Phish — The Greek Theatre — Los Angeles, CA 10.29.1998
I Julius, Roggae, Llama, LxL, Driver, Sleep, Frankie Says, BOAF, McGrupp>Zero
II Possum>Moma>Reba->Walk Away>Simple>Albuquerque, Bowie
First let’s just get this out of the way…
Phish in 1998 was a much different animal than the band we have been discussing up to this point. Instead of being an heavy-touring, up-and-coming, looking-to-gain-fans-by-barnstorming-the-country act this was a band who had arrived. They were deep into a multi-album deal with Elektra which began with A Picture of Nectar (and the re-releases of both Junta and Lawn Boy) but really blossomed with Rift, Hoist, A Live One, and Billy Breathes. The touring was still significant relative to most major acts (and definitely still the core of what this band is, was, and ever shall be) but the days of 100 plus shows a year (to say nothing of a 70 plus show tour like back in the early 90s…) were over. With the benefit of a large, dedicated, and then still growing fan base and greater cache allowing them to play larger venues they were able to craft tours that reduced their travel commitments while still hitting key areas and which worked for the devoted masses who had hopped on tour by now.
By the time the Fall 1998 Tour began they had already enjoyed a year that many groups would have considered enough to be successful but as we know that wasn’t enough for these now seasoned vets of the music world. Things started with a huge bang with what became known as The Island Tour, which was a quickly announced four show run comprised of two shows at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island and two shows at the Providence Civic Center in Rhode Island. The energy from those now legendary shows carried over into the recording/organizing of what would become The Story of The Ghost beginning only one day later (check out this post over on phishthoughts and the linked music therein for more on these great sessions at Bearsville Studios that would produce not only that album but the fantastic Siket Disc as well, not to mention this one that focuses on the album itself) with the album release coming just two days before the start of the Fall Tour we are here to discuss. Summer Tour came next, starting with nine shows in Europe that allowed the band to first test out some of that new material followed by twenty-one shows in the US of A (a tour that deserves its own reviews eventually…). This was capped by their third official festival, Lemonwheel, which was another high point in a year already full of of them. Between the festival and the start of Fall Tour they played a well received set at FarmAid with Neil Young joining for significant sections, a surprise show at the FillmoreTheatre in San Francisco heavy on the jams, two sets at Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, CA (with several debuts and great guest sit-ins throughout), a set recorded for the PBS Sessions at West 54th showcasing the material off of the album to come as well as a great interview with host and major influence on the band David Byrne, and an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman to perform Birds of A Feather on the day of the album release. Not a bad month to get ready for tour! And I think I hit my monthly quota for links up there too.
All of this leads us to the start of this tour at the lovely outdoor venue that is The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, CA. I must say that the contrast of diving deep into a formative tour like Spring 1993 and then hitting up one like this is striking on many levels. First and foremost you have the size of the crowd and surrounding scene where we have gone from small theaters and clubs of 1,000-3,000 people up to amphitheaters and arenas approaching 20,000 and even higher, not to mention the 60,000 plus who ventured up to Limestone, ME for the festival. Granted, this tour opener was at a relatively intimate venue that held “only” 6,000 people or so but you get the point. This is not barroom Phish any more. Then you have the more important musical evolution of the band which has gone from focusing on long composed pieces, energy rockers, straight ahead ‘type I’ jamming, antics and other humorous ‘show tune’ type stuff, and the beginnings of the open or ‘type II’ jamming to long for type II jams, cowfunk (‘type III’ jams), ambient soundscapes (just check out the late night set from Lemonwheel for the prime example of this), an even broader array of cover songs, and much much more. This is Phish with the full arsenal at their disposal. It is a band that could — and would — do anything they thought would help to foster the musical connection between the band members and the crowd. And that, my friends, is what makes a tour like this so enticing to dissect…
So on that first night of tour you could expect the band would focus on tracks from the album while also hoping for some interesting jams as well. If those were your only expectations you would be well served here but considering the fanbase we are dealing with there might be elements of this show some find lacking. The band came out with intent, sliding into a somewhat restrained Julius that gets us moving but largely does what one expects in the execution. Next we get a patient Roggae which while a lovely version doesn’t exactly elevate the energy in the room. Perhaps they were just trying to ease these West Coast fans into the newer material (but if you had kept track of Europe and the balance of Summer Tour that wouldn’t be an issue, which I suppose is assuming a lot about our wook friends). Besides, we can’t be harshing the brahs mellows now, can we? Then in the three hole we get that energy lift we were looking for with a Llama that rocks hard and relies on Trey’s nimble fingers for a solo that showcases his toys with some electro-esque lines coming from The Trza. You could almost say that this is the true show opener, at least in terms of the prototypical high energy you look for with this whole live music thing. But hey, they recently opened a show with that classic shredder The Line, so what do I know?
