For those of us following Superball IX’s musicalities from afar, Friday and Saturday felt like spending two days with a lover who was a bit of a tease. Through Saturday’s third set, things didn’t get past kissing (43 kisses, to be exact), but there were frequent reminders, in the form of multiple soundcheck jams, that this lover is perfectly capable of going all the way when you’re not around.
But then Saturday at 1:30 a.m. rolled around, and everyone convened at the storage facility for the musical equivalent of, well, a psychedelic middle-of-the-night fuck-fest. All of which leaves you with a jumbled head: both satisfied and frustrated, but still, ready to hop right back on the loving train if it’ll just stop for you.
On Sunday, the final night of the festival, Phish opted to give us Big Balls instead of blueballs, debuting the AC/DC rocker and unleashing a slew of other fan favorites and a few memorable jams over the course of several exciting hours of music.
Phish: Sun, Jul 03, 2011
Watkins Glen International, Watkins Glen, NY (setlist via phish.net)
Set 1: Soul Shakedown Party, AC/DC Bag > The Curtain > Colonel Forbin’s Ascent > Fly Famous Mockingbird, Destiny Unbound > Big Black Furry Creature from Mars > Wilson > Mound, A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing, Time Loves a Hero, Reba -> David Bowie
Set 2: Big Balls > Down with Disease -> No Quarter > Party Time, Ghost > Gotta Jibboo > Light, Waves > What’s the Use?, Meatstick > Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan, The Star Spangled Banner
Encore: First Tube
 Theme from Leave it to Beaver tease from Mike.
 Dave’s Energy Guide tease.
 Phish debut
 Japanese lyrics.
The band declared their intentions from the first notes, opening with Bob Marley’s Soul Shakedown Party, which has opened four of the six shows in which it’s been played. In the waning moments of sunlight, they continued with a crisp AC/DC Bag and a “With”-less Curtain, the first free-standing version of the tune since 2000. This would almost feel like a bustout, until you remember that you’d be getting excited about a part of a song not being played.
However, it’s easy to get excited about what did follow the final notes of Curtain: the opening chords of Col. Forbin’s Ascent. The song, which has been making fairly regular appearances toward the ends of tours, enjoyed its first narration of the modern era of Phish. In it, Trey described the band becoming trapped in a storage unit while driving through this area of New York in 1988, and gaining the power to control reality through music while inside. Superball IX, he explained, was in fact a delusion that was dreamed up by the band 23 years earlier. Perhaps attempting to tie it back to the America theme imposed by the July 4th weekend, he went on to say that this country’s production of useless junk has outpaced its ability to build new storage space for all the junk, and so the storage unit they’ve been trapped in all these years will need to finally be used. The lucky individual who gets to unlock them: the famous mockingbird, of course.
A fun little tale, and one that allowed the band both to explain the previous night’s jam and get in a dig at American consumerist culture. Patriotic? Not quite. Entertaining? Absolutely.
The crowd-pleasing nature of the set continued with 2011’s first Destiny Unbound, which was more adventurous than most recent versions, but still sloppy, and a quick Big Black Furry Creature From Mars. The middle third of the set concluded with a longer-than-usual Wilson and Mound.
The last four songs saw the band stretching out, and unleashing some of its best non-late-night improvisation of the weekend. A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing, unplayed since Manchester last fall, included a long outro that could have come from outer space or a storage space, but whatever space it came from, it sounded good. The band turned on a dime into Time Loves a Hero, last played during Halloween’s Waiting for Columbus set.
The set’s improvisatory peak came next in Reba. Including Dave’s Energy Guide-esque jamming and a rare (but horribly botched) whistling section, this was easily one of the finest versions of the song since the band’s 2009 return. To follow it up, they launched right into one of the best Bowies of 3.0. In a version that explored varying rhythmic and melodic patterns and included patient, synergistic playing from all four members, the band displayed a level of creative inspiration that was sorely lacking for the first two days of the festival, and closed out the excellent second-to-last set on a high note.
With Superball IX coming to an end, and many staples (Disease, YEM, Fluffhead, Slave) still unplayed, many thought a predictable final set was on tap. But the band had other ideas: they concluded the festival with an oddly paced set that felt a bit like throwing all the leftovers from a party into a blender, adding a few spices to keep the flavors fresh, and hitting “Puree.”
The set opened with Big Balls, an AC/DC debut that paid tribute to the “ball” theme of the festival, and that gave the opportunity for a big cheer at the “super ball” line, but that mostly seemed like an excuse for the band to sing about balls for three minutes.
The obligatory Down with Disease followed, and its 13 minutes of straight rock jamming did not disappoint. Eventually, it descended into an ambient space, out of which No Quarter emerged. The Led Zeppelin tune, which many fans had heard hints of all weekend, had only previously been played in Holmdel a month earlier, and this version was every bit as strong as that one.
With the set seeming to have established its psychedelic rock credentials, the band switched gears, launching into Party Time. The song’s placement was puzzling: many expected it to open the first set of the festival, not to come midway through the last. Trey recovered from some problems with the composed part, and the mood shifted right back to its pre-Party Time location with the beginning of Ghost.
The next five songs featured a good portion of the night’s jamming; though Ghost was cut painfully short, Light had an excellent psych-funk jam that was easily among the weekend’s highlights; Waves’ psychedelic overtones, which seemed left over from the previous night, transitioned perfectly into What’s the Use.
As Meatstick began, it seemed like there was a tug of war for the set’s vibe: it was being pulled towards Ball-closing festiveness on one side, and on the other, towards jammy exploration, perhaps to compensate for the abbreviated nature of so many of the weekend’s songs.
Stealing Time, which didn’t quite fit into either formulation, followed awkwardly, but had a raging guitar solo, reminiscent of many a set-closing Character Zero. This version didn’t quite close the set: having just passed midnight, the band honored America with an a cappella version of the national anthem before closing the festival with a fireworks-enhanced version of First Tube.
So, returning to my opening analogy of Phish as teasing lover, where did the final night of Superball IX leave us? To put it in Facebook terms, the answer would have to be “It’s Complicated.” If we’ve learned anything from Phish over the five weeks since Bethel, it’s that they’re capable of being a different band depending on the night of the week, and some of the bands they’re capable of being are far better than others. Last night’s show had far and away the best improvisation of the weekend, but for a festival, it was still woefully short on jams, with 13 songs in each set and nothing over 13 minutes except the naturally long Reba and Bowie. Compared to most 2011 shows, it was very jammy. But compared to shows from most festivals, it was not. Where the band improvised, it sounded great: ASIHTOS, Reba, Disease, Light and Waves were all quite good. But none was allowed to follow its natural course to a place as inspired as what occurred during the final jam of Thursday’s soundcheck.
Which leaves us back where we started the festival: with an understanding that Phish is capable of great moments, but that their greatest moments are reserved for when no one is around to see them. It’s a frustrating reality, but it’s reality nonetheless. As fans, the most we can do is enjoy what we have. And in the meantime, beg the band to release recordings of more of their soundchecks.