More than 20 years ago, Phish swam to Plattsburgh.
The improvisational ensemble, consisting of members guitarist and lead vocalist Trey Anastasio, drummer Jon Fishman, bassist Mike Gordon and keyboardist Page McConnell, cultivates an array of electric, jazz and psychedelic rock-oriented sound. Phish keeps the traditional 1960s jam band style alive and kicking.
After meeting and jamming in a dormitory at the University of Vermont in 1983, Anastasio, Fishman and former guitarist Jeff Holdworth posted flyers around to recruit a bassist. Gordon answered the ad and the rest is history.
Some of their best known songs include “You Enjoy Myself,” “The Divided Sky” and “Tweezer.” Phish is highly regarded for making sure no two shows are the same. Their dedicated fanbase are referred to as “phans.”
In 1996, Phish played at the decommissioned Plattsburgh Air Force Base. The event was known as The Clifford Ball, which was the first festival the band put together. No one knew what to expect that one August weekend.
“The Clifford Ball symbolizes many things,” Dwayne Boyd, a phan who attended, said.
Boyd traveled to the concert with his girlfriend and two friends, all compact in a tiny car with camping equipment. They endured the trip in the name of musical exploration, he adds.
Roughly 70,000 to 85,000 fans attended. The audience was four times the size of Clinton County and Plattsburgh became New York’s ninth-largest city that weekend, as mentioned by Ryan Randazzo in an article on nysmusic.com.
What did it mean for a popular band on the scene like Phish to play in a small scale area like the North Country? If anything, it inspired phans to travel to places they otherwise might not consider visiting. It also allowed those who were unfamiliar with Phish to catch a glimpse of their culture.
Janet Lavoie, a long time Plattsburgh resident recalls Volkswagen Beetles and vans flooding the Northway.
“I had to walk to work because of the traffic,” Lavoie said. “People camped outside of my office window at Jeffords Steel & Engineering.”
She recalls the phans’ friendly demeanor and could listen to Phish’s music from her porch at home near the base.
“Not all of the stereotypes are true,” Boyd said. He also believes this fanbase can have truly positive effects when they move into an area to concentrate their collective energy.
Gary Eisenberg, another phan who attended The Clifford Ball, described the event as magical.
“No one knew what to expect,” Eisenberg said. “Anything could happen.”
When the music wasn’t playing, Eisenberg wandered the grounds to hang out with folks, twirl juggling sticks or throw a frisbee around. Boyd would create spontaneous art projects between sets and remembers his girlfriend painting a scene of an aquarium on his back.
“Though there were plenty of drugs around, people were there for the music,” Eisenberg said. “This wasn’t about being f*ck*d up.”
Eisenberg has been to a few other Phish shows throughout the years, but this one is still his favorite.
The band is rather symbolic for some.
Iconic career highlights for Phish like the “Flatbed Jam” happened here in Plattsburgh. Around 3:30 in the morning, after the first night of The Clifford Ball, the band held a surprise set on the back of a flatbed truck. The flatbed was decorated with candles and Christmas lights, and circled through the field and parking lot, bringing together phans who were yet to fall asleep from the night before and awaken others with sweet, melodic music. It was an innovative moment that inspired future festivals.
“Phish reminds me not to take life too seriously all of the time,” Boyd said. “Festivals let fans unplug from reality for a short time and live in a fantasy for a weekend.”