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Published: 2005/08/08

04.04.98 Providence Civic Center – Phish

Phish Archives 1004

Well, kids, the year was 1998, and it was a good year.

Trey Anastasio's tone was thinner, his skin was thicker, his mode of dress less metro-bohemian, and Phish's sound remained a perfect syzygy of autonomously jamming planets held in psychedelic orbit around a free-form jazz idea that remained tangible enough to allow its play an effortless elegance and lush detail. Elements of its sound were finer, more attenuated, Darwinistically giving way to one another, and the specificity manifested itself in jams that came off as interwoven Brian Eno sound mosaics pushed into the realm of loose rock and roll. Loose yet urgent, slinky yet precise, affable yet carnal, the band was doing what it did better than any rock band on the planet — synchronously independent improvisation — and it was pretty fucking goddamn cool.

Ahem.

As a love letter to a fantastic era within the truncated life span of a great band, the April 4th, 1998 Providence Civic Center installment of the Live Phish series is, in a word, stellar.

"Tweezer" sets the pace for the three disc set, with an astral guitar loop winding behind languidly hypnotic funk . Mike Gordon's slackened basslines and Page McConnell's keys provide loopholes through which the frantic whispers of Anastasio's guitar weave and wind, propelling the jam into a deliciously hostile assault. "Taste" is equally effective, emerging in the familiar haze of guitar and piano and focusing on the deliberate nonchalance of McConnell's drunken fills, sliding between sides of a rocking ship, crashing against Anastasio's whirling solos.

One of the major highlights of the three discs, however, less expectedly, comes in the form of a positively searing take on "Funky Bitch". McConnell's Wurlitzer drips liquid smoke only to surge suddenly into glassy piano solos. The point, however, is driven home by the crisp clarity of Anastasio's savage stream of consciousness lines which, siphoned into the predictability of a blues progression, know where they're going but take delightfully circuitous routes in getting there.

In the late '90s, Trey Anastasio could be held up against any rock guitarist in the world, possessed of amazing hyper-speed dexterity and balancing an attention to atmosphere and detail derived from his ambient obsessions with an ability to stretch the momentum of a single instrumental thought to astounding extremes; his solos scuttling around blindly in tension building corners before pouring out through the proper exits, keeping their feet moving through the momentary panic. His play was, as it still is now, though rougher around the edges, the product of a dynamic that coupled his skill and cerebral approach with a fearlessness sublimated from total acceptance of change. In that period of time, Anastasio became more of a perfect microcosm of the band's collective sound than he ever had been or would be, in that the tightness of his play shouldered the bulk of its emotive force. More importantly, he wasn't concerned with making a mistake. Just as it a portrait of the band clicking on all cylinders, the set is as much a glimpse into a genius guitarist at his unruffled best.

The year marked the release of Story of the Ghost, and resultantly, the second half of the collection highlights a series of its numbers beginning to develop nascent live identities. "Birds of a Feather" digs deepest into the volatility of the jazz-rock hybrid, preserving an airy, embroidered delicacy within a mercurial groove. Anastasio’s play sinks to the bottom as bubbling groundwork, buoying up the sophistication of McConnell’s multi-tasking leads. Held in the countdown rumble of Gordon’s bass, fluttering piano lines double a kinetically hammered guitar solo, building enough extraterrestrial foreplay to frame a phenomenal 17-minute "2001" that emerges — as it happens — in a very cool speak-deeply-into-the-fan vocal loop.

The texture and contextualization of Anastasio's guitar work moves back into the lead along with Gordon to accentuate the band's airtight space-funk, crackling eagerly in partially lit recesses of the jam, weaving a groove into forward momentum (even if it takes a few Doobie Brothers like fills), encouraging itself out of the shadows, and baring its teeth. Bound by a quiet vocal jam derived from his wukka-wukka scratch fills, the jam segues nicely into the popping syncopation of a crowd-pleasing "Brother," replete with more sprightly astral solos, followed by a one minute "radio friendly" reprise.

"This next song", Anastasio announces to thunderous applause, "is radio unfriendly It’s radio unfriendly because it’s really long and it’s really slow."

"They hate that,", drummer Jon Fishman chimes in.

The tune is "Ghost" itself, a wobbling, slightly off-time take that stumbles out of the gate before righting itself to anchor (along with the Gamehendge injection "Lizards") a closing duet of powerhouse jam vehicles ("David Bowie," "Harry Hood"). The band nails and expands "Bowie," easily molding breezy jazz interludes into blistering hyper-speed vamps, with Gordon and Fishman's hyper-sensitive workouts tossing Anastasio's nimbly running play and McConnell's icy piano turbulently over head, shot pleasantly through by the tunes signature guitar freak-outs. "Hood," however, steals the show as the set closer, framing weightless atmospheric jamming while juxtaposing the gravity of the set's heavy improvisation against the imperturbable joy and solace that infiltrates the baroque complexity of Anastasio's early compositions, allowing them their considerable beauty.

The year was 1998, it was a good year, only seven years ago in point of fact, and six years before Phish's disbanded for fear of being a nostalgia act and consequently became a nostalgia item. Still, here now in this foul year of our lord 2005, one of the few advantages of the band's absence is that it allows us the delectable pleasure of returning to its wonderful noise after long, stately silences, or for that matter, the prolonged torture of radio-friendly tunes, not that it's much compensation, but for that matter….

You know what? Forget it.

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