Phish – SuperBall IX Videos, Photos & Review

Phish SuperBall IX, Watkins Glen, NY July1-3, 2011

Scorching versions of:

Bathtub Gin

Wolfman’s Brother

Crosseyed & Painless


What’s The Use?

Grab the rest at!


SuperBall IX marked Phish‘s triumphant return to the Northeast festival scene. Their first east coast event of this magnitude since the disastrous Coventry in 2004, the pressure was on for the band to deliver an epic and hassle-free experience. The Watkins Glen Speedway provided a unique and functional venue – I’ve never seen tour buses drag race before! Everything was done big and well planned for – there was easy access with no lineup entering the festival because there were 6 active gates and a well staffed and organized (if thorough) search and parking process. There was free water, even deep into the concert field, and they made a real effort to make it a well-oiled and fan-friendly event, something really hard with such a massive gathering.

They opened with a bang, a great first set that included the nasty versions of “Bathtub Gin” and “Wolfman’s Brother” included above.. Well executed with some great jams and a lot of energy, the set declared their intentions for the weekend and got everyone on the level. As “Tube” started, hundreds of beach balls of all sizes poured out and bounced around the crowd. It was the most balls I’ve ever seen in one place.

Ball Square was the interactive art installation designed by Lars Fisk and Russ Bennett that greeted us as we entered the concert field. It was made up of miniature versions of buildings like a factory, storage unit and office building, that we could walk through and hang out in. There was a man-sized hamster wheel shown below and several artists creating as the festival went on – one was branding a gigantic piece of wood with hot irons of different shapes and gradually wrapping around it. A team was painting huge sheets of fabric and hanging them in a growing wall of artwork. There were strange structures and statues, creating a surreal atmosphere to adventure in.

At first it struck me as unimaginative to recreate mundane buildings from the real world when you have the ability and budget to build fantastic futuristic pods or a giant whale to walk into or something. But it is Fisk‘s style to take the familiar and put a strange twist on it; he has stayed true to that in some way in all his work for Phish. In a way, he creates an effect stranger than something completely alien would, because his settings feel like a warped version of reality, believable yet bizarre, evoking our normal expectations and then surprising them with changes in proportion, placement and color. It felt like a movie set, a playground of facades that won me over when it really came to life..

I love people-watching at these places, its one of the best parts of the show. My initial observation was that the crowd was a bunch of young preppie kids and aging dorks. There were far fewer dreadlocks and hardcore wooks than I remembered being on Phish tour, and I think that’s for a few reasons.

First, because a big event like this brings out all the new fans who have never seen a Phish festival so the tour rats and real weirdos are even more diluted than at a regular show. Second, the demographic has simply changed over time due to an older generation growing out of certain lifestyles and both Phish and the government actively weeding out people making a living on tour, making it nearly impossible to do so (especially legitimately). And third, I am now that grizzled old Jedi that I used to see and wonder about, so everyone else looks like a custie noob, at least at first.

I kid, of course, but it did take me a minute to feel connected to the crowd, perhaps because I came late on Friday, and had to camp miles away from my friends. Maybe it was the sudden shift from the West Coast scene I’ve been immersed in back to the East Coast mentality I grew up in.

But I’m never alone in these places, and after trading with my neighbors, gamin on some mamas and raging the first couple sets with some good people, I saw that it still had the same spirit to it, though many of the faces had changed, and I had changed. A new generation was just getting into it, but I also ran into a lot of people I know, and all the freaky-freakies came out of the woodwork once the music started. Everyone was pretty respectful of each other though so many different types are into this band, and I saw no static. Except for the static electricity around this balloon:

Chris Kuroda‘s lights were awesome as usual, and the glow stick and beach ball wars created kinetic mayhem and memorable visuals. The fireworks display on Sunday night was incredible, creating shapes and patterns in the sky and fizzling into bright sparkles that tickled the eyes.

