Super Ball IX reflects Phish's remarkable projection

For its ninth musical festival, the now legendary jam act creates a fan experience like no other at Watkins Glen.

You’ve probably seen the reviews of Super Ball IX already: “Jam band Phish played to a crowd of 30,000 this past weekend" or “Hippies flock to Watkins Glen for weekend music festival.”

But here’s some fresh news you may not have heard: Phish members’ projections from 23 years ago manifest for weekend long phestival, creating a community and experience like no other.

The news broke to Phish phans on the third and final day of the phestival, when singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio let them in on the secret between songs “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” and “Famous Mockingbird.”

The story goes that back in 1988, Phish was traveling through that very area when their car broke down. Finding nothing but a storage area for shelter, and seeing as how it was a rainy day, they pushed their car into the storage area. Once the car, along with the band, was inside, the door shut and locked behind them. They had no water or food -- just instruments.

“By the way, this is all completely true, this is fact. When we played, we realized that despite the discomfort of being trapped in a small, tin storage area, our minds would kind of wander and we would drift off and we would basically be able to free ourselves from the trap of this little metal box through music,” Anastasio said. “And what happened was the jams would get longer and weirder and weirder and weirder and we started to have a problem connecting reality with these kind of mental freedom through music journeys that we were going on. And over time ... we realized that we could control reality through music.”

Anastasio paused as keyboardist Page McConnell played a few dramatic notes, and the crowd cheered.

“Anyway,” Anastasio continued, “what’s really bizarre is that we got so good at this, that what you’re in right now is actually a mental projection through music that we started in 1988 inside of a storage unit.”

This tale explained the “secret set,” as phans were calling it, that took place at approximately 1:30 Sunday morning. The rumors floating around Saturday proposed a fourth Saturday set, following the afternoon set and two evening sets. But the reality of the situation — if it was, in fact, reality — was entirely different.

Walking back to the venue from my tent, my campmates and I found ourselves milling around with our fellow phans, attempting to find the source of the ambient music that seemed to originate from nowhere and everywhere all at once. After 20 minutes of searching, we ended up next to what had during the day appeared to be an innocent storage unit. Now, stored away in a bay of the unit behind translucent plastic was the band, appearing to us as familiar silhouettes illuminated by red light. Ambient music, not completely committed to the form of any one song, continued to bounce from speaker to speaker, until finally Phish’s song “Sleeping Monkey” emerged from the haze. With that, the set ended.

“This was creepy. I was really tired and I had no idea what was going on,” said Syracuse phan Mike McKean. “After, I found out they do something like that every festival... It was something only people there got to hear and no one else will.”

But the weekend started out as normally as any Phish phestival may.

Day One: Friday

The phunky:

Arriving. It was like a homecoming or reunion of sorts. Phish phans travel from far and wide to come together at Watkins Glen. You arrive, claim your patch of grass, set up the tent and settle in. “In this setting, it’s like you’re in an actual community,” said Toronto phan Aimee Eppel. “You have your transportation, your food. After a few hours, you feel like you’re home.”

Exploring. From the time of the arrival to the evening set can be a long and suspenseful one. So what better to do than go on an adventure. Check out the vendors set up shop in the middle of the campgrounds (and don’t forget that grilled cheese!), go on the ferris wheel, or look at the art installations spread throughout the venue.

Listening. Finally the day comes to an end, and the music starts. Having seen Phish 16 times before this weekend, I can safely say that Friday evening was the best I’ve ever seen them. The band was seamless, the music was tight, and the energy flow between Phish and the crowd was never ending. “Phish fans are totally dedicated and into it,” said Dave Watson, phan from Virginia. “It’s all about the music.”

The phail:

Freezing. After dancing for hours on Friday night, we retired to our makeshift beds of blankets and sleeping bags on the hard ground, which could have easily been a block of ice... not the most fun thing in the world.

Day Two: Saturday

The phunky:

The afternoon set. Typically, the bands playing afternoon festival sets serve as fillers until the evening rolls around, and play sets of an hour at the most. Luckily for us, there was only one band on the agenda all weekend. The afternoon set, lasting for almost two hours, was the most relaxing of the sets.

Beach balls. Keeping with the ball-themed weekend, phans exchanged their glowsticks for beach balls during the afternoon set. As Phish opened up with “Tube,” dozens of beach balls began bouncing around the crowd.

The Simpsons? Phish likes their covers. The Velvet Underground, The Beatles, and of course, we can’t forget The Simpsons. During the evening set, between “Birds of a Feather” and “Stash,” a riff from The Simpsons theme song came from the stage. D’oh!

The phail:

The heat. Saturday's search for shade was particularly brutal, but otherwise the day was perfect.

Day Three: Sunday

The phunky:

No afternoon set. Don’t get me wrong, everyone at the festival would have been A-OK with another set. But this gave phans a day to relax, sit in the shade of their tents, bond with neighbors, and rev up for the final evening of music. (It gave me time to live up to that orange media bracelet on my wrist. I hit the media center, where I could get some work done.

Big Balls.” Best. Cover. Ever.

"The Star-Spangled Banner." I love our national anthem as much as the next journalist. But hearing Phish sing it a cappella, along with the rest of the crowd, sent chills down my spine.

Fireworks. A perfect end to the weekend.

The phail:

The inevitable end. To some people on the outside, it might look like a bunch of hippie freaks hearing seven sets of the same band. But it’s about so much more. “My favorite part was the atmosphere,” McKean said. “It was cool to have the feeling that everyone there was like a close friend even when I didn’t know anyone. Everyone was so nice.”

One might even call Super Ball IX a spiritual experience.

“When I get to a Phish show, I almost feel like a spiritual weight comes off my shoulders,” Eppel said. “But when the lights come back on and the music ends, it comes back. At a festival, you have time to decompress. You’ve been given extra time to live in that really creative place music takes you.”

Fan's-eye view

A video compilation of still images of Phish's Super Ball IX at Watkins Glen International over Fourth of July Weekend produced by Michael Marantz.

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