After this jolt of power we have Limb by Limb for a mainly straight forward version that has some punch but stays firmly within the construct of the song. The real notable aspect of this one is that Fish kinda doesn’t really do, well, anything with the ending where he typically goes all super-octopus-drummer-dude on us. Realizing this, Trey gives him another shot to finish it up, leading to a little humorous banter about that ending. Now we get to what could be considered the controversial part of the show and a section that I know would get torn apart on the various boards if it happened these days. The double dip offering of acoustic Driver and acoustic Sleep pretty much brings the momentum of the set to a halt, even though both are pretty takes on the tunes and there is a bit of fun banter in between the two songs from Trey about the subject matter of Driver (eliciting our first Fight Bell *ting* of the tour out of Mike — something he apparently got at a flea market across the street from a show in Florida some time in the mid 90s. If you weren’t familiar with this toy before you will now hear it all over tapes, primarily from ’97 on. You’re welcome?). Keep in mind that these two songs were only debuted 12 days prior at the Bridge School Benefit so I understand the pairing and the sparse instrumentation at this stage. It just kinda sucks the energy out of the place is all… So what do they do next? Ramp it up with a raging Chalkdust or something??? Um, no. We get Frankie Says which, while a nice tune and one many people have on their still-seeking list, is not the one to take things up after two acoustic tunes. The mellow vibe was perhaps fitting in Trey’s head at that moment but we are heading towards masses of folks sitting down at a Phish show if this keeps up here, people, and that shit simply won’t stand! Or sit. Whatever! Crises are averted, however, as they wrap up the singer songwriter portion of the set by playing that hip new single Birds of a Feather. Nothing special here apart from more of that tight electro-playing from Trey in the solo, as the tune is still mainly a straight ahead rocker with the exception of its second ever performance earlier this year in Providence — which is a version I implore you to hear if you are not already intimately familiar with it. Which you should be.
But let’s get back to our show here. After that BOAF we have one of my favorite tunes of the Gamehendge Suite, McGrupp. Tonight’s version has a bit of ambient texture (get used to this. it is the new motif they added on this tour and something we will discuss A LOT going forward) and is highlighted by an extended Page section that has some great Fish in it as well. I should probably note one of the things you will definitely notice from Fish’s sound in this tour that was not ever present in the olden times which is the abundant use of his crash cymbal in providing color and punctuation to jams. This is on full display in this McGrupp and will be noticeable in a major jam later on in the show as well. It isn’t a huge thing but it adds something to the mix that no longer occurs since he has again gone down to a more minimalist setup here in 3.0. McGrupp heads right into the set closing Zero (which also has some of that ‘electro’ playing from Trey that we heard previously in the set) and we are off to relax for a few while soaking in the lovely California Fall weather. DOn’t worry, I checked. It was gorgeous that day.
