After hundreds of thousands of collective miles traveled and a seemingly equivalent distance traveled musically in the previous afternoon’s sublime soundcheck jam, Phish’s 10th standalone festival, the Magnaball, opened with the band singing “We’ve got it simple....” If only that were true!
Putting on a 3+ day music festival with its own radio station, intriguing, interactive installations, a cocktail bar, a frickin’ IMAX-esque open-air movie theater and VIP air-conditioned restrooms can be described with many adjectives, but simple is not one of them. You don’t need me to tell you about which sick jams you should listen to or where to rank these shows in relation to the other blazers from this tour, but maybe I can help find a song or musical moment that can sum up the weekend.
You might start with the "Bathtub Gin" that highlighted that opening set on Friday. “We’re all in this together!!” rung true for the 30,000 in attendance -- and really, it felt like much more than 30K. Phish festivals have always been the three-rings of the circus that is “tour” – the music, the party, the community – condensed into one indescribable entity.
But this weekend even surpassed that.
The adrenaline-rush glory jam out of "Gin" was a musical embodiment of the energy and the feeling in Watkins Glen: bright late-August sunshine, smiling-face, boogie-til-you-drop full-band jamming that went on and on and seemed to get better and better along the way. As far as representative pieces go, you could do a lot worse than that "Gin" jam, that’s for sure.
Or maybe you could swing all the way to the final set of the weekend which featured several “big guns” of the repertoire, but was more notable for the seamless transitions in between.
There’s symbolism galore to be found as the band moved like a friction-free maglev train between the stations of Phish jam history: the new-era spacefunk of "Martian Monster", the free-form 90’s jamming of "Disease" and the prog-tied 2.0-ish "Scents and Subtle Sounds."
My easy, giddy movement through the crowd over the weekend was equally smooth: seamless segues from one chance encounter to another, each highlighting moments of my Phish-going past. Dancing with the friends and family who I saw my first shows with decades ago to new friends that were just twitter avatars to me and vice versa before this weekend and all way-stations of PH-friendship in between. I know I’m not alone in feeling the whole place just felt like a loose federation of overlapping “crews” the ending of one and the beginning of the next just as indistinguishable as the “->” between "Twist" and "Weekapaug."
The Phish festival is fan’s paradise: basically a small city built for the single purpose of enjoying your favorite band with other like-minded folk. No more awkward conversations with your neighbors or co-workers about how you’ll be spending your weekend.
There were plenty of “insider” community moments from the bustouts of "Buffalo Bill" and "Mock Song" to the "Happy Birthday" sing-along for Trey’s daughter on the first night.
But for me, this deeper-than-deep collective happened during “What’s the Use?” on Sunday night. It had been notably teased through multiple jams the previous night and finally emerged in-full out of "Scents & Subtle Sounds." The rare instrumental caught a collective gasp from the crowd who had survived every fiery jam the band had thrown at them and then some. At one point the band’s playing fell to a near whisper and you could finally “hear” the hush in the crowd.
For every “woo!” and stream-blocking inflatable that the Phish faithful had thrown in your way this summer (your mileage may vary), it was this moment of attentive, awed silence that reminded me how deeply we are all in this together and how much we all truly appreciate what we’ve got going. A chills moment to be sure.
But let’s not get too corny here... the thing that makes a festival is that it’s a festival. What about the grounds themselves, captured, to me, by that most quintessential of Phish songs, "Reba": the combination of silly, insider-sing-along with an elegant, peaking improvisation. The site had ample combination of the weird and the elegant for sure with the surreal interactive laboratories and art installations on one end and the VIP camping experience on the other.
Gone are the days of Clifford Ball’s “Mr Sausage” and other standard carnival fare that "Reba" might have concocted in her bathtub. The Magnachow was actually quite, delicious from what I tried (chili poutine, roast pork Italian, buffalo chicken mac & cheese, tacos (hey, I didn’t say healthy, just delicious). The beer selection both local and national was top notch and the Phish-themed cocktails (I couldn’t resist several of the tasty “Red Red Worms”) were peak-of-"Reba" yum.
The whole festival experience was a winding, building, jam that headed right toward that massive widescreen during the secret 4th set late Saturday night…
Yes, the secret wasn’t really a secret, but is there anything more Phish-in-the-era-of-Twitter than that? The moment itself, when it finally arrived, was a genius blend of themes and styles from the entire summer that preceded it.
While this is the band’s 10th festival and they’ve all been superb top-to-bottom, in my opinion, none of them have coincided so perfectly with the myriad musical peaks Phish has brought us on over the past decades. You can argue it, for sure, but the undeniable build that has transpired over the course of August 2015 is like an ecstatic "Slave" jam that found its climax in the 4th set Saturday night.
In retrospect, the previous highlight jams of the summer – from "Twist" in Shoreline to "Twist" at the Mann and all your favorites in between – feel like various jigsaw puzzle pieces that finally fit together in one of the most brain-boggling 45 minutes of sights-and-sound I’ve ever experienced. The high-level, four-man acrobatics the band has tumbled and leaped through this summer were all on display. The visuals that accompanied were a digitalized Kuroda fever dream. If the festival was a full-sensory experience, the “Drive-In Jam” was the perfect manifestation – an experience so immersive we could smell and taste it.
Of course, the beauty of all this is that you decide what it contains. That’s one man’s metaphor-laden take on the weekend and maybe I’ll have another one when the buzz wears off… but hopefully that won’t be for a long, long while.
Ed: I'm so pleased to have Aaron, a writer and tastemaker who I've long admired, contribute this piece. For another take on the festival, from a writer who's a festival warrior, but had never been to a Phish fest, check out Carmel's take on Magnaball.