The Relentless Communicator: Island Tour Memories

I’ll save my thesis about how 1998 was Phish’s greatest year for another day, but let me still begin post conclusively: The Island Tour is where my Phish experience hit its highest heights.

Within seconds, I answer “4/3/98” in response to any query about the best Phish show ever.

With this past weekend marking the thirteenth anniversary of that memorable run, I’m going to use this week’s Relentless Communicator column to list my ten favorite memories, musical and otherwise, about my trip to Nassau Coliseum that spring. I missed Providence, unfortunately, but they sure made for great tapes!

1. Surprise shows! – Phish had come off of a pretty hot year in 1997, and with recording in full swing on The Story of the Ghost, there was little expectation of dates… but they announced some anyway! The band spent ample time joking about it from stage during the first show. What kills me the most is that I don’t think that sort of thing is ever happening again. Phish as an organization doesn’t seem to move with the nimbleness it did in the past. The fact they’ve already announced “no shows after summer tour” seems to confirm that. It’s a shame. Phish badly wanted to get out and play in April of 1998, it’s impossible not to hear that in their playing, even when listening back thirteen years later.

2. Getting out of town – My friend Marc, a Long Island boy born and bred, was the impetus behind our entire trip. He said that these shows were must-see shows since they were in his backyard, and we could crash at his folk’s house and all would be well. The problem was, he was in an exam until the mid-afternoon and it wasn’t a short drive from the University of Maryland to Nassau Coliseum. I’ve forgotten a lot of things about college, but I’ll never forget pacing the hallways of Tydings Hall waiting for Marc to finish his test and peering into the classroom every few minutes. The euphoria I felt when I saw him rise to hand in his blue book has yet to be rivaled.

3. Showing up cold – These days, my friends and I are show-going pros. We’ve got the resources to do it up right and we have plenty of experience raging all varieties of shows and we always come prepared. This wasn’t the case in the halcyon days of 1998 and my group found ourselves woefully unprepared. A sunny and warm day in Maryland doesn’t mean it’s the same case to the north. That’s a fact my Hawaiian shirt and shorts clad self found out the hard way. My biggest memory of the lot scene on the island tour was shivering half to death. I pack an assortment of appropriate clothing these days.

4. Twist & Stash – The most memorable jams from that first night were in the first set’s Stash, which goes to weird places, and the “Twist Jam” which gets dark and ambient. Of the two, I prefer the Stash myself, but they’re both great. For me, at the time, it was all about being at only my sixth show and still seeking those songs that had eluded me thus far. I’d seen Stash at nearly every show to that point, so I shrugged it off at the time. Twist was a favorite from that batch of songs, but I don’t really remember digging into that one until later listens.

5. Birds and Frankie make their debuts – According to IHOZ, I’ve seen 54 songs performed live by Phish for the very first time. However, a closer examination shows that most of those are one-offs and goofy covers. Of all the tunes I’ve seen debuted, none has become as ingrained into Phish’s playlist as Birds of a Feather. I can be a little bit of a setlist fetishist at times, and song debuts is one of those times. For whatever reason, whenever I hear the band bust out Birds, I think to myself, “I was there the first time…”.

6. Guyute Encore – One of the things about seeing Phish is that the songs themselves go through changes in your eyes. There was a time earlier in my Phish-going career where I wasn’t burned out on Guyute, and would have listed it as a top five Phish song. This was one of those times, and for the band to end their first show with a Guyute encore, it told my nineteen year old ears that they meant business. My ears were right.

7. Weekapaug Groovin’ – The second night’s show opened with Mike’s Song, an odd parallel between the Island Tour and my last foray into the world of Phish: my inaugural trip to the Mothership in November of ’97. Either way, the most memorable part about that first set was the Weekapaug that would follow. We were perched in the 300 level high above Fishman’s kit, and from this vantage point we had a great view of the whole stage. Forever burned into my memory is Trey getting down in the dark while Mike thumped away during his bass solo. It’s something I look for every time I see Weekapaug but I haven’t seen that same unbridled enthusiasm from Big Red in a long while.

8. Roses Are Free and jamming into and out of Piper – The second set of this show is on my list of desert island discs, so it seems reasonable it’s listed in it’s entirety as a highlight. To me, it has everything Phish does in one blazing set. The tandem of Rose Are Free and Piper feature the most exploratory jamming of the run, and it’s pretty flawless. It’s hard to argue with how the band navigates the deep murky regions of the Roses jam and manages to barrel into and out of Piper. Listen to that Piper and tell me that Phish has played with that sort of visceral energy lately and I’ll call you a liar.

9. “Carini’s gonna getcha!” – I love it when Phish gets “Phishy” which, to me, is usually synonymous with wacky and weird. When a fan ran on stage, eluded Pete Carini’s capture and leapt back into the audience to the approval of his peers, the show took a turn for the dramatic. The band had been chatty already, and they continued riffing on how it was okay to run on stage “but don’t let Carini getcha”. This served to rachet up the tension as the band kept running their mouths about Pete Carini as the intro to Run Like an Antelope paced in it’s tracks. It was the perfect tension builder, and the crowd was ready to go. To this day I still get chills when the band finally tears into Antelope. Couple it with one of the first glowstick wars in a pitch black arena, and this one is on my list of Top 5 Single Song performances. Energy in a bottle.

10. Carini > Halley’s > Tweeprise – By this point the band had delivered a four song second set that had both exploratory type II jamming, and absolute energy. It would be hard to keep it rolling but this three song encore didn’t disappoint. The band returned to the stage and ripped into a Carini that everybody in the house knew had to be coming, which flowed into a perfunctory version of Halley’s Comet. The real kicker was the out of nowhere Tweeprise that closed things out. A friend of mine hates Tweezer, because it ensures that the show ends with Tweeprise. I say the opposite: any show that ends with Tweeprise ends on a high note. As with the whole Island tour, we had no idea this one was coming.

Bored at work? Watch 4/2/98 and 4/3/98 in their entirety on YouTube. Do it. It’s good for you. I won’t tell your boss.