Sometimes you have to look on the bright side, and sometimes the bright side is all around you. As soon as our crew parked our cars and started setting up camp, it was apparent that we’d been directed right to the perfect spot. Plentiful space, cool neighbors, nearby showers and water spigot, and most shockingly, an actual restroom facility right across the path. For a second time this summer, I found myself at a festival with most of the usual festival bullshit stripped away. There weren’t even any long beer lines at Magnaball.
Following an hour or so wait, we had parked our cars on a shaded, grassy slope around 3 p.m. on Thursday and got our tents up just before the next round of showers. Speculation concerning soundcheck began, and after less than an hour of tent-dwelling, we heard the rumble of amplified...something. We couldn't make out what song, but it had to be Phish. We made our way to the fence surrounding the concert grounds and grooved in the light rain to the lengthy freeform improvisation, which wasn't as loud as we would've preferred but still sounded like easily one of the best jams of the year. This boded well.
The rain tapered off within an hour or two. We explored what would be our world for the next four nights. I gazed expectantly at the stage. There's festival Phish, and then there's Phish-festival Phish, polar opposites of each other. Magnaball was my first Phish festival, because, well, what can I say, I'm an idiot. I've listened to them all, though, and going back to the very first one back in 1996 they showcase the band at its very best for the year (with the exception of Coventry and maybe Oswego). I imagined the Phish of The Great Went and Big Cypress and It and even Super Ball IX blasting forth from that stage and got chills. Even empty and dark, it looked like a monument of formidable power.
Surveying the grounds, we discovered tons of food options and craft beers, a Ferris wheel, the Glurt Institute and Laboratory (an assortment of art/drug-enhancement installations we never quite got around to exploring), and of course, the merch and record tents, where some fans would spend almost as much time in line as watching Phish play. To the west of the stage area, there was a giant drive-in movie screen, above which were the glowing symbols: M Δ G N Δ B Δ L L (forever burned into my brain). Beginning at 10 p.m., we lucky early-arrivers could take in a few vintage sci-fi flicks, no vehicle required!
This was a no-brainer for a classic film buff such as myself. We decided to settle in for The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, having missed only a few minutes of the beginning. There were a couple of problems that arose quickly, though. For one thing, even though I knew I had no reason to be up early the next day, I was beginning to feel the pull of my first-shift internal clock. For another thing, several beers and no significant dinner were catching up with me in a rush. I knew only tacos could save me. I swore I'd seen a taco stand at some point, so off I wandered towards a cluster of food vendors.
It was too late. After twenty minutes of fruitless stumbling, I resorted to the most reasonable alternative I could see: a corndog. Pitifully, the search had drained my will to remain conscious. I'll have to find out what the beast looks like some other time. Tragically, I also missed First Men In The Moon and The Time Machine (the 1960 version), not to mention, um, Sullivan's Travels, which supposedly screened at 3:45 a.m. on Saturday. I'm assuming this was Mike's idea?
Friday's first set was scheduled for 7:30. The pleasantness of sleeping in, relaxing, and commiserating with friends who had since arrived can't be overstated. The farmers' market was fairly sparse, but we did find some tasty tiny pears and fresh-squeezed juice. Others fed the insatiable capitalist machine of Phish, Inc.; lines for merch were like nothing I've ever seen, worst on Friday but somewhat ridiculous every day. Phish 3.0 does indeed cater to well-to-do fans, making the Tour Life of the old days utterly implausible, cracking down on fan vendors, and creating high demand for expensive destination runs such as this one. Cash-strapped fans are lucky to get a show or two within driving distance unless they're in a major metropolis, so most attendees here didn't think twice about shelling out $70 for the limited-edition Rift vinyl even though half of them don't own a turntable. It was a sobering spectacle, not unlike the NFL in that if I could possibly tear myself away from a product so thrilling I'd boycott it on principle. Sadly, in both cases, I'm a junkie. And actually, Phish isn't nearly as evil as the NFL, let's be reasonable. It's more on the mindless consumerist fetishism of the fans than it is the fault of the band. But still.
The general idea amongst the folks I knew was to post up somewhere behind the rear speaker stack on Mike's side, but meeting up with anyone I didn't walk in with proved futile for most of the weekend, which was fine. With Phish above all other bands, I prefer to concentrate on the music and my own flailing appendages. As it turned out, though, directly in line with that stack was the ideal spot to enjoy these shows, as Mike was appropriately high in the mix on that side, and his playing was the driving force behind the rampant improv of the weekend.
