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Music DVD Review: Phish’s The Clifford Ball

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How does one go about reviewing a huge 7-DVD box set of concert material from a band who is so polarizing as this one?  I was going to make a batch of brownies and watch the vids marathon-style, but I was worried I might just forget what I saw.

I’ve had the The Clifford Ball set for a few weeks now and not knowing how to properly tackle such a large-item review, I told myself that I’d just try to watch a disc every day or so and scribble down some basic notes as I went along.  So I will share many of those with you.  I will also disclose something that will blow my cover as a mild-mannered unbiased music journalist and might tarnish my reputation among certain elite sects of music fan everywhere.  I love Phish.

But that shouldn’t be such a surprise since people have such black and white opinions of them.  I find a lot of music bloggers, reviewers, and even friends, have to separate themselves from the band in order to separate themselves from the kids that they went to high school with who liked Phish… perhaps hang-ups from their pasts or their need to adopt more metropolitan punk or indie-rock ideals, so that they can feel like their taste in music will always be the most intelligent and refined and indisputably without flaw.  And some people honestly just plain-old don’t dig ‘em.  Fair enough.

But, for most of the haters, Phish is just an ‘it’ that they don’t get.  And for many, perhaps that’s the issue.  They can’t explain away why they don’t get it. So, it’s just gotta suck.  And for many others, they just don’t want to be associated with the Phish fan scene that’s portrayed in the media.  Well, of course the local news camera is going to be drawn to the topless patchwork-skirted twirlers and the dreadlocked and overall-ed ’wookies’.  Their cameras have no interest in someone like me — just a regular music-lovin’ guy who is gainfully-employed, enjoys daily showers, and who really appreciates the music of the band known as Phish.

When I was offered the chance to get Phish’s The Clifford Ball set in exchange for my review, I jumped all over it, especially since the recent reunion shows that the band played in Hampton, Virginia after the band officially broke up almost 5 years ago.  Phish phrenzy (some of you just cringed) is in full swing right now, with the recent extension of their summer tour and announcement of a new album in the pipeline.

The Clifford Ball was the first of seven weekend-long festivals hosted by Phish in August of 1996.  It took place on a former air force base in Plattsburgh, New York and added $20 million to the local economy.  Now if we could just get Phish to play a festival on Wall Street!

Here is my very basic log of how I viewed the seven discs that make up JEMP/Rhino’s Clifford Ball DVD box set:

• Day 1: Received overwhelming package

• Day 2: Disc 1, Day 1, Set 1 in the late afternoon.  The guys come out rockin’ with a “Chalkdust Torture” opener, which was my first choice for what they would play for the opener at their first reunion show in Hampton in March.  The look and sound of the footage is great!  There are beautiful shots as the sun goes down during “Haley’s Comet”.  What other hugely successful band has the audacity to play songs as oddball and fun as “Haley’s Comet”, by the way?  The “Divided Sky” is absolutely breathtaking.  Again, what other band can get away with pausing for more than a minute in the middle of one of their songs?  Then to close out the set, we get an insane “David Bowie” as the light show starts ramping up and a menacing fog pours onto the stage.

• Day 3: Disc 2 (First night, set 2).  I’m trying to catch most of this while I make and eat lunch before heading to work.  When reviewing something this large, I’m learning that you just have to fit it in when you can.  “Split Open and Melt” starts the disc off strong and jammy!  Oh yeah, these were the days when Trey had a tiny percussion kit next to him on stage so he’d never be bored, or for whatever other reason.  It really didn’t add much to the band’s sound. 

There’s a cool transition from Page playing solo piano at the end of “Squirming Coil” into a hopefully short acoustic set.  I’m not a big fan of the acoustic set by any band, really.  But these guys do have a lot of time to fill over the weekend!  The set turns out to be pretty damn good though, highlighted by a great Page-sung “Strange Design” before doing an a-cappella “Hello My Baby”. 

• Day 4: Disc 3 (First night, Set 3).  I’ve invited a friend and a few beers over to do some viewing with me.  We are treated to an early super-trippy, dank and dubby “Makisupa Policeman”.  After 40 minutes straight of intense playing ("Makisupa, " "2001," "Down With Disease," "NICU"), the boys break between songs and jump right back in with David Bowie’s “Life On Mars”.

