The Clifford Ball (DVD)


Jemp/Rhino, 2009

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


The other night, my family and I were out to eat at a restaurant by our house, where they offered a one-pound burger, loaded with everything except the kitchen sink. If you finished everything on your plate, you would get (along with a call from your cardiologist) a free t-shirt. I looked at the description of the burger, and all I could think was, “meat orgasm.”

In a sense, that’s kind of the vibe I get from The Clifford Ball, a seven-DVD set chronicling a two-day concert event-cum-gathering held by Phish in 1996 at a decommissioned Air Force Base in New York. And the parallel between the burger and over nine hours of entertainment is surprisingly clear: you know it’s a hell of a lot to get through, and there are times you’ll doubt if you’ll be able, but in the end, you’ll feel it was worth it. (The only difference is watching the DVDs won’t leave you bloated or feeling like throwing up.)

Now, to the diehard followers of Phish, I am probably not a true “phan,” as I’ve never seen the band live, and while I have damn near all their discography, not only are there discs I’ve never listened to, but I don’t recognize all their songs from the first few notes. However, this puts me, I believe, at an advantage in reviewing such a set, simply because I don’t have a lot of expectations going into the gig.

The first thing that I’ve quickly learned about Phish is that the lyrical content is not the most important aspect of the song – it’s the music and the way that it can carry the moment into areas completely unexpected. It’s not what a various member of the band is singing, it’s how Phish – guitarist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman – operate as one of the tightest musical units I think I’ve ever seen in over 20 years of reviewing music. (Witness the soundcheck on the bonus disc – something you could almost argue is the unofficial “eighth set” of the event. This is not a time where what is played is musical chaff; Phish truly keep every note’s importance, as well as the journey that performing – even to just themselves and their crew – serious… though I swore I could hear a crowd cheering faintly after the first jam completed.)my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

This isn’t to say that Phish don’t sometimes struggle to get to that magical place. The second set of day one actually drags at the start, as songs like “Split Open And Melt,” “Free” and “The Squirming Coil” just don’t seem to have the spark that any song from the first set possessed. (I also quickly found myself worried when Anastasio locked into a pattern of just rocking back and forth during extended jams – it seemed to me like he was searching for the right wave of music to jump onto, and wasn’t seeing it for some time.)

Fortunately, set two of day one is resurrected by, of all things, a set of acoustic numbers from the then-unreleased Billy Breathes and a barbershop quartet rendition of “Hello My Baby.” From then on, Phish literally can do no wrong – which is where the second realization comes in. This is, namely, that the light show (manned by Chris Kuroda) is as intregal a part of a Phish concert as the music. (Ironically, the two sets of the event played in daylight are just as powerful, making me wonder – aside from the lighting magic – why more concerts aren’t performed in the day.)

It is during the course of day two – discs four through six – that Phish truly lock into place and show just how much fun a Phish concert can be. From Anastasio and Gordon doing an impromptu samba mid-song to the way that the band gained new life from watching extra performers like a ribbon acrobat or trampoline jumpers, to even covers of “Frankenstein,” “2001” (from the first day) and “A Day In The Life,” by the time Phish performs the final song – an abbreviated take on “Harpua” – the viewer, like the audience, is regretting the fact that this marathon has ended.

Two points of contention, though. First, maybe it was my television (and, at points, computer), but Gordon’s bass seemed to be buried so far back in the mix that it was inaudible. (A similar argument could be made for Gordon’s vocals on sets two and three of day one.) Second, I have to admit that I wasn’t terribly inspired by the “flatbed jam” that was performed at four in the morning on day two. Essentially just an open jam with no musical structure, the execution was, at times, as sleepy as some of the concertgoers awakened by this surprise had to have been. (I guess I would have liked more band commentary during the documentary – how Phish pulled a concert like this off is quite interesting to watch.)

Were there disappointments? Sure – any Phish fan worth their weight probably walked away wishing they had played certain songs (I, for one, missed hearing “Llama” or “Stash”), and Fishman’s vocals were underutilized. Also missing was the infamous “vacuum solo” that Fishman sometimes performs – but all these are minor quibbles and matters of personal preference that hardly distract from the overall set. (In its defense, I found a few new Phish songs I can count among my favorites.)

The Clifford Ball is a monstrous set that will push even the most diehard Phish fan to their limit – and this truly proves to be a good thing. Although part of “The Great Went” was released as the film Phish: It, one can only hope that the other multi-day concert events that Phish put on over the years will soon find their way into similar sets.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2009 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Jemp/Rhino, and is used for informational purposes only.