I'd just seen my 50th Phish show a couple weeks prior to this. According to the statistical rabbit-hole at ihoz.com (where I've been nerding out since the 90s), the chances of my not having caught a "Simple" in that span were 0.1%. I used to enjoy the freakishness of this, but over the past few years, as Phish would periodically launch tour-highlight jams out of the song, I'd become perturbed. Gimme a break! Am I ever gonna see this damn song live? My Phishhead friends were all aware of this anomaly, so I felt a little psychic group-hug when Phish started the first set of the weekend with "Simple". It's silly, but it instantly made me feel, if there had been any doubt in my mind, that I was meant to be here.
It wasn't just my first "Simple", though. It was the first time Phish 3.0 has ever opened a show with a type-II jam. It could be merely a geeky curiosity; it certainly can't yet be called a turning point, but I'm calling it a statement of purpose.
The set was otherwise somewhat predictable for 2015, as in a few usual suspects (including yet another majestic "Roggae"), a few ultra-rarities ("Mock Song"? Seriously? And why in the name of Rutherford have they only done "The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday" three times now since they've returned from breaking up?) and a "Bathtub Gin" closer. Except the "Gin" turned out to be an all-timer, a glorious, buoyant 23-minute joyride the likes of which we haven't heard probably since 2003 or so. Commence enthusiastic yipping and yelping; one down, seven to go...
When Phish plays "Chalk Dust Torture" early in a second set, it is guaranteed to blast off these days, but Fish always seems to want that definitive hard ending even though Trey clearly abandons the outro for improv. On this night, Fish finally noticed and/or paid attention and ditched the ending. And the band proceeded to jam out basically every song of the set (okay, no, they didn't jam "Waste"). Even "Ghost", while not necessarily type-II, was more stretched and creative than it's been in a long time. But the kicker for me centered around "Harry Hood". It and "Dust" were basically the heroes of the fairly dismal year of 2014, so here they both were, highlights of an otherwise killer set, bookends of the first segment of it, and honestly it felt like a full set's complement of action already, except the "Hood" peak was pretty weak (very 2014ish actually). But to carry on with a decent jam out of "No Men In No Man's Land" and then cap the set with "Slave To The Traffic Light" was going way above and beyond what we're used to with this band. The monumental "Slave" climax was like the makeup for "Hood", as if they didn't want that big release so early in the set.
Saturday was slightly less relaxing, given that the first set was a mid-afternooner. Shower lines were unbearably long, but someone had rigged up a tarped bag-shower on a tree near the restroom, and that line was short. There wasn't any sun today to warm up bags of water, but several of us stepped into the freezer and got as clean as possible before heading to the grounds around 2. For the first time ever, I called the opener: "Divided Sky". (Everyone clap and cheer and be impressed.) It was a lovely, crisp rendition, kicking off a fairly typical first set, except Mike and Page each got two token songs, including "Mound" and "Army Of One", both of which had been played fairly regularly in 2013 and not since. Trey's "Scabbard" sounded more well-rehearsed than its debut Phish outing, but the jam everyone's clamoring for out of "Tube" never materialized. When "Run Like An Antelope" began, I probably suppressed a yawn; the song has become so scripted in the modern era, and there was no chance of a heater in broad daylight…whoops. Not only did the jam detour into a couple of unorthodox ideas, the peak pushed way past normalcy into searing chaos. It was the first legit 3.0 "Antelope" I've caught, suggesting that there may actually be hope for the damn song to be revitalized in the long run. Trey then had us all pose for a group photo and told us to go get some food before the main event.
Following about two hours of attempting to grill some sausages on an apparatus ill-designed for that purpose, we made it back to our spot on the lawn. "Wolfman's Brother" opening a second set, oh God is this gonna be the one?? No, but it crackled darkly, suggesting that this wasn't going to be a second first set, anyway. "Halley's Comet" seemed primed for takeoff, but it fizzled before getting off the ground. This was unusual for a modern set two, but I don't think anyone in the crowd was worried. From then on, this set was the stuff of dreams. "46 Days" was a deep, dynamic, multi-thematic piece that segued into an ebullient "Backwards Down The Number Line". Then came perhaps the most thrilling sequence of the weekend: Tweezerpants. See, "Tweezer" came on strong, but it ended too soon; who on Earth was ready for "Prince Caspian" at that point? Still, I recall feeling the warmth of the song rush over me, probably a buried memory from my very first Phish show, being able to latch onto "Caspian" as some tiny literary frame of reference for the otherwise bizarre and frightening shit that was going on in that show. It still feels good to belt it out and hear thousands of voices around me doing the same. But we needed more "Tweezer", we had to have it, and so did Trey, so as Fuckerpants bled out he snuck us right back into the previous jam, and this thing lifted us all off the ground. The raw power of the end of this jam was one of the most intense things I've ever experienced; I seriously didn't know Phish had this capacity any more. Our hands were raised towards the sky in awe. The energy loop between fan and band became this ludicrous rolling explosion of sound and goodwill, and when it finally ended, nothing was the same.
