Twenty Years Later: Phish Kicks Off First Major Festival Clifford Ball

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It’s just about 8 p.m. on Friday, August 16, 1996 and after weeks of preparation and tons of hype I’m standing amongst 70,000 fellow Phish fans at the Plattsburgh Air Force Base in Plattsburgh, New York watching in amazement as the foursome rolls through “Divided Sky.” This was a peak moment for band and fans alike, Phish was in the middle of the first set of their first major festival, Clifford Ball which wound up being the biggest North American concert of 1996. Everywhere you looked was a mass of humanity and a Ferris Wheel and crazy artwork. We’re talking a Disneyland of sorts for Phish fans and I couldn’t help but sport a huge smile as I took in this memorable experience with some of my best friends.

When I first saw Phish at the Beacon Theatre in New York City a few years prior, I came up with a few predictions about the band. 1. They would become so big, they’d move beyond traditional venues and 2. Phish wouldn’t tour until a band member died, they would call it a career as they were at their peak. While prediction two almost came true with the announcement of a 2004 breakup that lasted for five years, the first prediction was indeed true as Phish wound up welcoming 70K to the far reaches of upstate New York for Clifford Ball and would bring similar numbers to the Northeast corner of the U.S. in Limestone, Maine for the Great Went in 1997, the Lemonwheel in 1998 and It in 2003. Then there’s 85K who traveled to a swamp in the middle of Florida for their Big Cypress Millennium celebration at the end of 1999.

But before Big Cypress, before Lemonwheel and before The Great Went there was Clifford Ball. Myself and the others who attended the first major Phish festival had no idea what to expect. The Plattsburgh Air Force Base had never hosted a concert before and there had never been a one-band festival of this size and stature. Driving up I-87 towards Plattsburgh thoughts were racing through my mind about what to expect. As soon as I parked and assembled with my friends at our campsite, it became clear this would be a weekend like none other. The feeling of walking around and seeing music lovers from around the country who loved this band as much as I did was one I’ll never forget. Then, there was the concert area itself.

When I first walked into the huge field where the concerts were held it was like the scene in The Wizard Of Oz when everything went from black-and-white to color. The vibe was incredible, a celebratory feel in which we were all in this together. I was struck by the scale of the site as the concert grounds and campgrounds were massive. Clifford Ball was so big there were some friends I planned to meet that I never ran into. These were the days before everyone had cell phones and one of the few ways to find your friends was through a large board in the middle of Ball Square that fans could stick index cards to with messages. Speaking of Ball Square, the central village of the festival was a sight to behold. Again, this was before Bonnaroo, before Outside Lands and the hundreds of other festivals that sprung up in the wake of Clifford Ball. Ball Square featured a general store, an information booth, the aforementioned Ferris Wheel and all sorts of art installations. One could spend hours walking around the village Phish had created.

Phish opened the festival with a nod to their past. “Chalk Dust Torture” kicked off the eight-song first set on the 16th and would be the newest tune they played that whole set. Straight-forward but triumphant versions of “Bathtub Gin,” “AC/DC Bag” and “Halley’s Comet” were among the songs performed and then there’s that “Divided Sky.” It was just the perfect and most fitting song of the weekend. As I scanned the area around me I traded knowing glances with those I’d never met before but shared a massive love of Phish with. The crowd at Clifford Ball was four times the size of the county where the concerts were held, Clinton County and for that weekend Phish fans created the ninth biggest city in New York.

If the first set was a nod the band’s past, the second set looked towards its future. Phish played a number of songs debuted within the past 18 months including a sequence of “Waste,” “Talk,” “Train Song” and “Strange Design” performed acoustically on a mini-stage. A fun “Mike’s Groove” segment featuring “Simple” and “Contact” within brought the day’s second of three sets to a close. One of the aspects I loved of the festival was the ability to head to my campsite in between sets. It was so much fun to meet up with my crew and discuss what we had just witnessed before returning to the concert grounds for yet another set. I was having a little too much fun that I was caught by surprise when I heard the sounds of “Makisupa Policeman” coming from the stage while I was still at my campsite. I hauled ass back just in time for the “2001” and raging “Down With Disease” that followed. The “Disease” was the improvisational highlight of the evening. “Down With Disease” was just 15 minutes of balls to the wall Phish with all four members playing their hearts out. It wasn’t adventurous, but it was blazing. Up next was the first “N.I.C.U.” of the U.S. Summer Tour, a cover of David Bowie’s “Life On Mars?” and a beautiful “Harry Hood.” As a full fireworks show went off during “Harry Hood” and Phish provided a soundtrack for the mind-blowing visuals, I realized I was in pain. My face hurt from smiling for six hours. I retired to my camp site and enjoyed the company of my friends and the many new friends we had met over the past 24 hours. Clifford Ball was already a massive success and there was still one day to go.

Come back tomorrow for a remembrance of the second and final day of Phish’s Clifford Ball.

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