Phish is no longer a band bent on writing a new album every night, exploring the reaches of where their improvs can go or creating a non-stop dance party. They are a band of experienced showmen crafting a rock n’ roll show carefully composed of old hits, a couple of rare drops, and some new material, played concisely but with great energy and precision. They have always followed certain formulas and patterns, but its reached a very predictable point. There will be a few ragin’ moments and a few quiet moments and a few nostalgic moments and it will be fun but you won’t necessarily leave soaking wet.

It’s still the best show around, in my opinion, when seen occasionally. It has lost the feel that each night will bring a unique exploration into never-before-heard music, however, which is what used to make me need to see so many shows. It’s no longer the cutting edge of music as it used to seem when it was a funky juggernaut twisting all styles into new forms, charting new territory, and I was a young, un-jaded pup looking for the next foray into the unknown. How I long for a four-song second set!

There are also a few new songs they insist on inserting into rotation that most people I know hate: “Show of Life”, “Joy”, and “Backwards Down The Numberline”. They break the momentum of sets, and are just so cheesy, please stop guys.

They whipped out their best covers and some new ones at SuperBall – “Monkey Man” from The Stones, Led Zeppelin‘s “No Quarter”, Little Feat‘s “Time Loves A Hero”, AC/DC‘s “Big Balls”, Zappa‘s “Peaches En Regalia”, “Cities” and “Crosseyed & Painless” from The Talking Heads, “Soul Shakedown Party”, and Bowie‘s “Life On Mars” to name a few. Bust-outs like “Mound”, “McGrupp”, “Col. Forbin’s Ascent>Fly Famous Mockingbird”, “Destiny Unbound” and “BigBlackFurryCreaturesFromMars” got the crowd roaring and feeling like the band was pulling out all the stops and finally giving us what we’ve been looking for. All the familiar hits from “Mike’s Song” to “Tweezer” to “Hood” were played solidly, except for “YEM”.

Some Highlights:

Favorites like “Tube”, “My Friend, My Friend”, “The Wedge”, “Sand”, “Ghost” and “Timber Ho!” were sprinkled in, and got everybody hyped.

Sunday was a masterpiece by anyone’s standards:

Set 1: Soul Shakedown Party, AC/DC Bag > The Curtain > Colonel Forbin’s Ascent > Fly Famous Mockingbird, Destiny Unbound > Big Black Furry Creature From Mars > Wilson > Mound, A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing, Time Loves a Hero, Reba > David Bowie

Set 2: Big Balls > Down With Disease > No Quarter > Party Time, Ghost > Gotta Jibboo > Light, Waves > What’s the Use, Meatstick > Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan, The Star Spangled Banner

Encore: First Tube

Though their approach has changed, the band has mastered the art of constructing a show, from the song choices to the flow of energy. The music on Sunday ranged from silly and wild to thoughtful and deep, powerfully expressing emotions and complex ideas in the universal language. Trey used to talk about the “vibration of life” and different frequencies and tones they were experimenting with to create moods and mental states in the crowd; They seem to have honed this technique into a tool that unifies everyone  in a way I have never experienced before.

At one point, I looked around and everyone with someone was holding them, or hugging their friends. It was not a contrived or sappy attempt to achieve this, but a simple harnessing of the vast energies present into something unspeakable that we all felt. The vibrations they put out reverberated through our organs and souls, calming them, creating a wavelength we could all share for a moment.

This set even made me like “Light” for the first time. “Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan” is great, my favorite of their new songs. They’re not jamming as much, I’m not dancing as much, but it’s still a great show. Check out the fireworks:

When the third set of the day ended Saturday Night, I was indecisive as to what to do. The music was apparently done at 12:30, but I surely wasn’t. My friends and I wandered around Ball Square, which was buzzing with people darting different directions on various missions and clogged with many standing around, taking in the spectacle and processing what they’d just seen, unsure as I was what to do next. Will there be a secret late-night set tonight? The rumor had been flying around, but where, but when?

