Jams Reign Supreme at Phish's Utopian Three-Day Magnaball Fest

Band's 10th major gathering features deep cuts, trampoline jumps, vacuum hijinks and surprise late-night improv set

At Magnaball, Trey Anastasio and Phish played nearly 12 hours of music during eight sets over three days. Credit: Bahram Foroughi

Even two decades into America's prolonged festival summer, there remains nothing like a Phish camp-out. Over the weekend, some 30,000 fans descended on the Watkins Glen International speedway in central New York to attend Phish's Magnaball, a sold-out three-day festival in which the 31-year-old Vermont quartet was the only musical act, give or take unamplified bluegrass combos and marching bands hired to wander the campgrounds. With art installations, a Ferris wheel and the Bunny — an on-site radio station simulcasting the concerts and freeform weirdness onto a local FM station by way of the otherwise highly programmed SiriusXM — Phish once again remade the world around them to their own design.

Phish played nearly 12 hours of music during eight sets over three days — an anomaly in this or any festival season — including an unannounced all-improvised late-night performance on Saturday hidden behind a massive 183-foot movie screen across the back of the speedway's bleachers. As they demonstrated by offering no repeated songs over the weekend and ample amounts of jamming, Phish have long since surrendered the pretext of playing their own distinct (and sometimes parodied) jazz/jam/prog/neo-classical/Broadway/Zappa/Dead subgenre for any audience except for their own. In return, their own audience has seemingly grown only more devoted. Where the group's fans once initiated massive glowstick wars during the band's jams, many now waited patiently for big downbeats to throw the plastic sticks in the air en masse, like massive neon fireworks shows. Though not as remote as other Phish events, such as their 1999 festival deep in the Florida Everglades, the weekend at Watkins Glen (which also hosted 2011's Super Ball IX) still felt worlds away from nearly everywhere.

At Magnaball, highlights weren't guest appearances, acoustic sets, thrust stages or even big hits, but the nitty-gritty of Phish's music. Pulling from three decades of fan favorites and deep cuts, the band earned some of the biggest cheers for new material like "No Men in No Man's Land" and "Blaze On," songs debuted at the current tour's start four weeks ago, and which have already earned their own bootleg shirts, available in Magnaball's campgrounds. Selling high-quality MP3s of every gig through LivePhish.com, as well as LivePhish+ subscriptions, and running multi-cam webstreams of many performances — including Magnaball — Phish has created a world where Phish heads keep up with the band's latest happenings in a manner somewhere between that of crazed sports fans and devotees of serialized cable dramas. Though fans have traded concert recordings since the band's mid-Eighties start, recent technologies like Periscope and Mixlr have allowed them to run their own audience streams if Phish aren't running their own (or even if they are), transforming the phenomenon known as Couch Tour into a nightly event when Phish is on the road.

"Ooooh, that's interesting!" exclaimed Jake Cohen, 34, a Ph.D candidate in musicology, as the band jammed on "Run Like an Antelope" during the bright daylight of the afternoon set of the festival's middle day. Cohen danced harder as the band executed "a modal shift and briefly tonicized another key," suggesting they might go even further afield. "Mike's just hanging on the diminished fifth," Cohen observed of the band's bassist, Mike Gordon, as the group brought the song and set to a big and noisy finish. For fans like Cohen, Phish are playing better than ever, a group isolated from broader musical trends and devoted to their own standards of virtuosity and idiosyncratic detail. The audience boogied, swayed, twitched and twisted like CGI creations. 

With its long, lazy pace, Magnaball was a summer vacation for a certain strain of music dorks. There are Twitter accounts devoted to whether or not a single song has a jam or not (latest status, updated this weekend: no), chord-by-chord maps of the band's improvisations (sometimes posted live), and impassioned discussions about whether or not it's even alright to try to objectively rank Phish shows. Some used the music as an access point to spirituality, like those who participated in a continuous program of Jewish gatherings organized by JamShalom and Shabbat Tent, including "Munchies and Meditations with Rabbi Shu." Other fans reacted differently. On the second day, whenever the quartet's jams reached their peaks, fans up front hoisted an American flag with an inflatable cock-and-balls attached, waving it triumphantly with the music and creating a pliant symbol for anyone still seeking one, whether debauched, radical or corny.

At Magnaball, the band gave fans plenty to chew on, including (on night one) a blissful 23-minute "Bathtub Gin" (from 1990's Lawn Boy) and a version of "Harry Hood" that pushed rhythmically and harmonically free from its well-worn jam paths. There was newer material, like "The Dogs" (from an album's worth of half-songs debuted last Halloween in Las Vegas, based on Disney thrift-store LP staple The Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House) and (on day two) "Scabbard," a recent through-composition by guitarist Trey Anastasio that might (with practice and continued performance) yield the kind of playful prog-rock drama of the band's earliest work. The band jumped on trampolines and vocal-jammed ("You Enjoy Myself"), unleashed perhaps the longest vacuum jam in the band's history by drummer Jon Fishman ("I Didn't Know"), played ambient mood pieces ("What's the Use"), dusted off tunes for the first time in a decade ("Mock Song"), got fans to shout in odd time signatures ("Punch You in the Eye") and dropped the occasional MOR-ready pop melody ("Waiting All Night").

