07.06.98 Lucerna Theatre – Phish
Well, one couldn’t just stay on the Island Tour like an erstwhile tribe of Peter Pan aficionados. Coming on the heels of the reinvention of Phish's sound in 1997, the triumphant four-night tour in April 1998 was neither a holiday run nor just a series of Phish shows. They appeared historic in some bizarre way: A last stand? A chapter end? The beginning of a new era? By contrast, the 1998 European summer dates seemed to equate to a holding pattern. The band wasn’t always hitting the notes or transitions with superhuman precision like they had in the past, but they were still riding the proverbial back of history towards some sort of inevitable conclusion.
That ethereal peak is a difficult timeline to document, almost like foot tracings in the sand, which the wave of history will wash away with its own editorial nonchalance. Indeed, in Prague, at the intimate and underground Lucerna Theatre, there were no apparent cracks in the mighty Phish empire as the raucous and friendly audience hear great old songs, covers and further explorations into material which would appear on the 1998 fall release, The Story of the Ghost.
The band begins with a rare “Buried Alive > AC/DC Bag,” which serves to flex muscles before another “Ghost” workout. This time, the band delivers a hard-rocking version which evokes high shred energy instead of anything too transcendent. The transition into “Cities” is, however, a moment of breathtaking beauty. The Talking Heads cover is, initially, being played way too quickly and Phish chooses to kick down into the original groove instead of inventing a new path of exploration during this moment of unique improvisation — a painfully abrupt moment that still, after ten years, has me wondering what they could have created after the high speed transition.
A willingness to explore nuance does create some classic Phish moments in “Cities,” and when “Train Song” appears out of nowhere with a glimpse of subtle magnificence. There is something quite human and profound in Mike Gordon’s vocals that drive the pathos home. “Roggae” is goofy but a very cool form of dorkiness that works well in a way that only Phish seemed to master. “Maze” contains a great complete stop as Trey Anastasio thanks the crowd for coming and then kicks back into the jam as if nothing had stopped timea nifty trick that continued to work, especially within funked-out downtempo numbers, in a relaxed setlist. Later, this ecstatic playfulness turns strange when “Golgi Apparatus” sounds like someone else is playing lead guitar for Phish. Trey Anastasio is showing signs of fatigue and appears ready to hit the backstage area for setbreak. Trey being Trey, he redeems himself somewhat by shouting out Jon Fishman’s name several times at the end of the song and set. This bit of shtick will evolve into a more elaborate bit of Fish fun later in the show.
The six-song second set continues the assault with a euphoric “Julius > Meat” opener. The former featuring Anastasio regaining his guitar hero theatrics and the latter re-establishing the band’s funk groove from 1997. However, what finally seals the deal on this release, after numerous sloppy yet exhilarating moments, is the band’s Herculean performance of the still relatively new “Piper.” At 20 minutes, they quickly run through the lyrics and kick into the highest gear of the night as they race each other for several miles of euphoric Phish at their unrefined worm zenith. Fishman pummels skins, Page McConnell rattles keys, Anastasio weaves betwixt wah wah pedals, chord crunchery and flailing lead lines, and Mike Gordon slices through the entire mix with a groove to keep it all somehow tethered to something brilliant. Eventually, they wind the song down to a very slow tempoangular lines descending back to earth within loops, piano notes and cymbal shots as the imagery dissolves.
“Makisupa Policeman” follows this spectacular madness after an inspired segue and, eventually, Anastasio requests the crowd to whistle, curtailing a potentially long Fishman drum solo. Indeed, the drummer plays a brief bit of lobotomized John Bonham on his kit and whistles appear from the buzzed mouths of the touring Americans and heady European ranks as the band kicks back into the reggae gem. “David Bowie” and “Loving Cup” close the set with fine, taut energy and serve as another strong reminder of how well their own material rested aside inspired cover songs. “Possum,” as an encore, is a prime choice, too with a final dose of tension and release to punctuate the evening. One is left with the knowledge that while nothing truly mind-bending or historic was really culled from this gig, the band was still quite good at framing a show while continuing to introduce numerous new songs into setlists filled with aging masterworks.