The set is closed out with an amazing jam in “Harry Hood” punctuated and in rhythm with a fantastic fireworks display.  This version of “Hood” is the reason why people follow Phish.  What a way to end the first night!  Oh yeah, then there’s an a-cappella “Amazing Grace” encore.  Not the first choice for encores, but the band has already ripped it up so hard that it is not an issue.

• Day 4 (continued): Disc 4 (Second day, Set 1).  My friend and I have decided to pop in another disc and pop the tops off a couple more beers.  This one is the next afternoon after the crowd has gotten some sleep after driving for hours to get in the day before, setting up camp, tying one on, and getting three blistering sets of top-notch Phish.  The highlights are a super-amped “Punch You In the Eye” and a beautiful “Reba”.

• Day 5: Disc 5 (Second day, Set 2).  I’m noticing the band’s outfits.  Mike wearing an all green outfit with a neon green shirt and a different-green pants.  Trey’s rocking a Grinch t-shirt with a worn-out collar.  Fish is sporting the usual muumuu and Page is donning his usual uniform of button-down shirt with jeans.  Trey is doing a lot of pulsing to the music this set as he’s letting the jam play through him.  “It’s Ice” totally displays the band’s musicianship as they’re all playing different parts while completely in groove with each other, and the audience.  Ben and Jerry have a little cameo in “Brother”.

• Day 6: Resuming Disc 5 (on day of reunion in Hampton, Virginia!).  So tonight is Phish’s big first reunion show at Hampton Coliseum and it’s hard for me to do any other work than watch these Clifford Ball videos.  As the band starts “Fluffhead”, I change my reunion opener pick to this song.  It’s a very composed and complex song, in my opinion a prog-rock song, that Phish sort of sloughed off in its later years, despite it constantly being requested. 

As phans know, the few years leading up to their break-up was not the most well-oiled Phish you’ve ever heard, and they leaned on looser, funkier jams to take the place of being well-practiced.  Anyway, I ended up nailing the “Fluffhead” opener call, and it was an absolute pleasure to know, from that choice of opener and from a recent New York Times article on the reunion, that the band wanted to be as good (and better) than the mid-90’s-era Phish that is brilliantly showcased in these Clifford Ball videos. 

The big jamming takes over as the band kicks into high-gear with “Run Like An Antelope”, which features an amazing rope-dancing lady who dances above the band.  Trey completely melts faces with his guitar on this performance.  The band closes the set with a perfect “Slave To the Traffic Light”.  Stellar.

• Day 7: Disc 6 (Final Set).  The boys come out with an absolutely rockin’ “Wilson” complete with Trey and Mike head-banging in unison.  Trey is completely rock-starring it.  The “Possum” in this set is, once again, another perfect example of why people follow Phish.  It is sublime.  It’s always sad when something this good come to an end.

There you have it, from a dorky Phish fan perspective.  Then there is Disc 7, which is a bonus disc filled with all kinds of goodies like the Flatbed Jam, in which Phish rode around on the back of a flatbed truck through the campgrounds, jamming ambiently on the first night of the festival.  Then there’s a sound check and interviews: all kinds of stuff that you will want if you’re a phan.  I didn’t even mention the postcards and stamps and amazing book of pictures and liner notes.

Rhino has done a superb job with packaging once again and the quality of the video and audio throughout is top-notch.  For Phish fans, there is absolutely nothing to  dislike about this Clifford Ball DVD set and nothing that seems to be missing.  The tightness is there, the jams are there, the songs are there, the spectacle is there.  This is Phish at one of the many peaks of their powers and it is pure elation.  Play this for your Phish-phobe friends and you just might get some converts.  Don’t you feel blessed that you get it?  And that they’re back?  Now I’ve got to wrap up this review so I can strategize how to win my music credibility back.

Welcome back, Phish!  I’ll see you at Jones Beach, and Bonnaroo, and beyond…

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  • Scott

    Just watched it this weekend. And you are correct…it’s ALL there. It’s a perfect specimen of the band in it’s prime.

    I was lucky enough to be at The Great Went, Oswego, Big Cypress, It, and Coventry…and after watching this, I think I’d trade them all to have been at The Clifford Ball.