of it and all the extra curricular events and spaces the Ball provided. I had never been to anything like that at all, ever before. But the coolest was how not once did I ever witness a bit of negativity amongst the masses. Everyone, from my experence, was all getting down and made an effort to encourage everyone else to get down. I think the only thing “bad” I saw was some dude bouncing his face off a bumber of a car after sucking down a balloon. Which leads me to another fond memory, I believe this was going down at the same time the band was on the flatbed (never witnessed), dowing Tequila Sunrises, one after another with my compadres. I loved hearing the Contact in the playground roasting jibs. Also leaving at the end of the festival, bombing throught the grass knolls and depressions, making a mad dash for the exit in the rented minivan. There are so many memories to share – ridiculous! Nothing can compare.

    Tadcaster – never had a problem with being “dry”, but never really had to look – minus balloons.

  7. John Campion Says:

    almost didn’t make it up for this event. but a backup ride came along thankfully! anyway, this was my first exposure to a giant concert. i think it was my 7th or 8th phish show at the time. loved every single thing about it….the freedom, the nice people, the little corner store. thankfully, every fest after this (went,wheel,oswego etc) the porta-potties got cleaner and cleaner. The ball potties were a toxic mess! haha
    can’t wait to spend the day with my phish buddies and watch this dvd from start to finish.
    enjoy it everyone!

  8. RebaReba Says:

    And this is why “The ‘roo” is completely unnecessary.

  9. camman Says:

    this was the first show i ever heard, i still love it!. such a good Hood to close the first day…

  10. gphisher Says:

    The ball was the best multi day show I’ve gone to. Great weather, nice location. This was the first real “festival” for most of the folks there. The dead might have played shows this big but they didnt play an extra set or do the cool non-musical things that made the ball groundbreaking. I remember seeing all kinds of military planes flying overhead all weekend and joking that the Air Force wanted their base back. I also remeber the crickets, tons of them.
    The funniest moment of the weekend came as I was setting up my tent, (most of the poles were missing), I kicked the thing and swore at it only to look up and see Gordon going by on a golf cart. He stopped and asked if I was ok. Great weekend of music, very glad that they’re releasing the whole thing.

  11. Jaime Says:

    Evan Dando!

    Anyone remember what else was written on the banners flying overhead that weekend?


    has anyone seen the MTV clifford ball special? Remember that scene with the guy freaking out and being carried away strapped down to a board? I know that guy! He’s a friend of mine. He told me that he ate way too many hydro shrooms and lost his shit. He went right up front and jumped over the baracade in front of the stage. He said he remembers a security guy taking a swing at him, so he fought back. Then he remembers waking up in the med tent with an IV in his arm. Said they were totally cool and realized he was having a bad trip. Its pretty funny cause i saw the MTV special before i even met him. Then when he told me he was that guy we had a good laugh.

    “One BALL to rule them all’ — gandolph the wizzard


    ^^^ excellent statement reba. Nothing beats a solo phish festival…..nothing.

  14. In Flagrante Delicto Says:

    This was show number 3 for me, although I was OCD into Maxell II’s by then. I was 18.

    Three memories I’ll never forget.

    1. Running in on day one and ending up about 5 rows from the stage, still right around the closest I’ve seen the band in 70 plus shows. I made a brief appearance on the PBS or MTV special that ran soon after the event, and I’m wondering if I’ll be visible on the DVD. (Does anyone know if this is the same footage? I think I have a VHS of that around somewhere.) Turning around during the break in the Divided Sky, and seeing 70,000 people behind me pause, scream, and then start rippling like waves when Trey hit The Note.

    2. Day two was the first time the peanut butter hit the jelly for me, to use Minor’s term from his 100 things he loves about Phish. I did it like Fishman. Woke up in the tent, imbibed, went back to sleep, and woke up again to a new world.

