Phish: The Clifford Ball

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The Clifford Ball is as good a summation as anything else officially available of the instrumental and vocal prowess at the heart of the Phish persona. The seven-DVD set of catches the band on the outer fringes of its innocence, consorting on stage with Ben and Jerry as headlines of ‘The Burlington Free Press’ emblazon the story of the August weekend in a tongue and cheek style that mirrors the quartet’s own sense of humor.

The smoothly integrated segues of Phish’s playing during the formal performances here, as well as on the even more free flowing sound check footage, is free of the very self-consciousness that often afflicted the quartet’s latter days.  Yet neither the three sets on each of the two days nor the footage of the audience in Plattsburgh New York in 1996 fully communicate the balmy bliss of that summer weekend or the loyalty to the group that grew exponentially over the course of the event. 

Watching an increasingly long line of fans follow the foursome as they play on the back of an illuminated truck in the wee hours of August 16th during the “The Flatbed Jam” is both metaphor and microcosm of the Phish phenomenon. Mike Gordon’s interactions with attendees, as he made his way around the grounds of the abandoned air force base, suggest that the same devotion evinced in Hampton 2009 is that which prompted this audience to migrate from Tennessee and Maryland for the band’s inaugural festival.

The comprehensive, graphically uniform package contains all the music from The Clifford Ball, documentary footage of the infrastructural planning as well as the multi-media events that made up the weekend. As they review the film with then manager John Paluska, the group’s own discussion, contained on the full-length bonus disc, gives insight into the mechanics of Phish.
 It’s hardly all serendipity here, but judicious editing and thorough practice, the end result of which was bedrock of collective self-knowledge from which Phish proceeded at such a high level, their muse and fate itself couldn’t resist the invitation to cooperate.

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