There was a weird moment during the second "Tweezer" jam where I felt overwhelmed by the wealth of incredible music we were experiencing. I almost felt like it was too much. Where was this before? What could possibly be left? Yet it kept coming. Third sets are usually tame victory laps, but not tonight. After "Meatstick" (which has opened the only two third sets I've ever seen), an epic "Blaze On", more dark, off-kilter movement, more of the old-school Mike/Trey mutual pursuit, no recycled, drab autopilot jamming but fresh, spontaneous shit. The creepy vibe seeped right into "Possum", then "Cities", and then joyous redemption in "Light" was short-lived as they kept searching and casting for new avenues of improv. I got stuck in my head wondering if we were ever going to get back home, whether this thing I've been chasing was a destination or an escape. I missed my wife. People around me were chatting mindlessly and I wanted to scream 'DO YOU PEOPLE EVEN LIKE PHISH??'
The moment passed. "Light" segued into the evilest "555" ever, and then we were home, "Wading In The Velvet Sea" and a song I truly hate, "Walls Of The Cave". Aha, reality! But knowing that a lot of folks love this tune and feeling Trey's cock-rock trip lash out across the field, it felt good anyway.
I confess that I was no longer fully equipped to dance as hard as usual for "Tweezer Reprise". I did my best. Some of my crew was on top of the Ferris wheel arc for that, which had to have been amazing. I was in need of somewhere to relax and begin processing everything I'd just taken in. I had those precious few minutes back at camp before we once again heard a rumble emanating from the concert grounds. Thank God we were so close!
Everyone knew there would be a secret set. Everyone knew it would be at the Drive-In. We had heard a rumor that it would start at 2, but it was more like 1 (I think?). It's funny that some kids actually complained afterwards because there were no songs. For me, for folks like me, the Drive-In set was basically Phish saying 'okay, you've suffered enough for the past few years, we know what you really crave and we're finally in a position to crush it, so here ya go.' I thought Tweezerpants was what I really wanted, but I'd forgotten about the possibility of this, like the soundcheck jam perfected, like The Siket Disc come back to life and diversified in fifty-some heavenly minutes of pure, dark, flowing improv. Everything and nothing.
I'll admit it did not. seem. real. I had to listen to it again to grasp it at all, to accept it for what it was. In real time it was like 'well, this can't be happening, 'cause if it is then I can't conceive of wanting anything more from this band ever again and there's still another show tomorrow.' Of course I'm not a believer in absolute reality anyway, so it was easy to bypass the concept altogether to get to the bliss of dwelling in the music. Time had no meaning and the weirdness all around me might as well have been in my head. In hindsight I kinda wish I'd gotten closer to watch the fractal visuals on the screen slowly revealing the band members, but it's not my style. I'm a listener first and a dancer second. I only use my eyes to write and watch movies.
I would challenge any Phish hater to listen to this set and dismiss it the way they dismiss whatever single dimension they judge Phish on, but what do I know. Fuck 'em.
We tried to check out the Laboratory after that, but most of the rooms were barricaded, and entering the herd to get on top of the thing looked really annoying. I wanted to stay up forever soaking in this particular afterglow, but the power yawns were upon me before long.
Sunday. Traditionally, church, although this year Fridays and Saturdays have frequently trumped Sundays. They could've literally urinated in my ears if that was the price for Saturday. The first set was very first-setty, although there were bright spots. "Buffalo Bill" meant I've now caught five of the past seven versions of this song, what the fuck. "Maze" was white-hot, made all the sweeter because some folks in my crew wanted to hear that song probably more than anything. "Stash" was fairly adventurous, though not on par with the very best versions of 3.0. "I Didn't Know" featured a lengthy list of thank-yous from Trey (as Henrietta sucked the love out of his being via vacuum cleaner), and let's just say tonight's tribute to Dickie Scotland was significantly less painful than Coventry's.
Only one set to go. Once again, I was yearning for "Piper", but my heart wasn't really in it this time. After all, with a few exceptions, the song has lost its luster in the modern era. And besides, this weekend wasn't like Alpine. It wasn't about the songs. When they're crushing everything, what difference does it make what songs they play?
Still, both "Down With Disease" and tour MVP "Twist" loomed (as well as, sadly, "Fuego"), making "Piper" seem unlikely. And following the requisite Disney ditty "Martian Monster" (mercifully light on DJ Leo's itchy trippizshort finger, actually, and relatively full-bodied in musical terms), "Disease" rose up. The song appears to have finally shrunk in stature after an undisputed reign as 3.0's lone consistently exciting vehicle; tonight's was quite possibly the best of the year, but still no monster (whoops). The magic lay in its ridiculously smooth segue into...