    3. In the ensuing confusion, I locked my keys in the car. In one of those fortuitous things that just happens under such circumstances, I was able to get a tow truck to my spot on the airstrip who jimmeyed the door to my 1987 Mazda 626 in less than 30 minutes. While very much appreciated, I was pretty much incapable of communication when he asked for $50, so he just shook his head and drove off.

    I also think that I saw Yonder Mountain String Band play a show outside a Winnebago at 3 am, but I also think it was before they formed the band, or that may have been another Phish festival. Anyone know if those guys were there?

    Minor, once again, great post and keep it up.

  15. shpongleyez Says:

    My first show(s). The Divided hooked me, with a helping hand from Suzie Greenberg.

    It wasn’t until a few months later in listening to a Harpua that I realized what I’d missed at the end of night 2. Finishing it at the Went was awesome.

    Wooooo! Bring back the Phish-only festies!

  16. lanser Says:

    summer 96. we did the full pull that summer. not a major feet because there were not that many shows. but anyway by the time we got to the ball i had one pair of shorts that were duct taped together, no socks, and no money. so it was a little rough. but i ground scored a twenty after first night. and got some much needed sustenance (a mountain dew and a grilled cheese) it was
    on from there. “a beacon of light in the world of flight” sure was! oh yeah remember how i said i had no socks? well my feet stunk so bad that i had to ride in the back of the pick up truck all the way back to iowa. no small feet in it’s self:) oh to be 22 again. thank you mr. miner.

  17. Jeff Says:

    How can I get the Orchestra set? Someone should post it on etree!

  18. Jerrydamule Says:

    I have made comments about the cliffie in response to an earlier posting by M2, but this “coming-of-age” weekend deserves some additional love. With phish throwing down the gauntlet, our crew thought we would, too. The shows were epic, the scene unrivaled (athough I still say camping on the mountain at ’94 bush was surreal). When the 3rd sets ended, we trekked back to our oasis – a disco tent complete with spinning disco balls, lights, smoke machine, PA system, blender drinks, kegs, etc. – it was pure mayhem. The essence of our effort in creating this makeshift utopia was, in retrospect, a nod of gratitude towards phish, for providing us the vessel to navigate musically unchartered waters and the landscape to pioneer never-before-seen after-parties.

    My compliments to the chef for serving up night one’s SBD, when a serious amount of salad tossing took place. No doubt it will tie us over until the official release.

  19. John Campion Says:

    hahaha i remember that MTV special and the tripped out guy. felt bad for him but glad he woke up and was taken care of in the med tent. i have a dvd of the set with antelope and the trapeze girl. sick sick sick

  20. lanser Says:

    anyone else around the gigantic guy screaming “I kill phish” and running around in a circle? we were way up there by the first stack. he cleared a space the size of a basketball court in about 45 seconds. unreal!!!!!

  21. lanser Says:

    took like 10 dudes to bring him down^^^

  22. Mr.Miner Says:

    ^^ bizarre!

  23. G-Man Says:

    My first exposure to Phish was Deer Creek that summer. My friend Evan had extras and dragged me along as a driving partner. When he dropped me off at home to continue the tour (culminating in The Ball) I could not stop thinking about the Phish experience and felt left behind. After 1 day of deliberating, I called in sick, packed my car, and drove to Plattsburgh with no ticket and no clue. I parked, walked in, got a face value ticket in like 5 minutes and headed towards the stage area. I sat down in a dry patch to await the start of the show when I noticed my friend Evan just 2 groups of people in front of me. He had no idea that I would be there and acted like it was no big deal that we just happend to run into each other in a crowd of 70,000, as if things like that are normal in the Phish pond. He said something like “I was wondering if you would come” and that was it.

  24. camman Says:


    Thank you for giving ’96 some love!!!!!!!! sandwished between the mammoth years of ’95 and ’97 i feel ’96 is overlooked far too often…

  25. Mr.Miner Says:

    ^^ agreed! That’s why I wrote this: http://phishthoughts.com/2008/09/16/1996-the-forgotten-year/

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