Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of Phish kicking off their ground-breaking first major festival, Clifford Ball. In honor of the occasion JamBase’s Scott Bernstein shared his tale from the start of the Plattsburgh, New York fest and today he tells the story of Clifford Ball’s finale.
After myself and 69,999 other Phish fans acclimated to our home for the weekend, a just-decommissioned Air Force Base south of Plattsburgh, we prepped for an early start on Saturday, August 17. On this date Phish would play their first of three sets in the mid-afternoon, yet another tradition the foursome would start on this weekend in 1996. Trey told Phish: The Biography author Parke Puterbaugh the idea for an afternoon set came from Jimi Hendrix. “A lot of his monumental concerts – Monterey, Woodstock, Rainbow Bridge, Isle of Wight – were at different times of the day,” Anastasio told Puterbaugh. “I wanted us to be able to play at all different times of the day at one concert to capture all those different moods.”
However, the afternoon set on the 17th was actually their second performance of the day. The band had boarded a flatbed truck in the middle of the night and jammed while the truck cruised around the campgrounds. Remember this was in the days before everyone had cell phones and I’ll admit, I didn’t even know the “Flatbed Truck Jam” took place until days later when I read about it on rec.music.phish. Gordon told Puterbaugh the set was his musical highlight of the weekend, as it approached his goal of “bridging the gap between playing music and dreaming.”
Phish’s afternoon set at the Clifford Ball started off with the subdued tones of bluegrass cover “The Old Home Place.” The band took it up a notch with “Punch You In The Eye” ahead of another marvelous Summer ’96 “Reba” with a peak that would foreshadow what lie ahead in the second set. Page McConnell showed off his new instrumental “Cars Trucks Buses” which was less than a year old at the time, before Phish played fan favorite “The Lizards” and staples “Sample In A Jar” and “Taste.” Trey went for his megaphone which we all knew meant it was time for “Fee.” The foursome then concluded their first afternoon festival set with a raging “Maze” and festive “Suzy Greenberg.” This was just the appetizer for what would soon follow.
The second set Phish played on August 17, 1996 was then and is still now one of my favorite sets of all-time. Outside of deep, “Type II” jamming this collection of eight songs has it all. 8/17/96 II is played to near perfection, filled with passion and sequenced in a way that tells an amazing story. I’d be remiss not to mention what happens at the start of the set. Trey steps to the mic and gives a shout out for a fan who was front row center for each show that tour. Who was that fan? Our very own Aaron “Neddy” Stein of RecommNeds fame.
Phish opened Set Two on the 17th with the always welcome “The Curtain.” On this night “The Curtain” gave way to a powerful “Runaway Jim.” The Clifford Ball marks one of the peaks for the band in terms of their tightness and raw power. Soon thereafter the band would take a turn towards the funk, but these shows and this set in particular is all about the rock played with a cohesiveness that came from 13 years of hard work, practicing and improvisational exercises. The interplay between the four members of Phish throughout the set is something to behold. “Runaway Jim’s” peak has teeth as Anastasio utilized a Univibe to perfection.
A killer “It’s Ice” came next complete with a dark and eerie jam we all wished would continue forever. While most of the songs in this set are all about powerful peaks, the mellow fashion in which they jam on “Ice” showed a different side of the group’s musicality. One of the biggest surprises of the weekend and the lone bust out of the Clifford Ball came next. Fishman started up the long-lost original “Brother” off the last note of “It’s Ice.” The return of “Brother” came 258 shows after the last version of the song which took place on August 2, 1993 in Tampa, Florida. Towards the middle of the song Phish brought out fellow Vermont icons Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, aka ice cream moguls Ben & Jerry to sing the chorus of “Brother.” It was a weird and extremely Phish-y moment that fit the vibe of the weekend so well.
A run of “Fluffhead” and “Run Like An Antelope” came next and each stands among the best straight-forward versions of all-time. Phish absolutely nails “Fluffhead” and Trey Anastasio rips the “Fluff’s Arrival” solo as if he’s playing for his life. On “Antelope,” the band was accompanied by a female aerialist who pulled off death-defying acrobatics as Phish jammed away. Anastasio was on fire and his jaw dropping shred-heavy work is a hallmark of each and every song of Clifford Ball’s penultimate set, but none moreso than on the “Slave To The Traffic Light” closer. The quartet fit impressive accents into each section of the song and any list of the best versions of all-time wouldn’t be worth its salt if it didn’t include the Clifford Ball “Slave.” All four members played with such emotion as they worked through one of their earliest songs. It was a fitting ending to one of the best sets in Phish history. For me, this is Desert Island Phish as if I could bring a recording of just one set with me to a desert island it would be 8/17/96 II.
The third set and encore were almost anti-climactic after what we had witnessed earlier in the day. “Wilson” gave 70,000 fans a chance to scream at the top of their lungs and featured a cool little jam on Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker.” A cover of Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein” came next and was followed by a “Scent Of A Mule” that included a rare Page/Fish duel instead of the usual Trey/Page antics. Then, huge trampolines were brought out with one on each side of the stage. Acrobats pulled off wild moves during the wild, Trey-led “Tweezer.” The peak of “Tweezer” was similar to many of the climaxes in the second set, just jaw-dropping, shred-heavy soloing from Anastasio. A cover of The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life” came after “Tweezer” and led into the set-closing “Possum” > “Tweezer Reprise” pairing.
Phish’s Clifford Ball didn’t go off without any hitches. The screwed up timing of a stunt plane during the “Harpua” that served as encore left many fans confused, especially as the band walked off without finishing the song. Indeed Phish would actually conclude the “Harpua” one year later to start their second festival, The Great Went. Regardless of the “Harpua” snafu it was a fantastic weekend that paved the way for the festival scene that would follow. Both band and fans alike had the time of their lives with Anastasio telling Parke Puterbaugh a few weeks later, “It felt like so much more than just a big concert with 70,000 people. It felt like some kind of exciting new thing. We did as much of it as we could, but most of the feeling came from the way people were. That’s the part I couldn’t have anticipated and that just kept blowing me away.”
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