Live Review: Phish Plunge into Magnaball Madness

Fans cheer Phish’s post-midnight secret jam behind a drive-in screen at Magnaball.

In 1996, six years before the birth of Bonnaroo, Phish hatched similar campout festivals packed with audio-visual goodies. Ten festivals later, some things haven’t changed, evidenced by this past weekend’s Magnaball in Watkins Glen, N.Y. A load of people show up in a remote location, party down, and revel in tons of music by Phish and only Phish, which performed more than 11 hours of music in eight sets across the weekend.

Granted, the 70,000-strong crowds that showed up in the ’90s (when I covered Phish festivals for the Boston Globe and Rolling Stone) have dissipated, settling into a relatively more comfy 30,000 sellout at Watkins Glen International. That’s a hell of a lot more manageable than the record-setting 600,000 that showed up at the racetrack for 1973’s historic Summer Jam with the Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead and the Band.

In turn, Phish erects a skyscraping stage for lighting director Chris Kuroda to spin matrix-like magic, campsites are awarded thematic names (this year after defunct rock venues from the Wetlands to Boston Garden) and the grounds are filled with installations designed by Phish’s visual-art friends. This year’s oddities included a castle-like “laboratory” filled with sideshow-like oddities and assorted sculptures, like a field of green ears.

But the big surprise, even if it’s not much of a surprise these days, was an unannounced Phish set on the grounds beyond the main stage — in this case, a mock drive-in movie screen that sprawled across the bleachers under an illuminated Magnaball sign — complete with some old cars lined up at the bottom. After midnight on Saturday, Phish slipped onto a tiny stage behind that partially opaque screen to improvise a dark, 50-minute ambient soundscape while fractal visuals floated upon the scrim, eventually teasing glimpses of the live band (in turn, too bad the group didn’t activate standard screens for fans on the outskirts to view the weekend’s main-stage action). That late-night music also didn’t seem so novel after Phish had slipped into similarly abstract space during a few jams that emerged within three previous regular sets that long day alone. Still, exhaustion breeds the surreal.

That said, Phish has been on fire this summer, consistently jamming at a sophisticated level, fueled by guitarist Trey Anastasio’s experience playing “Fare Thee Well” stadium shows with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead. Sure, Phish took staples like “Chalkdust Torture” and “Down with Disease” for extended rides, but songs like “Bathtub Gin” and even the largely pokey “Prince Caspian” surged upon waves of inspired improv, hovering near the 20-minute mark. Even new songs like the funky “No Men in No Man’s Land” and bassist Mike Gordon’s apt “How Many People Are You?” rocked the field with a surprising edge and energy. Fans responded in kind, not only tossing glowsticks during a “Harry Hood” jam per ’90s tradition, but almost any moment they thought was appropriate, at times making the field look like it was under attack from swarms of neon grasshoppers.

Phish served a couple of favorite jams from the band’s Halloween 2014 twist on the sound effects album Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House as well as such rarities as the sing-songy “Buffalo Bill,” Gordon’s “Mock Song” and the Jewish prayer “Avenu Malkenu,” wrapped in Anastasio instrumental “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday,” the theme from his senior thesis at Vermont’s Goddard College. Bluegrass was essentially omitted and covers were limited to five (most notably a soaring take on Lou Reed’s “Rock and Roll”) as Phish amazingly played 70 songs without repeats across the weekend while skipping such warhorses as “Piper” and “Fluffhead.”

The band seemingly tried to round out its final set with as many touchstones as possible, serving “Mike’s Song,” “Fuego,” “Twist,” “Weekapaug Groove” and a torrid encore of “You Enjoy Myself” — complete with trampoline bouncing and an a cappella jam to an extensive fireworks display. Keyboardist Page McConnell had the last word – and drew a last laugh from Anastasio – as the music came to an end and he cut through the fireworks with a Halloween sample that blurted “You thought there was going to be a huge explosion, didn’t you?”

Earlier, Anastasio practically choked up when he thanked members of the band’s crew while standout drummer Jon Fishman “sucked love” on a vacuum-cleaner hose for comic sonic effect in “I Didn’t Know.” But even though Phish has staged only three festivals since the band’s 2009 return after a five-year breakup, the success of Magnaball gave the impression that this one probably won’t be the last.

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