Twenty Years Later: Phish’s Island Tour

by: Michael Shields

Twenty Years Later, Phish’s four night run through Long and Rhode Island remains one of the most jaw dropping and inspirational excursions in their storied career…

There are three words that when spoken in sequence around Phish fans that will invariably cause one to pause. Three words that will immediately whisk many a Phishhead back to a period of time bursting with excitement, awe, and unmitigated bliss. Those words, “The Island Tour,” signify much more than a remembrance of the concerts that took place in early April of 1998 in Long Island (Nassau Coliseum) and Rhode Island (Providence Civic Center). When mentioned, The Island Tour evokes a recollection of a musical experience like no other, and serves as a testament to the ability of Phish to furnish its fans with startling musical offerings. The Island Tour came out of nowhere, with the four show event announced on February 24th, just thirty-seven days before the start of the run. The band was “bored,” Phish frontman Trey Anastasio would later explain on the first night in Long Island, a telling sign that at this period in time Phish was absolutely in a groove, and they were demanding of an outlet for the fervent energy and artistry flowing through them.

Coming on the heels of their famed Fall ’97 tour, the one in which “Phish Destroys America,” and one of their most notable New Years Eve runs in their career, and preceding a European tour that began in late June that led into an excellent 1998 summer tour back on U.S. soil, The Island Tour wasn’t simply a holdover for fans in that period in between, but a tour-de-force exemplification of Phish’s abilities at arguably the height of their powers. After a string of notable and game-changing practice sessions held the previous month in which the band developed a slew of new songs, The Island Tour found not only Phish as enthusiastic and energized as ever, but its fanbase as well. It was so clear that each and every person present knew they were in the thick of something remarkable. The shows were all unique and outstanding, all high-charged celebrations that left fans drenched with perspiration and their minds blown.

This journey, brief but unforgettable, began at the former home to the New York Nets and New York Islanders, an arena built in the early ‘70s that the Grateful Dead would frequent1 and where Frank Zappa played his final U.S. show on March 25, 1988. An arena that Phish absolutely tore to shreds to commence the four night run, Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

4.2.98 Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Uniondale, NY

A capacity crowd, all in shock that this run was actually happening, zestfully assembled in the lot of the Nassau Coliseum, and poured into the venue forthwith, anticipation reaching a fever pitch early. To many, regardless of the overall value of the concert, the first thing that comes to mind in recollection of the first night of The Island Tour is the stunning and mind-bending rendition of “Twist Around,” a song which anchored the evening’s fiery second set. But there is far more at play here. When the light’s went down, and the band finally mounted the stage, it was an inspired “Tube” that kicked the show off, exemplifying the fact that this night, this entire run of shows, was going to be special. The extended “Tube,” an accompaniment to the versions dropped in Dayton (12.11.97) and at Madison Square Garden (12.29.97), led into a series of often bottled up classics (“My Mind’s Got A Mind of Its Own,” “Sloth, and “Horn), and a nice sequence of the always affecting “Waste” > “Chalkdust Torture” to close the set. But it was a momentous “Stash” that stands out eminently in this first set (“Stash’s in this era, I mean…), a psychedelic whirlwind of a song that was as dark as it was twisted, and one of the better versions I have heard to this day.

The second set that evening featured the debut of a song that would work its way quickly into the hearts of fans. “Birds of a Feather,” a banger that would stretch its wings and fly just a few nights later (more on that to come!), led into a brilliant segment of music that was “Wolfman’s Brother” > “Sneaking Sally Through The Alley” > and then the debut of the dizzying, yet soothing, “Frankie Says.” But it was the aforementioned “Twist Around” which captivated and stunned the crowd, featuring a lengthy piece of improvisational glory that contained within its depths moments of deep psychedelia mixed with instances of pure bliss and release. This “Twist” is regarded by Phish fans as the quintessential distillation of the song, and one of the most psychotropic pieces of music I have ever heard from the band. While the high water mark for the song, it is only one of the many takeaways from The Island Tour, the gift that would continually keep giving.

Soundcheck: Funky Bitch > Jam, Birds of a Feather

SET 1: Tube, My Mind’s Got a Mind of its Own, The Sloth, NICU, Stash > Horn > Waste > Chalk Dust Torture

SET 2: Punch You In the Eye > Simple > Birds of a Feather^, Wolfman’s Brother -> Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley > Frankie Says^ > Twist > Sleeping Monkey > Rocky Top

ENCORE: Guyute

^ Debut

4.3.98 Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Uniondale, NY

I have a close acquaintance who holds the second night of The Island Tour in such high regard that he made the effort to frame his original Maxell XL II cassette recording of the show. In his bathroom, the framed remanence of this remarkable evening remains postured for all to see when they relieve themselves. While his wife doesn’t find this commemoration suitable, I find this gesture to be absolutely appropriate, and a proper nod to one of the greatest concerts Phish has ever performed.

An absolutely blazing “Mike’s Song” kicked off the night, Phish gracing its fans with another barnburner of an opener, and after the breath of air and sanity that was “Old Home Place,” the Mike’s Groove culminated with a “Weekapaug” that contained in it sections of “Crosseyed and Painless” and “Mozambique” (the song’s first sighting!). The front-heavy, in terms of quality, set also featured a welcome and gorgeous “Billy Breathes” and the glory of “Reba” and its “chill.” But it is when the lights went down for the second time that evening that this show metamorphosed from good, to legendary.

