By: Brian Bavosa
The Clifford Ball. Named after an airplane pilot that the band had seen memorialized on a plaque in the Pittsburgh Airport a few years earlier, what it would eventually become was something that words, or even the recently released, 7-DVD boxed set (released March 3 on RhinoRecords), can truly express. This magical weekend defined, or at least forever changed, the model and the way that we view and experience jam-oriented music festivals today. It was a weekend that saw a single act, a single vibe and a new way of looking at things in the world of Phish, that helped spawn the thoughts years later for each aspiring Phish festival, as well as the now behemoth Bonnaroo and countless other spin-offs. Phish have always been considered pioneers in their craft - both musically and artistically - but The Clifford Ball absolutely changed things - for themselves and for fans - forever.
A warm, vibrantly packaged box houses the 7-DVD set. The first six discs show complete, multi-angle footage of the six sets of music played the weekend of August 16 & 17, 1996 at the decommissioned Plattsburgh Air Force Base in Upstate New York, while the seventh includes a secret set on a Flatbed Truck played at 3 a.m., the August 15th soundcheck, as well as a slew of interviews and other choice nuggets (no pun intended). A separate envelope is stuffed full with photographs by longtime collaborator Danny Clinch and a complete postcard set with stamps, and the set is rounded out by a dizzying introduction booklet with rare photos and a spot-on recap by Rolling Stone contributor (and author of the upcoming book, Phish: The Biography), Parke Puterbaugh, who does a superb job of recalling the lightness and ease one felt this weekend, comparing it to "Shangri-La" from James Hilton's classic novel Lost Horizon. It's easy to say that this is the most complete effort not only to pay tribute to The Clifford Ball - the one that changed them all - but also anything Phish has marketed up till this point in their careers. (One can only hope for a Big Cypress release this upcoming December to coincide with the ten-year anniversary.)
The DVDs speak for themselves: remastered, pristine sounding and shot from multiple angles, they capture the vibe that the band - Trey Anastasio (guitar), Mike Gordon (bass), Page McConnell (keys) and Jon Fishman (drums) -created, felt and drew inspiration from on this absolutely surreal weekend. Disc One opens with such chestnuts as "Chalkdust Torture" and "Bathtub Gin," which showcases McConnell's sprawling digits working their magic over the ivory, as well as a late-set "The Divided Sky," which seen from one camera angle has the eastern sky dark just after sunset, while the western portion remains light. Those were the kinds of moments this weekend seemed to produce - magical, breathtaking, new feelings of a world that had been created just for us. And the music was fucking spot on from start to finish.
While '96 is often brushed over in the bands career due to being sandwiched in between the mega-arena-rock-monster of '95, and the birth of "white-boy-cow-funk" in '97, '96 was a shorter, albeit sweeter treat, especially that summer. A quick, eleven show tour, with the final two being The Ball, showcased all sides of Phish, as witnessed on Disc Two's monstrous numbers: "Split Open and Melt," a mini-acoustic set on a small, Shakespearean, stage-within-a-stage, and behemoth closing combo of "Mike's Song > Simple > Contact > Weekapaug Groove." Disc Three closes out night one with a tremendously triumphant "Harry Hood" and fireworks jam and display, before sweetly swooning all to sleep with an a-cappella encore of "Amazing Grace," a nod to the amazing Day One at The Ball.
Day Two saw not only three more sets of Phish but also an afternoon treat of The Clifford Ball Orchestra playing some of Trey's favorite classical pieces after the band's late afternoon set. However, the heart of The Clifford Ball, and making of Phish lore and legend lies within Day Two's second set. Often regarded as THE best set the band ever played (a fucking gigantic statement), Disc Five captures each and every ounce of their harnessed magic in all of its glory. Opening with a splendid "The Curtain > Runaway Jim" combo, it was instantaneously clear that the band - who had created a fairy-tale land, undetected by the national press - was truly enjoying themselves and tapping into a collective vibe that was never before felt in their history. Toss in the bust-out of "Brother," with vocal help from fellow Vermonters and ice cream kings, Ben & Jerry, the now-legendary versions of "Fluffhead," "Run Like an Antelope" and the magnificent "Slave to the Traffic Light," and it's clear Phish had not missed a single note and truly transcended into sublime territory.
The final musical disc features the icing on the cake, including more staples such as "Wilson" (complete with a "Heartbreaker" nod), "Tweezer" (with aerial acrobats on skis and snowboards bouncing on gigantic trampolines on the sides of the stage), a very appropriate "A Day in the Life" cover and a half finished, ultra-rare treat of "Harpua" for the encore (always thinking ahead, the band finished this tune at their next festival, The Great Went, exactly one year later). Phish had redefined life and the modern day music festival in a single weekend. While the logistics were planned, the results of The Clifford Ball could not be seen or measured in scope and importance - both to Phish and their fans - until now with this amazingly well put-together, vibrant celebration and complete snapshot of one of the turning points in Phish's career.
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