And as happens, after some head scratching and trying to figure what might happen next in the course of discussing the first set, the band came out with vigor and dropped an almost seamless second frame that holds a top notch jam, a major bustout, and more. Kicking into one of the oldest tunes in the catalog, Phish ripped up Possum to get things moving before dropping into one of the newer funk numbers, Moma Dance. This one punches the funk button hard while staying mainly in the box, getting the crowd bouncing and moving in ways they never considered before the show began. Trey throws a Super Bad tease in for good measure and eventually we wind down to the start of… Reba! A second set Reba can only mean good things considering the song has only been placed in the second second (or later) 49 times out of 371 total performances. That’s a 13.2% hit rate for those doing math at home. And if you take out the four encores and one third setter we are down to 12.1%. That’s nothing! But it shows that when they do decide to put our girl in the second set things inevitably get good. And tonight’s version is one of the best of those in my humble opinion. Once through the composed section of the song we drop into a patient, building jam with Trey offering ideas on top of that groove pocket. Others (i.e. Miner) have described this jam more effectively than I can, so let’s just get one more (last?) link in here, mm’kay? I promise I won’t link anything else. Maybe. SO, the first signs that things are different tonight come when Fish changes cadence slightly and Trey offers up a couple of loops while Mike and Page go into ambient drone territory. The four combine to create an intriguing space that gets downright dark and dirty, eventually arriving into a grimy groove that pulsates and hints at… wait, it can’t be, could it? HO-LY HEY! and BOOM! we have a major bustout with a full segue into Walk Away! That’s 367 shows since they played it last at the famed Bomb Factory show of 05.07.1994. I’ve linked enough already, you know where to find that gem. This take on the James Gang tune is straight ahead and fun, bringing the crowd up from the depths of that sinister Reba before a crunchy bridge jam heading into a late set Simple that continues the fun. This one is not overly extended but succeeds in doing what it can before we get the first/only cool down song of the set in the lovely Neil Young tune Albuquerque which the band debuted only a few months previous in Dallas. After this we get Fish Fun Time and hey… wait! This isn’t 1993. Fish Fun Time is much less a regular thing and almost a bustout now so we won’t be needing to detail all of that so much anymore… Instead we get a punchy and rightfully rocking Bowie that isn’t super special — but it is perhaps a little lightly regarded for what actually occurs. The jam is nothing overly new but does continue the idea of more ambient space being added to the jam texture of these songs. It is definitely worth the listen if nothing else than for the swirling peak they arrive at out of the murk of the jam. And hey, let’s see if we can get a little trivia going here. Can anyone tell me where the sonic tapestry in this Bowie intro section was used by the band in the future?
I probably need a paragraph break by now so let’s just put one in there. After the big Bowie closer we have a nice debut with the encore Something, a Beatles tune that would get four cracks out of the band on this tour before disappearing forever. So it goes. And with that we have our show. It is perhaps a bit uneven, particularly in the first set, but overall you really cannot complain about a show like this for a tour opener. The band already sounds connected and we have at least one major highlight jam with several other items of note in what appears to be a fairly nondescript setlist on paper. Which is why we listen. Because the setlist only tells part of the story. Knowing what is coming up in the next few shows there are some things that seem to hint at the musical costume (and more) to come but I’ll leave that for y’all to bring forth as I have written waaaaaaaaay too much here. At this rate, I’ll match the word count for both of the Spring ’93 tour legs I have done before finishing up this relatively short tour’s reviews. A lot of this was table setting though so you can expect a return to form from here on out. Mostly.
In summing up, let’s get to the highlights. For this show you definitely will want to hear the McGrupp, the Reba->Walk Away>Simple section, and the Bowie. If you want more without spinning the whole thing, add in the Llama, BOAF, and Zero to hear that newer Trey playing I mentioned (which will come up almost nightly on this tour) and if you like the tender stuff throw on Driver, Sleep, Albuquerque, and Something and maybe even Frankie Says for good measure. Have I included all of the tracks yet?
And we are off and running. Next up is the pair of shows from Las Vegas for Halloween. Spooooooooooky!