Even the most green of Phish fans are aware of what happened next, as the band unleashed upon its faithful the “four-pack” to end all four-packs. The set began with a cover of Ween’s “Roses Are Free,” which debuted just a few months prior in Rochester, New York, and this version paired with the “Piper” that followed is forty-five minutes of pure majesty. Enough cannot be said of the multifarious soundscapes crafted within this sonic excursion, and the “Loving Cup” that followed it can only be looked upon as the calm (relatively!) after the powerful, all consuming storm. A fun, and whimsical — thanks to the fan who jumped on stage only to be corralled by drum tech / stage security guard Pete Carini (“Carini’s gonna get you!”) —“Run Like An Antelope” capped off a set that lives now in lore, and when the band returned for the encore they played the second ever domestic version of  “Carini” (the first, 12.30.97), a “Halley’s Comet,” and then the song version of an exclamation point that is “Tweezer Reprise.” It was then that the deed was done. Phistory had taken place. The Island Tour was, two shows in, already emphatically extraordinary, and there was still so much to come…

SET 1: Mike’s Song > The Old Home Place > Weekapaug Groove, Train Song > Billy Breathes, Beauty of My Dreams,Dogs Stole Things > Reba, My Soul

SET 2: Roses Are Free > Piper > Loving Cup > Run Like an Antelope^

ENCORE: Carini > Halley’s Comet > Tweezer Reprise

^ “Carini’s gonna getcha” sung several times in intro. “Carini” spoken later in the song.

4.4.98 Providence Civic Center, Providence, Rhode Island

Having attended the 1994 Providence Civic Center show that was a part of that year’s New Year’s run (12.29.94) — the one where they took “David Bowie” for a blustery ride — the venue already had a piece of my heart. But after the two night stand that concluded the four night Island Tour, PCC is a place I will always think of fondly. Continuing the culture of kicking in the door with a bang that had already defined the terse run, Phish commenced the first night in Providence with a “Tweezer,” and from there they were off and running (so fast, their feet…). While those of us who eagerly made the drive to Providence from Long Island surmised a “Tweezer” had to open the PCC show, due to the fact a “Tweezer Reprise” was the cherry on top of the Nassau run, we couldn’t have predicted the twenty-minute exploratory jaunt that ensued.

The story of the night, however, was the “Birds” > “2001” > “Brother” sequence that kicked off the second set, forging the already raucous environment into nothing short of an arena-wide dance party. The “Birds” (unreal this was only its second appearance!), “2001,” and the “radio-friendly” “Brother” (they went all in!), three of the finner versions of each song as far as I am concerned, still floors me to this day with its pulse-pounding and danceable grooves and rhythms. The soundtrack to many a Phish fans’ house party, it is remarkable to think that this brilliantly executed disco-funk trio was capped off by a “radio unfriendly” “Ghost,” a “Lizards” which provided a much needed breather, and a deep, dark and combustible (and appropriate considering the venue!) “Bowie.” A “Harry Hood” encore, with all its bliss-fueled peaks, followed, sending fans into the night entirely euphoric.

Soundcheck: Jam, Shafty, Roggae

SET 1: Tweezer > Taste, Bouncing Around the Room, Funky Bitch, Ginseng Sullivan, Limb By Limb, Lawn Boy, Character Zero

SET 2: Birds of a Feather > Also Sprach Zarathustra > Brother, Ghost > The Lizards, David Bowie

ENCORE: Harry Hood

4.5.98 Providence Civic Center, Providence, Rhode Island

Yet again, starting the ball off rolling with purpose, Phish began the final night of The Island Tour with an “Oh Kee Pa” > “YEM” pairing, and the momentum forged with this opener, and with all that had come the previous three nights, was built upon as the band fashioned two remarkable sets of music. Excellent versions of fan favorites such as “Theme From The Bottom,” “McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters,” ”Bathtub Gin,” “Cities” and the perpetual mind-fuck that is “Split Open and Melt” marked an unblemished first set, and led into a second set that felt like a celebration of the moment. A “Down with Disease” kicked the second set off with ferocity, and a piping-hot  “Maze” > “Shafty” coupling and a tremendous “Yamar” and the always sturdy “Prince Caspian” acted as the prelude to a funky “Possum” that transitioned into THE funky “Cavern.” Trey, rocking a Pepe Le Pew T-shirt, a favorite of his at the time, echoed a sentiment that all hardcores in attendance felt, that it “is kind of weird to stop after four days.” He then quipped that he “started this whole funk groove,” that oscillated around him as he spoke, “because we can’t end this whole thing without a little bit more funk, since that’s kind of been the theme. So, those who want to take off, take off. For those of you who want to just dance to the funk, we’re going to stay around and keep doing it.” It’s easy to chuckle at the comment in hindsight, as we — every last single person in the building — weren’t going anywhere of course, not ever during a show would a true fan be bouncing, but particularly in this case. In fact, we could have stayed in that moment, deep within a filthy funk groove and amid the grandeur of The Island Tour, forever.

SET 1: The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony > You Enjoy Myself, Theme From the Bottom > McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters > Bathtub Gin > Cities > Sparkle > Split Open and Melt

SET 2: Down with Disease, Ya Mar > Prince Caspian > Maze > Shafty ^ > Possum > Jam > Cavern

ENCORE: Bold As Love

^ Debut.

The Island Tour is as unfathomable in its brilliance now, twenty years later, as it was to fans in the late ’90s. It’s baffling how each song was played to its utter zenith, and the excitement and joy that surrounded its occurrence is something I think of fondly. The Island Tour kept Phish’s momentum triumphantly steamrolling, bridging the gap between their remarkable four night New Years stand at Madison Square Garden and the summer shows that followed. Over eight sets, the band was as impressive, as jovial, and as loose as fans had ever seen them. Every bit of it, each song and moment, was awe-inspiring, and I may never come to grips with the excellence featured throughout those four nights…but I will certainly try, taking these shows for an auditory spin time and again, until my very last breath.

  1. A performance by the Dead at Nassau resulted in the live album: Go to Nassau. []

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