THIS WEEKEND THE legendary jam band cum cultural juggernaut Phish will set up camp at Watkins Glen International, performing its ninth festival since the group started such gatherings with its Clifford Ball in 1996. Touted as Super Ball IX, the three-day event will feature Phish performing seven scheduled sets: the first of two on Friday begins at 7:30 p.m., and things are unlikely to wind down until well into the fourth of July.
This is also the first major music event held at Watkins Glen since 1973’s legendary Summer Jam, which brought together the Band, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and an estimated 600,000 audience members. Approximately one in three young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 who lived on the eastern seaboard had made their way to the small town in the Finger Lakes for what remains the largest known rock show in American History. By those standards, Super Ball IX amounts to small potatoes: organizers can accommodate up to 50,000, though that’s still more than twice the capacity of Madison Square Garden and about 2,000 short of Yankee Stadium.
Surprisingly, the figure is lower than what the Glen generally can draw. As festival co-organizer Brett Powell explained: “When working with the stakeholders to set a comfortable cap on attendance we settled on a number much lower than what we typically see at our Heluva Good! NASCAR Sprint Cup Series weekend in August (11-14th, 2011).” While we’re not talking about a significant portion of the regional population, if you’re friends with a Phish fan, you ought not be worried when she doesn’t show up to your barbeque in Stewart Park.
PHISH PIONEERED the single-artist music and arts festival nearly fifteen years ago, which is no surprise if you stop to consider how many consecutive sets of U2, Jay-Z or Justin Bieber anyone could take. Rolling Stone Magazine called it “groundbreaking,” praising the “completely home-grown thing…that was different from any other concert.” Other music critics demurred, and Robert Christgau was downright grumpy: “With their damn newsletter at 80,000 and counting, the growth of their economic base is impervious not just to criticism but to any eventuality that doesn’t involve the breakdown of the American transportation system.”
The community — which is occasionally and unfairly likened to a cult — comprises mostly middle class white suburbanites whose patience for aural experimentation begins and ends with Page McConnell’s crashing chords. Phish is commonly considered the Grateful Dead’s musical descendants, which is accurate when one remembers how inoffensive that group tended to be: hummable strains with happy harmonies — unthreatening almost to the point of harmlessness, and fairly apolitical when contrasted with Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, Sly Stone, or anyone from New York’s early 70s scene. Arguably, the Dead were America’s first lifestyle band; it was Simon and Garfunkle and James Taylor that threatened CSNY to inherit the designation as the American Beatles, not Garcia and his gang. When it came to recording albums, or carrying forward musical traditions, the West Coasters’ material sounds almost isolationist; it’s what you listened to if you didn’t want to listen to the Carpenters.
Phish fans certainly tend towards those insular musical proclivities; this is an audience that thinks of the Avett Brothers as edgy. But because all of Phish’ members are such talented musicians, it might be more appropriate to consider the Band its true kindred spirit. Though the Dead certainly loved extended jams, and the act’s concert experiences were as notable for the experience as the concert, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to imagine Robbie Robertson putting on a festival for himself.
By the early 70s, most Americans were fed up with music festivals. If you were a white middle class male under the age of 25, it’s likely you thought everything should be free, whether it was love, peace or a show. If you were a white middle class male over 25, you were probably busy silently waiting for the Regan Revolution. Sure you had Central Park, but by 1973 the looming recession meant that there were fewer youngsters protesting for, in the words of the late Gil Scott-Heron, “legalized smoke, or lower voting age, less lip form his generation gap and fucking in the street.” Most of them went back to college, and after that to their father’s insurance agency.
The festival form wasn’t really revived until Lollapalooza, which came in 1991, and might be considered the peak of music industry’s economic viability. Perry Ferrell’s peaked during the Clinton Era, when expendable income you might find yourself with; many people didn’t mind investing it in the so-called alternative, a familiar brand of pretend rebellion.
And for those who weren’t interested in even pretending to rebel, Phish was a good go-to. Almost by definition, the band is a phase: those who are into it are really into it, other people just don’t understand it, and it’s something to keep yourself occupied with during summer vacation if you don’t have to work. In what might be a happy accident, the music is proficient to boot.
Phish eschews not only politics, but practically anything that doesn’t support its superstructure. Take hip hop for instance. Or any musical history or traditions that can’t be used as source material for the project of Emersonian proportions. In this way, the band is also like The Band.
LAST SUNDAY the actual Band’s Levon Helm jammed with Wilco in North Adams at the second annual Solid Sound, an artist-curated event that was staged at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MOCA) that like Pitchfork, Bonnaroo, and all the others, follow in the tradition of 1973 (except that it’s not free). Wilco was joined by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, comedians from the Daily Show and preeminent American jazz composer Dave Douglas; and the band invited both New Zealand art-rocker Neil Finn and Woody Gutherie’s granddaughter to the stage, when they weren’t covering Nick Lowe or sampling Kraut Rock.
In other words, while one could liken Wilco’s weekend to the dad struggling to convince himself how cool he still is (which not coincidentally also described the crowd’s principal demographic), Phish will likely spend about 76 hours offering half-hour riffs reminiscent of such great touchstones as “A Love Supreme.”
Invariably Super Ball IX is drawing a lot of comparisons to the 1973 extravaganza. But even the festival organizers are a bit hesitant. Powell highlights some significant differences, which pretty much encompasses everything. “Aside from the physical property being used there are virtually no similarities; not even the stage location. Watkins Glen International has come a long way as has the music industry and the live music circuit specifically. The fans have many more options for their dollar and we have much more experience than the folks who hosted that event. All in all, I would say that our one goal in planning this event was to make sure it was extremely different from Summer Jam in every positive way. It was quite a line-up though, wasn’t it?!”
Indeed it was. At 600,000, the size of the crowd coincided with the number of people who voted for Eugene McCarthy in 1972, and it would be the last time a significant portion of a generation found common cause in much of anything. And like supporters of the leftist candidate, by 1973 the population was fairly alienated from the rest of America.
A little like Phish fans must feel now. After all, even with popular music as fragmented as it is, bands that jam feel increasingly inappropriate, even a little tacky. It’s not only Pitchfork fans that shun Phish; even NPR listeners don’t really relate (they even have their own jam band: My Morning Jacket).
But the show must go on, and for the familiar, it will likely be a ball. If you’re one of the uninitiated, and still confused about what to expect, the band’s website is happy to clear up any misconceptions: “Note: Super Ball IX is pronounced ‘Super Ball Nine,’ not ‘Super Ball Icks.’ You’re welcome.”
Phish Super Ball IX will run July 1-3 at Watkins Glen International. Some activities include a wiffle ball tournament and a 5K run. The ticket price the show will include a free MP3 download of the entire show (a fully mixed soundboard recording), available shortly after Phish steps off stage. For tickets and more information, please visit the ticket office on the corner of County Route 16 and Old Bronson Hill or superballix.com.