04.02.98 Nassau Coliseum – Phish
Phish Archives 1002
"Four-Two-Two." A magical combination of numbers that, in the years following the spring of 1998, took on a near-religious meaning. A counter-jinx to the damaging numbers "nine-eleven." An expression with a specific origin, yet unlimited destination. A healing and redemptive utterance, though most folks are regrettably unaware of its existence, much less its meaning. My friends, on the other hand, are likely to approach anyone who speaks it like royalty. It's not a secret password, but it will open the door.
Four-Two-Two is slang shorthand for "Phish, April 2nd, 1998, Set II." Its implications, however, like those of an outstanding parable, are so much further reaching.
You see, Four-Two (and I leave off the second "Two" here because truthfully, both sets matter), is far more than just a typically great Phish show. To some, like myself for example, Four-Two is nothing less than a complete cosmology.
It didn't start that way, of course. I mean it started like any other typically great Phish show. This was in April of 98 and the band hadn't performed live since the New Year's shows four months earlier (which, incidentally, is one of the few four-night Phish runs that can give this one any competition). Phish was obviously hot. They had just completed what many considered their best season ever. But that was in the fall. This was spring.
The first set tangibly sounds like a band exuberant just to be playing live again. The desperation and relief is actually palpable. They were shaking off hay fever. After all, it had been a long four months of hibernation. During that time, Phish almost certainly spent all of their practice hours fine-tuning new material and preparing to record a new album. Opening the Island Tour (and, therefore, this show) with "Tube" was an inspired choice. Clearly. In the set that follows, you can hear some minor creaks in places where there weren't before ("The Sloth," "N.I.C.U."), but Phish were so commanding of their game at this point that they were able to patch the leaks before any water got through. They could take a miscue and make it seem like a thoughtful revision.
Remember: Phish was one singular beast back then. All four were one whole. And that one whole was large enough to encompass an entire universe. Those who had the good fortune of falling into its vortex were perfectly content to remain in that dimension for as long as Phish would let them. It was a friendly universe. A well-equipped universe. An enlightened universe. And some of us called it home. By the time Phish launched into an energetic and exploratory "Stash" we felt welcomed back.
But Four-Two-Two was something else entirely, man. Four-Two-Two was no place to call home. Like much of the Island Tour at large, Four-Two-Two was like standing on the front lawn of the universe and peeping into the living room window. It was a direct view of the Power Source. If you looked straight into it, there was a chance you'd go blind. Then again, there was a chance that you'd become an immortal.
It didn't start that way, of course. It started just like any other Round Two. After a healthy setbreak, Phish (the rock band) took the stage and counted off "Punch You In The Eye." The crowd went wild. Nothing unusual. Likewise, "Simple" was stellar but reasonable; "Simple" was often stellar and certainly had the capability to sustain any show, be it legendary (June 22nd 1994 in Columbus, Ohio comes to mind), or casual (I'm thinking of November 8, 1996 in Champaign, IL). The debut of "Birds of a Feather" remains one of Phish's strongest out-the-box debuts and despite the unfamiliarity of the musicians as much as audience is still a favored version among fans.
But then it happens. It begins with a spell of violence, I'm afraid. It begins with a deadly one-two punch of "Wolfman's Brother > Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley" that, in itself, is a total KO. The jamming is redemptive. The segue, stratospheric. The band intentionally follows that with the debut of "Frankie Says," as if to tell the battered listeners, "Yeah, we know what we just hit you with… but relax, take a moment, get your bearings, relax, take a deep breath, you’ll be fine." Then, just to make sure that you’re not fine, that you’ll in fact probably never fully recover, they fire up a "Twist" (Best. Version. Ever.) that rapidly disintegrates into some kind of monster jam clearly stolen from a scene in a Terrance McKenna-imagined future. This is no longer a rock concert; these are no longer rock musicians; you’re no longer a rock audience. Suddenly, it’s four evil wizards on stage manipulating their instruments in a way that it picks up hidden codes from alien climes and zaps them, sci-fi style, into the mind of the listener. There it leaves an engraved imprint (Four-Two-Two, perhaps?) and waits for further instructions.
I was in the arena that night, man, and so I have the mark. Yes, I'm one of the Marked Ones. The insignia is burned somewhere on my psyche, waiting for activation. Yes, and this is why Phish needs to reunite one day: they need to realign themselves in just the right position at just the right time in just the right place to pick up the follow-up signals which, obviously, will crack the code and succeed in activating and translating the message, be it from alien gods or simple interplanetary pranksters, that’s already implanted in all of our physical bodies.
In the meantime, I'll listen to this particular Live Phish release again and again, combing it for clues. In the event I don’t find any, well, no matter — it’s still some great fuckin’ music. In fact, some of the greatest rock music ever performed. And that includes alien climes, of course.