This weekend, Phish fans from all over will converge on Watkins Glen, NY for Curveball, Phish’s 11th multi-day festival. Starting with The Clifford Ball in 1996, Phish festivals have taken on a mythology all of their own in addition to serving as the prototype for many of today’s larger music festivals. Check out a brief history of Phish festivals, #1–10.
1. The Clifford Ball – August 16-17, 1996 – Plattsburgh, NY
Named after aviator event planner Clifford Ball (“a beacon of light in the world of flight”), the very first Phish festival, The Clifford Ball, was held at a former Air Force base about an hour outside of Phish’s hometown, Burlington, VT. With overhead aerial activity, on-the-ground carnival attractions, and seven sets of Phish, the concert brought a whopping 70,000 people and millions of dollars to the local economy.
Phish brought in lots of musicians, including a classical violin quartet, a blues quartet, a choral quintet, guitar soloists, and the Clifford Ball Orchestra, who played some of Trey Anastasio’s favorite classical tunes. Phish played seven sets in total, including a 3:30 AM set on a flatbed truck in the middle of the parking lot.
2. The Great Went – August 16-17, 1997 – Limestone, ME
Just one year later, Phish launched the sequel to The Clifford Ball, The Great Went. Over two days, Phish took over Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, ME, playing over 500 minutes of music across six sets and two encores.
Some of the highlights of the festival: the world’s largest fire truck hosing down the audience, over 1,100 people posing nude for a photographer touring the country, another orchestra, one of the greatest “Bathtub Gin” jams you’ll ever hear, and the infamous disco set, where all four members of the band played keyboards/synthesizers for roughly an hour straight, beginning at 2 AM.
“The Wedge”, “Beauty of My Dreams”
3. The LemonWheel – August 15-16, 1998 – Limestone, ME
Returning to the Loring Air Force Base in Maine, Phish brought back their festival back for a third consecutive year. Phish brought some theatrics with them this time around, orchestrating a long fuse setup that zig0zagged across the stage, leading along the perimeter fence until it reached a large elephant (reportedly) named Lee. Meanwhile, the band played “Baby Elephant Walk”, with Fishman on the trombone and Trey on the drums. The elephant hung around the festival grounds until at least 3 in the morning.
The band also played an ambient instrumental set by candlelight in the wee hours of Sunday morning, improvising for nearly an hour. Listen below:
4. Camp Oswego – July 17-18, 1999 – Volney, NY
Phish continued their summer festival tradition for the fourth summer in a row in 1999, bringing Del McCoury Band, The Slip, and Ozomatli out to the Oswego County Airport in upstate New York for Camp Oswego. Aside from playing five sets throughout the two days, Phish attempted to break a world record by coordinating a “Meatstick” dance with the ~65,000 in attendance. However, the Guinness Book of World Records (who were on hand) said that Phish did not break it. Check out a mini-documentary about the festival below:
“A Trip To Oswego”
5. Big Cypress – December 30-31, 1999 – Big Cypress Indian Reservation, FL
To ring in the new millennium, Phish hosted largest millennium music performance in the world (more than: Sting, Barbra Streisand, Aerosmith, Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, The Eagles, Eminem, Jimmy Buffett, Kiss, Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Elton John), with 85,000 in attendance at Big Cypress National Preserve in southern Florida.
The most notable achievement from the performance is the full seven-and-a-half hour set of music from Phish on New Year’s Eve, which lasted until sunrise on New Years Day. They even brought security guards to line the side of the stage, only taking breaks to use their onstage port-o-potty.
Watch the magic unfold below:
Big Cypress – The Long Set
6. IT – August 2-3, 2003 – Limestone, ME
The first festival in the ‘2.0’ era—and the band’s 6th festival overall—returned to the summertime, once again at Loring Air Force Base (the site of The Great Went and The LemonWheel). Once again, Phish was the only one at the festival, playing seven sets over the course of two days. They even played a 2:30 AM improv set at the top of an air traffic control tower, complete with dangling aerialists and a customized light show. The festival also featured all-time renditions of several songs including this epic “Chalkdust Torture” jam.
[Video: The Phish Jams]
7. Coventry – August 13-15, 2004 – Coventry, VT
Coventry was the infamous 2004 festival that marked what was, at the time, the end of Phish. The band brought between 65- and 68,000 fans for their final six sets of music, though the festival was plagued with disaster. Heavy rain throughout the preceding week left the festival grounds muddy and unmanageable, and many fans had to park along the highway. Some hiked over 30 miles to get to the festival. As a side note, the Phish organization paid for the entirety of the cleanup process, as fans inevitably trashed the local roads surrounding Coventry.
The actual performances were remarkably sad, as the band handed out their trampolines during “You Enjoy Myself” and broke down crying during several songs, including Page McConnell tearing up during “Wading In The Velvet Sea.” Warning, this video is emotional.
“Wading in the Velvet Sea”
8. Festival 8 – October 30 – November 1, 2009 – Indio, CA
Fortunately for all of us, the Phish story has a happy ending, as the band reunited five years later in 2009, and have been growing stronger and more innovative ever since. In their first year back, Phish announced a “save the date” for a mystery event, with states being removed individually from an interactive online map. Eventually, the location of California remained, and Festival 8 was held at the Empire Polo Fields in Indio, where Coachella hosts their annual event.
As the festival surrounded Halloween, Phish delivered their customary musical “costume set,” covering The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street and calling on members of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings for the performance.
Exile on Main Street Set
9. Superball IX – July 1-3, 2011 – Watkins Glen, NY
Back in the swing of things, Phish held another “3.0” festival at the Watkins Glen International, a racetrack near the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. It was the first musical event at the racetrack since Summer Jam at Watkins Glen in 1973, which featured The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, and The Band.
The festival featured seven full sets from Phish over the course of three days, in addition to one hidden set in a self-storage building with surround sound designed as part of an art installation. Check out this great montage from the event:
Superball IX Montage
10. Magnaball – August 21-23, 2015
In 2015, following a highly praised summer tour, Phish returned to Watkins Glen for their 10th festival, Magnaball. One of the strongest festivals in years, Magna featured a “Mock Song” with altered lyrics that referenced past Phish festivals (“Clifford, Super, Magnaball…I’ve known them all”), an impressive “Bathtub Gin”, an all-time great “Tweezer” > “Prince Caspian” jam, and much, much more. In addition, the festival grounds featured a massive drive-in screen with “Magnaball” displayed across the top. Late Saturday night, Phish performed a nearly hour-long improv session behind the screen, which displayed an intricate visualizer as they played.
“Tweezer -> Prince Caspian”
11. Curveball – August 17-19, 2018
…Only one way to find out. See you in Watkins Glen!