We were drawn to the storage unit, where a marching band was getting down and a crowd was gathering. The What Cheer Brigade from Providence were infectiously passionate about their drums and horns, inciting cheers through the jubilant crowd. Their tunes were anything but typical, layered with Spanish flavor and a complexity that kept me standing there for twenty minutes, filming parts:

As the band played and the crowd grew, we noticed people carrying in barricades. Were they for the marching band, or was this set about to happen right here, on top of the storage unit? Was that even possible? I realized we were surrounded by speakers that were emitting subliminal sounds occasionally of racecars zooming past or a female android giving muffled instructions that were impossible to decipher. We were clearly in the right place and had a front row seat to the weirdness that was about to ensue.

The crowd continued to build as word spread that something was happening, reaching as far back as we could see. The tension built for twenty long minutes after the marching band stopped, as we speculated what was about to happen. A man on stilts in an Uncle Sam costume came out of the building when they finished the barricade and greeted us. He assured us that help was on the way, that productivity was coming back, that it was all we needed! And then, it arrived.

Listening to the recording afterwords, its very slow and ambient, one big intro / buildup to a few powerful moments, much like the tower jam at the IT festival. Both have great parts but are all about explorative weirdness, playing with new toys and feedback, and most of all anticipation and suspense. So much of Phish‘s music, and all good art, is about mystery, and not knowing what is going to happen next. That is something I feel they have lost a little bit in not jamming as deeply or improvising as much, and really revived with this ground-level surprise.

They played “Sleeping Monkey” after 45 minutes of madness, and everyone sang along. Though it could have been more exciting musically, I loved the atmosphere that was created by the strange sounds, set-up and lighting – here are some highlights:

Phish delivered three days of music many will listen to for years to come and a unique surprise set experience that no one can forget. They returned to the Northeast festival circuit and to the hearts and minds of fans by putting a lot of thought and effort into this event. Its hard to keep people that have seen your show a hundred times guessing and interested, but they’ve managed to make each of their festivals unique and special, and I’ll definitely be back for more.

What Phish 3.0 wants is clear, however, and its not the kind of rabid devotion and gypsy caravan behind them that made them what they are. When the band’s production company  allegedly hired hundreds of cops at Hampton to send a message when they returned from hiatus, it was clear there was a concerted effort coming from the top to weed out drug dealers and tour rats. As long as there’s a market, there will be salesmen, but they have been successful in locking up and scaring away some of the people that come to shows just to sell drugs, and a lot of people that sell drugs just to go to more shows.

Their scheduling makes it nearly impossible to do a whole tour, and their private security company CSC runs around lot busting t-shirt and food vendors, robbing people of their goods. Most of the people that work for the company are good, honest people that will let you slide for a smile or a price, but several are bullies straight out of prison that love picking on hippies. Their very presence is what I question, and their instructions, and the power they have.

At the gates of SuperBall IX, they were going through every bag in the car, and if they found drugs, some of the dickheads would pull you over to be searched by the cops. Police should never be present at festival search points! (First time I’ve seen that in 80+ festivals) Its not like they kept the nitrous mafia out anyway, which is all they should be focused on.. They were cool at the concert field entrance though, just looking for beers and keepin it movin.

It seems the band, or their production company, is trying to kill the lot culture that sustained them for most of their career because they no longer need all the pilot fish now that they’ve got such a wide fanbase. They want new fans and yuppies with jobs (or hometown hustles) to come on vacation for the weekend, not an army of vagabonding “entrepreneurs” following them around.

It is a new ballgame, but still an entertaining one. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this festival, but I have a better feel for the state of the scene and my relationship to it now. All I ask for from the musicians I love is effort, a little forethought, some variety and unpredictability, and regard for the experience of the fans. Phish made it clear that they are thinking about all of these things in very strategic (If alarmingly business savvy) ways. I met some wonderful  people that I will know for a long time, shared moments with old friends, and witnessed incredible beauty. All in a weekend’s work – put it in the books and set a course for the next destination! Drift Dodgers over and out.


Photo Credits: Daren Criswell, Rob Lambert and Zach Straw

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