Though the vast majority of music the band played was written in the Nineties or earlier, the band — and guitarist Trey Anastasio in particular — seemed committed to finding new jams in old places, sometimes awkwardly pushing at song endings until something gave, as on a 16-minute "Prince Caspian" that uncharacteristically closed a set without any return to song form. During the late-night Saturday jam (with giant screen and accompanying visual layers by the Montreal-based Moment Factory), the band worked aggressively to push their vocabulary into new places, with drummer Jon Fishman improvising on MIDI-triggered marimba, the music coalescing from un-Phish-y moments of gurgling water and stereo-panned atonal washes into more typically luminescent grooves.

And while the digital age has seemingly put a crimp in the music business, Phish fans have found no limit to the type of collectibles they might acquire in the name of their favorite band/brand, including LPs, water bottles, posters and more. Most mornings at Magnaball, lines of fans stretched across the concert field, waiting for the newest limited-edition merchandise. More impressively, Phish heads continue to produce their own physical artifacts in shockingly high volume. In addition to the now-expected bootleg shirts and bumper stickers, one could find fan-made Rubik's Cubes, posters, beer koozies, fanzines, hand-decorated Uno cards and highly detailed pins to be worn on baseball hats or elsewhere, the latest craft-craze among the festival republic.

While many varieties of pot, LSD and alcohol circulated, the open-air drug bazaar of Phish's Nineties and 2000s incarnations was seriously diminished. Though one concertgoer was found dead in her tent of still-unknown causes, a light and playful vibe permeated the campgrounds, named after defunct venues where Phish played. Where spun-out hippies and marauding nitrous mafias once plagued Phish festivals, the most serious problem in Magnaball's spread-out Tent City suburbs was an almost complete lack of directional signage, which made it hard to figure out how to get from, say, Wetlands to Nassau Coliseum. (Besides practice.)

One afternoon in the on-site farmer's market, bassist Mike Gordon's young daughter sold lemonade from a stand while her father joined a roving bluegrass band. The night before, guitarist Trey Anastasio brought his 20-year-old daughter onstage and led 30,000 people in a "Happy Birthday" sing-along to her. Now safely removed from the dark years, which included an apparently permanent breakup from 2004 to 2009 and a high-profile drug bust for Anastasio, the happiness has returned for this gleeful, escapist cartoon-rock combo. 

One Phish head in love with the vibe was Craig Herrick, 44, who ran a informal version of his Divided Sky Cafe — a Portland, Maine–based catering company and mobile eatery he runs with his twin brother — in the campground section known as Boston Garden. "Every time we come to one of these shows, I think, 'Oh, I could bring the kids here,'" he says. "It's just really nice." Though there was virtually no business for Herrick's "Elevensies" pancakes and breakfast scramble — officially vended food was plentiful and cheap — Herrick wasn't there to make money, just new friends. Herrick saw his first Phish show in 1991 at Amy's Farm, a legendary three-set party in the Maine woods that became a prototype for the band's do-it-themselves summer jams. Seeing some 30 shows between 1991 and 1993, Herrick soon joined what he calls a "commune," and what many call an actual cult, the Twelve Tribes, who recruited followers from Grateful Dead and Phish parking lots in the handcrafted Peacemaker bus. An architecture major who helped design the group's portable Common Ground café — once an officially sanctioned staple of East Coast jam festivals like Bonnaroo — Herrick and many others left around 2009. Some of the "ex-commies" (as Herrick jokes) were born and raised in the group, never allowed to listen to rock music of any kind, and have now become committed Phish heads. Herrick and his crew made their way to the front row for many of the Magnaball sets.

Blasting from car stereos, boomboxes and smartphones was the Bunny, the latest incarnation of Phish's long-running festival radio station. Broadcasting the band's sets live, the fan-loved station featured the band's long improvised soundcheck on Thursday night, appearances by band archivist Kevin Shapiro (playing unreleased recordings from the band's vaults) and a full-time roster of DJs playing absolutely no Phish at all, nor even any jam bands. Instead, Magnaballers found Brazilian soul, Hawaiian steel guitar, obscure Sixties reggae, disco novelties, sound collages, indie folk and the occasional familiar favorite. Along with sound-emitting installations overseen by Vermont artists Lars Fisk and Russ Bennett, the sound of the Bunny held the festival together, communicating the reassuring voice of a temporary autonomous zone in full splendor.

Marking Phish's 10th independently-produced festival — beginning with 1996's Clifford Ball — Magnaball was the penultimate party of the band's longest summer tour since their 2009 comeback. The American festival craze didn't really begin until the mid-1990s, with Phish's productions helping to kickstart a generation of jam shindigs. And while Phish continue to be industry leaders, defining and expanding the live-streaming concert market, as with so much in their career, they remain happily on the outside.

Usually a summer spot for auto-racing fanatics (who arrive in even bigger numbers than Phish heads), Watkins Glen offered an infrastructure tailor-made for Phish's particular and peculiar needs. Also the site of 1973's Summer Jam — where the Grateful Dead, the Band and the Allman Brothers played to an estimated 600,000 people — some contend that Watkins Glen '73 was the reason why speedways didn't become a regular home for rock concerts. With one 20th of the audience of Summer Jam, Phish's Magnaball created a miniature world that held together as long as one didn't think about it too hard and was willing to let it evaporate (for now) with the post-show fireworks display on Sunday night and the sound of Frank Sinatra's "Summer Wind" blowing the gunpowder away.