Twenty Years Later: Phish Preps For Their Own ‘Clifford Ball’ With Soundcheck
On August 16 and 17, 1996 Phish broke new ground and kicked off a festival renaissance that continues today by throwing the Clifford Ball festival at Plattsburgh Air Force Base in Plattsburgh, New York. Phish drew 70,000 to the far Northeast corner of New York State, which was the largest rock concert in the U.S. held in 1996. The band had watched their fanbase expand exponentially over the past few years and created a safe and inventive place to host their fans for one weekend in August of 1996, complete with art installations, carnival rides, a variety of food and drink options and of course six sets of music. Journalist/author Jesse Jarnow did a masterful job explaining the importance of Clifford Ball and other Phish festivals on the modern festival scene for Pitchfork, but before Phish opened the gates of the concert grounds to their fans, they played a soundcheck on the night of the 15th.
Many fans had already arrived at Plattsburgh AFB on the 15th and when they heard music coming from the main stage, a mass of attendees headed towards the concert grounds. Alas, Phish was prepared for the situation and a team of security officers on horseback kept festivalgoers at bay. However, we could still hear the music the foursome was playing. In a tradition that has continued through the band’s most recent festival, Magnaball, some of the best improvisation of the weekend came during the soundcheck.
Phish’s Clifford Ball soundcheck featured four distinct jams. The first one was a dark and twisted affair that spanned about ten minutes. Band members then discussed a pattern they had settled into during “Julius” the previous evening and how they are trying to avoid repetitive patterns. It’s an interesting look into Phish’s mindset at this point of their career. Phish then jammed on Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up,” a song the band traditionally uses to introduce a Jon Fishman-sung song. On this night Trey stayed on guitar as they presented an instrumental take on “HYHU,” which at points sounded like “Tweezer Reprise.”
Following the “Hold Your Head Up” jam, Trey played a lick the band used as the basis for the soundcheck’s third jam. This piece of improv was more delicate and featured impressive contributions from all four members. The last jam of the soundcheck was the money shot, 30+ minutes of improvisational wizardry. Phish explored vast musical terrain over the course of a jam that included shout outs to various vendors such as “Mr. Sausage” and those serving up Italian Ice as well as festival staff and the event’s radio station. Towards the end of the jam Trey headed over to his mini drum kit, allowing Page McConnell to lead the improv.
In 2009 Phish released a wonderful video/audio package documenting Clifford Ball and part of the package was footage from the festival’s soundcheck: