Roughly 30,000 people converged at the Watkins Glen International race track this weekend for Magnaball, the tenth multi-day festival presented by Phish, the remarkably resilient improvisational rock band that formed over 30 years ago in Burlington, Vermont. The quartet staged its first "big" festival back in 1996, when they drew an astonishing 80,000 people to a former Air Force Base in Plattsburgh, New York. During Phish's first set on Friday, frontman Trey Anastasio paused to recall that debut festival (named Clifford Ball, after a famous aviator), explaining that his first daughter was almost one year old at the time, and the first day of the sold-out Magnaball was her 20th birthday.

Anastasio then asked the audience if they would sing "Happy Birthday" for Eliza, and dragged her out onstage as the crowd obliged. The unabashedly personal touch (you can currently see it here at the 33 minute mark) solidified an already upbeat and friendly atmosphere that continued throughout the festival, which was impeccably organized and executed.

Trey brings his daughter Eliza out for a happy birthday wish. 📷 by Patrick Jordan.

A photo posted by phishfromtheroad (@phishfromtheroad) on




The contemporary summer rock festival experience, which is largely an outgrowth of the template Phish established, has expanded dramatically in America in recent years, with a wide range of multi-artist festivals of various genres happening all over the country. But Phish's semi-regular blowouts remain unique in that Phish is the only band on the bill. They performed eight sets over the course of three days, adding up to nearly 12 hours of music, including an unscheduled ambient space-rock late-night set, concealed behind a giant 175-foot movie screen hung on the back of some giant racetrack bleachers.




This was Phish's world, a sort of temporary autonomous zone for those who can't get enough of their particular blend of improvisational prog rock "cow funk," as Anastasio once put it. (The group's keyboardist, Page McConnell, has reportedly described his group as "a four man ethereal improvisation-based jazz-rock-barbershop quartet fusion band," which sounds about right.) But the world of Magnaball was also accessible for the uninitiated; there was plenty to do in addition to the mainstage action, and everyone I had interactions with was quite cordial and considerate.

The setting, nestled among the bucolic rolling hills of the Finger Lakes, was ideal, with pleasant 70-degree days followed by cool nights (temperatures dropped down into the low 50s early Saturday morning). Phish is now a middle age dad band—Anastasio said that all four band members' 11 children were backstage during Magnball—and their fanbase is maturing along with them. More families than I've ever observed at a rock fest were adorably spread out on blankets at the back of the concert field, and the traditional neo-hippie jamband drug bazaar in the campgrounds was notably subdued. At least two couples were married on the festival grounds during the weekend.

This was Phish's second festival at Watkins Glen International, which previously attracted 600,000 people in 1972 for a concert headlined by The Allman Brothers and The Grateful Dead. A lot has changed since then, and Phish appears to have mastered the experience. In addition to numerous shower facilities and proper bathrooms, the food options were high-quality and abundant, from vegan quinoa bowls to gourmet sliders to watermelon smoothies.

Magnaball drive in #magnaball #magnaball2015 #phish #watkinsglen

A photo posted by Kaya Mae Wilson (@phunkadelic_fairyy) on




There were more upscale options for attendees willing to spend above the $225 ticket/camping price. Pre-assembled deluxe "European-style" tents with beds and furniture costing $1,199 in a VIP section were fully sold out, and an on-site upscale restaurant served five course gourmet dinners ($122) throughout the weekend, featuring locally-sourced ingredients prepared by the Syracuse eatery LOFO (Love Food, Local Focus), plus reasonably-priced à la carte brunch and lunch. NYC mixologists were enlisted for a craft cocktail lounge, and a spacious tent near the stage served craft beer from around the world.

But even without spending extra on those luxuries, it was possible for the average concertgoer to camp comfortably for three nights, shower daily, eat very well (the vendors' prices were no different from what you'd pay in NYC for food) and sleep peacefully in a quiet, "family camping" area if they preferred. There were well-attended group yoga sessions every morning, a post office, a radio station, and a farmer's market on site sold fresh produce. That's where you might have stumbled across bassist Mike Gordon on Saturday afternoon when he joined his daughter Tessa at her lemonade stand and then played upright bass with an upstate bluegrass band. Meanwhile, a goofy group of performance artists in lab coats conducted absurd "experiments" at the base of a two-story tower dubbed the Laboratory.

The Lab at night. #magnaball

A photo posted by @woznacci on




There was far more stimulus here than anyone can be expected to process on a daily basis, yet the center of gravity for all this colorful frivolity remained, as always, the music performed by Phish. Somehow, three decades deep, the band is better than ever, drawing from a wealth of life experience and playing with a soulful cohesiveness. Performing songs from across their expansive catalog, from deep cuts like "Camel Walk" and "The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday" to new songs like "No Men In No Man's Land" (debuted just four weeks ago at the start of their summer tour), Phish displayed a sober command of Anastasio's most complex compositions and an emotional depth that wasn't always apparent in their salad days, when everything was a joke (except their work ethic).

The band's sense of humor is still intact (drummer Jon Fishman delivered one of his famous vacuum cleaner solos on Sunday night as Anastasio thanked the crew) but I couldn't listen to emotionally-charged ballads like "Backwards Down The Number Line" or "Wading in the Velvet Sea" and not think about how the story could have ended quite differently; the band unequivocally broke up in 2004, and Anastasio was arrested on a DWI charge near Saratoga two years later. It's possible that some of the euphoria permeating Magnaball was rooted in the collective awareness that the guitarist was able to alter his life's direction before it was too late and reassemble the group with renewed focus. This is not the way these rock star stories turn out, but here we are, decades after the first hipster started hating Phish, and they're still at it, unleashing theatrically-charged music that continues to enthrall and delight huge crowds. ("Prince Caspian"—who knew?)




It's hard to think of another rock band at Phish's level that, after 32 years, is still breaking new creative ground and finding fresh ways to surprise their particularly insatiable audience. They didn't need to spend a fortune producing a lavish, large-format film to accompany an ambient late-night music odyssey, but of course they did. And nobody would have complained if they hadn't capped the weekend with a spectacular fireworks display following the final set (which climaxed with Gordon and Anastasio's signature trampoline dance), but they did it anyway, as Frank Sinatra's "Summer Wind" drifted over the speakers. Phish isn't for everyone, and that's okay, because 30,000 feels like enough.

Happy #Magnaball! #phish

A photo posted by Scott (@scottharrisphoto) on




Gothamist photos by Haik Kocharian, whose film Please Be Normal

, starring Sam Waterston, is now streaming on Amazon Prime.