"Scents And Subtle Sounds". Here's a 2.0 song I thought was the most boring waste of time this side of "Two Versions Of Me" back in '03 and '04; it would always flutter skyward in the same linear, opiated fashion every time I caught it (back in the days when I didn't obsessively listen to nearly every show), yet a lot of older heads have been lamenting its scarcity in modern times. Beyond that, it has taken on new meaning recently as an unspoken dedication to a suddenly fallen fan, and that version, from Merriweather Post Pavilion a week prior, was one of the highlights of the entire tour. The strategy for playing it hasn't changed, really, but Phish's overall style has, so that now it's more collaborative and less bleary.
I have to admit I got choked up by the added weight of it, and the fact that they were playing it again so soon seemed like a statement. A wave of warmth came over me and I got caught up completely in the rising movement. It probably wasn't the massive payoff of the previous version, but it was staggeringly emotional all the same, and perfect for that moment.
Shit, maybe it is about the songs again.
As it faded out, my heart was sort of breaking because I wanted it to go on and on. But without a pause, Trey went into "What's The Use?". Aaaaand I lost it. He'd overtly teased it in "Chalk Dust" the first night, but I kept hearing hints of it all weekend, little moments within jams where I felt like it was being suggested, like they could slide into it at any moment. It might sound crazy, but I felt like Trey had "WTU" on his mind all weekend and had been waiting for the perfect moment to pull it out. This was that moment.
I can't explain why this song affects me so deeply. I think part of it is the knowledge that something so beautiful and fully-formed arose out of a studio jam session. Maybe it's the epitome of what I feel Phish's true calling is, spontaneously channeling the divine. More than that, I simply think it's one of the most spiritually moving pieces of music they've ever come up with. But there's no explanation for why I sobbed through this entire performance of it. It reminds me of the Ani DiFranco line: "Art is why I get up in the morning/But my definition ends there/Y'know, it doesn't seem fair/That I'm living for something I can't even define".
The song has two distinct movements. Tonight's version got so quiet in the transition between them, the crowd so enraptured, that it felt like if Trey didn't play that next note we were all going to tumble forward onto the ground. When he did, it was so delicate, so beautiful...I don't know what to say. I'm doing a horrible job of describing this. I don't know what happened but I know I'm not the only person who felt it. After all the crazy improv that had gone down over the course of these four nights, this was the most profound moment of Magnaball, and I'll be returning to it in my head for the rest of my life.
After a heartfelt "Dirt", there was only one thing left to do, which was dance like there was no tomorrow. I felt like my life depended on body movement. It was "Mike's Song", a blistering, echoplexed version that, at the last minute, it seriously sounded like Trey suddenly remembered how they used to go into the second jam! But he was the only one, and everybody else charged right on through the modern ending, and he inevitably went along with it. And believe it or not, folks, I gained a tiny bit of appreciation for "Fuego" on this night. Most of the lyrics are still godawful, but the line "Inside your fuego we keep it rolling" felt for the first time like a disarming tribute to the fans, and a way we could reflect the notion back at the band. Y'know, fine, fuck your book about Vlad The Impaler, fuck your Viking warriors with animal heads, but maybe some day I'll learn to not hate some more of the lyrics, who knows. Then, "Twist", which was a seriously goofy indulgence that briefly went into a swinging shuffle-blues at the drop of a hat, yet another something-extra that Phish was injecting into its songs all weekend long to put smiles on our faces.
After this, the thing ambled aimlessly for a minute before rocketing into an "Immigrant Song" jam (??) and segueing into "Weekapaug Groove", and to complete the double-decker sandwich, this segued back into "Martian Monster" to end the set. It was pretty clear we weren't getting a "Piper" encore. Everyone braced for "Loving Cup". I secretly hoped for "Highway To Hell". But no, it was…see, I'm getting misty-eyed typing this! Why?? I don't even get excited for "You Enjoy Myself" any more. But that's because I have this stodgy hangup in my head that it's 3.0 and the band can't play a proper YEM any more. And like I said, everything's different now. The last shreds of it's-not-the-same have fallen away. Even this curmudgeon can't cling to qualifiers any more. The bright side is all around us.
A part of me has been pining for 1995 for the past six years, even in the wake of the best 3.0 shows I've seen. I almost feel like it's an integrity thing now, like I'm betraying the greatness of 1.0, but I can't keep it up any more. The past is the past, and it's anyone's guess as to what the future will sound like, but the Phish that played Magnaball is one of the very best bands Phish has ever been. I've seen some great Phish shows over the years, but none of them were better than Magnaball. Thank you for getting to this point, Phish. Thank you for giving us more timeless music. Thank you for keeping this damn thing rolling even when some of us (ahem) almost completely lost faith that it would ever be this good again. Oh, and sorry about that…
One persnickety fan