August 16th, 1996 was the first day of the first ever Phish festival*, which the band gave the quirky almost-funny title: the Clifford Ball, and it took place on an abandoned airstrip in Plattsburgh, New York.
I pulled in, parked on an impossibly long strip of asphalt, and pitched my tent on the unforgiving tarmac right next to my car, along with about 70,000 others (Phish fans were young and plucky back then). I was quite astounded by the massive turnout for a band I had seen play for a crowd of a few hundred people just two years earlier. Apparently the band was pretty astounded too. Who could blame them?
Unlike most (all?) of their subsequent festivals, the Clifford Ball also featured a handful of other acts, but the only one I can recall seeing was the Clifford Ball Orchestra, a collection of classical musicians who played Stravinsky and Debussy tunes during the afternoon, which I rather enjoyed.
As for the band itself, well, they were clearly as excited as anyone to be there and they put in a trio(!) of killer sets of music which culminated in a massive singalong Harry Hood replete with big-time fireworks. ’Twas awesome.
(Phish also kicked off their festival tradition of playing a secret late-night no-song jammy improvised set somewhere on the festival grounds. In this inaugural case the band played from the back of a flat-bed trailer that was slowly towed through the vast camping area. I didn’t know it was coming and missed it completely, much to my chagrin.)
But truthfully, the real star of the festival was the festival itself. There were cool installations all over the place, a post office where you could make and mail your own postcards, nifty military flybys overhead, and just a whole pile of fun stuff to see and do. And then there were all the great, fun-loving, cool people to meet and hang out with. We were quite a force – the crowd quadrupled the size of the town that surrounded the air force base – but we were a force of nothing but good vibes. They, we, all of us were the real attraction, a merry band of semi-nomadic freaky fans following around a merry band of fully-nomadic misfit musicians.
As it continues to be, happily.
*Not counting Amy’s Farm, a one-day Phish-only camping gathering that happened very, very early on in the band’s career. I think calling Amy’s Farm a festival would be a bit of a stretch, festive as it must have been for those in attendance.