Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Marathon and A Sprint: From Ball Things Reconsidered (The Phish Festival Newspaper)

Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011

Saturday, the second day of Phish’s Super Ball IX at Watkins Glen International racetrack, offered a full day’s worth of activities and music for the assembled masses. At this point most attendees had gathered their bearings and were comfortably situated in their homes for the weekend.

The day’s events started before noon for the annual Runaway Jim Memorial 5K Race and ended around 2:30 a.m. following an hour-long noise jam in Ball Square that ended with a synth’d out version of “Sleeping Monkey.”
The race, which was billed as the 101st annual Runaway Jim Memorial 5K race despite being the second running, was won by Ethan McBrien, who turned in a time of 15:23, on the male side, and Katie Harrington on the female side, who finished the race around the track in 17:19. Nearly every entrant took the event seriously with racer David Cook coming in just 12 seconds behind McBrien.
A smattering of clouds gave fans occasional cover from an otherwise scorching sun as Phish took the stage for their first afternoon set since Festival 8 in 2009. The quartet opened the 3:00 p.m. set with “Tube” and Page McConnell was quick to take the reins for a quick but blazing solo as thousands of beach balls were hit towards the stage by the crowd. “Kill Devil Falls” and “Ocelot” gave an immediate taste of more recent material after the band’s focus on older songs the previous night. Phish’s cover of “Boogie On Reggae Woman” has really shined in 2011 and Saturday’s version continued that trend with Mike Gordon thumping away on the bass as Trey Anastasio and McConnell traded funky licks.
The group borrowed a pair of tunes from side project repertoires in the first set with the Phish debuts of Gordon’s “Suskind Hotel,” which was a staple at both his solo shows and his 2006 tour with Anastasio, Joe Russo and Marco Benevento, as well as a cover of “Monkey Man” by the Rolling Stones which McConnell performed with his solo band during a 2007 solo run. “Suskind,” only the second original debuted by Phish in 2011, featured a straight-forward minor-key jam similar to that of “Birds of a Feather,” while every section of the Stones cover was performed flawlessly with McConnell adding the urgency to his vocals that are crucial to the classic tune.
A long break in between the first and second sets gave fans a chance to explore the grounds, eat dinner, meet up with friends and watch a Mets/Yankees game on the big screen within the venue among countless other options that the festival offers.
Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011
Phish opened up their second set with “Runaway Jim” and in between verses Anastasio welcomed both winners from the race as well as the second and third place finishers to receive their trophies. Another song about a dog, the rare “McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters” came next and featured a soaring piano solo. The 100-minute-plus set continued with straight forward romps through classic material from the ‘90s including “Axilla,” “Rift,” “Horn” and “It’s Ice” leading up to the return of “Scents and Subtle Sounds” for the first time December 4, 2009 at Madison Square Garden.
This take on “Scents” was similar to the version that Phish first debuted during the summer of 2003—unlike the more truncated versions that followed—and was highlighted by a beautiful, highly-melodic end jam with impressive interplay from all four members of the band. For a set that focused on high-energy material, “Run Like An Antelope” was a fitting choice for the closer and peaked a number of times to the audience’s delight before the quartet left the stage. Considering most of the festival’s first sets featured plenty of covers it was a surprise that set two of night two only featured original material.
Fans waiting for exploratory jams got their wish during the third set opener, a cover of “Golden Age” by TV on the Radio that explored many different spaces by the time the delicate “Prince Caspian” emerged over 13 minutes after the start of the song. The “Golden Age” jam wound up setting the stage for an improv-heavy first half of the third set. “Piper” contained many tempo changes provided by the rhythm section as Anastasio wailed away before the band worked an interesting segue into a funk-laden “Tweezer” excursion that rivaled “Golden Age” as the improvisational highlight of the evening thanks to McConnell’s strong piano work and one intense riff after another from Anastasio. “Twist” was another strong third set selection as the band extended it beyond 10 minutes as well with twists and turns aplenty.
Chris Kuroda’s light show seems to get better with each passing tour and “Also Sprach Zarathrustra” gave his massive light rig a hearty workout as the band blazed away. There was no let up in the energy that was built all night through the marathon performance with “Cavern,” “Golgi Apparatus” and “A Day In The Life” continuing the trend. Following three lengthy sets Phish returned to the stage for another shot of Stones in “Loving Cup” and the expected “Tweezer Reprise.”
All day long rumors abounded about a surprise set that some claimed would happen in Ball Square after the scheduled sets. These surprise sets have been a tradition at Phish Festivals since the famed “Flatbed Jam” at Clifford Ball back in 1996. As the clock struck 1:30 a.m. searchlights atop a pyramid structure within Ball Square alerted fans to head towards the oval tank structure in Ball Square that was next to a building marked “USA Storage.” All of the Ball was lit up with spotlights and speakers were set up in every direction. The doors of the Storage structure opened to reveal the members of Phish behind translucent screens playing a mixture of their regular instruments, electric drums and synthesizers all being blasted in surround sound by the multiple speaker towers.
This “storage jam” featured nearly 50 minutes of noisy improvisation with only one or two grooves developing amongst the layers of sound laid down by the band. A large crowd gathered around the building as the psychedelic excursion continued. Eventually, Phish landed on “Sleeping Monkey” and wound up playing a unique version of the Anastasio/Marshall original complete with synthesizers and yells of “WHAT!?” from Fishman and Anastasio. With that, nearly 12 hours and four sets after Phish first took the stage, day two of Super Ball IX finally came to an end and the crowd dispersed for their campgrounds satiated from a full day of music and activities.
There’s still one day to go and with surprises around each corner who knows what the third and final day of Super Ball IX will hold?

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