If Summer 1997 was about a shock renewal of what Phish could accomplish musically within a given show & tour, and Fall 1997 was a peak creative moment where the biggest goals of their long and winding career to that point would come to fruition, then Summer 1998 was the moment all this newness felt normal and apart of the larger Phish story once again.
Structured essentially the same as Summer 1997 - here they gave themselves an additional week and began out west, thus allowing for more shows up the east coast en route to Lemonwheel - the groove and good vibes that had become expected at Phish shows was present from the moment they kicked off Summer 1998 with a jam out of Horn and a hip-hop flavored Tweezer. The thing that always sounds so Summer 98-y whenever I throw on one of these shows is the zaniness and simply joy of making music again is back for Phish. Whereas Summer 1996 sounded stale, and nearly all of 1997 sounds sinister and evil, like a band rebelling against itself, Summer 1998 just sounds like Phish again. Sure they have a new sound in tow, but the looseness is back, the inside jokes are back, and songs like Tweezer and Divided Sky that they’d all but avoided throughout 1997 are back. Having broken through the creative wall, they were able to re-embrace what had brought them to this point while showing off their new digs as well.
The early run that always stands out as definitive of the tour is The Gorge. The band’s second visit to the most beautiful venue in America features two very different shows. On night one, July 16, they’re more song focused, although here they conjure up the spaciousness that had seeped into their funk jamming late in the previous fall, with a brilliant take on Reba midway through Set One which abandones the languid jam for something even more ethereal before spilling into Fast Enough For You. The patient explorations, just above a whisper, a clear early sign of the influence of Eno on the tour, appears again in Set Two in an extended Bowie and a gorgeous pairing on Tube>Slave To The Traffic Light. The following night feels like a cousin of Fall 1997. With it seeking to break structure out the gates with a hazy Makisupa> (jammy) Ya Mar, Gumbo (with Jam), it’s a clear sign from the outset of the tour that, what worked last year is where the band intended to push themselves for the foreseeable future. The legendary Second Set consisting of 2001>Mike’s Song -> Weekapaug Groove, Character Zero is as close to a confirmation of this as any from the tour.
As the tour wove its way across the US towards their second of three Limestone fests (The Great Went, IT), the humor referenced above snuck its way back into their shows through a challenge to debut a left field cover seemingly every night. Beginning with California Love and Sexual Healing, the band inserted Albuquerque, If You Need A Fool, Ramble On, I Get A Kick Out Of You, Rhinoceros, Runnin’ With The Devil, Sweet Jane, Sabotage, TrenchTown Rock and Burnin’ Down The House into their repertoire, many of which for just a single performance. All of this was seemingly for humor, however, when on August 9 in Virginia Beach they retook the stage for the encore and played Terrapin Station, an honoring of the third year since Jerry Garcia’s passing, as well as noting their own place in the larger Classic Rock community, it became clear what the intent of all these random debuts were.
The tour ended with the Lemonwheel Festival. Like much of the tour, a subdued experience compared to the year prior, here capped by one of the most remarkable jams the band has ever played: The Ambient Jam. Performed in the style of Brian Eno, lit only by candlelight, this set showcased how communicative the band had gotten over the previous twenty-two months, and how far they’d been able to push their sound beyond the cacophonous noise-groove hybrid jamming of just three years prior.