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Live Phish: Island Tour

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Island Tour may not turn you into a Phish fan, but it will give you a whole new appreciation for the band and quite possibly, for the art of musical improvisation itself.
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Phish
Live Phish: Island Tour
Phish Dry Goods
2005

Its generic bootleg style front graphics camouflaging gorgeous stage shots on the inner sleeve (is that a man jumping on a trampoline?), the packaging of the latest release in the "Live Phish" series of archival recordings , Island Tour , may stand as an accurate metaphor for the misconceptions and preconceptions about the Vermont quartet. Diehards' revere these recordings, available on-line at Phish Dry Goods or as downloads from Live Phish as a collective pinnacle of the band's career and it's simple to hear why.

Certainly as the flagship of the jamband scene as it evolved from the Nineties into the new millennium, Phish invited comparisons to the Grateful Dead, not only for their proclivity for extended improvisation, but also in terms of their fan base, which swelled coincidental to the death of Dead founder Jerry Garcia in 1995, and displayed the same obsession with the four musicians as Deadheads did for the object of their fascination. Yet a more appropriate compassion might exist between Phish and The Who.

And it's not just that Phish often played "Drowned from the English band's Quadrophenia or that the American quartet presented Pete Townshend's masterwork in its entirety at a Halloween show in 1995. The personnel chemistry of Phish mirrors that of The Who and vice versa, the leaders both ambitious musicians and idea men whose major character traits (minus the self-consciousness about their own role in their respective bands) are reflected in their band mates: Mike Gordon carries the artistic bent, Jon Fishman relishes a goony persona while Page McConnell's reveals an earthy vulnerability, all if which are different attributes of Trey Anastasio.

What does this all have to do with these four 3-CD sets recorded on Phish's 1998 trek to Rhode Island and Long Island? It's the intuitive interaction of those character traits, manifest in their musicianship. Executed through an instrumental interaction that lies at the heart of these performances. This dynamic is perhaps the key to the unique success of Phish itself. There's an egalitarian approach evident as the group move into a deep improvisation such as the 4-2 version of "Birds of a Feather : without a leader per se, the four move in parallel motion, then in increasingly complex orbits around each other, this keen interplay the payoff from years of rigorous rehearsal, practice of complicated original compositions, and many hours together on stage. As on the 4-4 Providence jam on "Harry Hood, which bears no resemblance at all to the body of the nonsensical song itself (giving credence to Phish archivist Kevin Shapiro's advocacy of copyrights to such interludes), it may be most interesting to listen to the rhythm section: take note of the telepathic means by which Gordon and Fishman tradeoff the navigation and the ballast of the band.

Meanwhile, Anastasio wields his guitar as much like a orchestra conductor than a guitar hero, while McConnell, who tends to Floydian sludge when he uses electric keyboards, plays circles around his compatriots, his piano an unusual mix of ragtime playfulness and classical formality. During such segments, all four men evince the willingness to sublimate the ego for the sake of the music and the performance as it happens. This uncanny ability to reach a common plane so swiftly, in a freeform atmosphere, as a conscious means of playing live, is what distinguishes Phish from their predecessors (Grateful Dead, Allmans) or peers(Widespread Panic, String Cheese Incident). It also renders them the defining rock and roll band of their time.

For those listeners intimidated by running times of fifteen to eighteen minutes, fear not, you will quite possibly find yourselves mesmerized by the likes of "Twist from 4-2-98 at the Nassau Coliseum and "Piper from the next day's performance at the same venue. Phish move into their instrumentals with an ease and confidence that derives from a decade and a half together at the time these concerts took place in 1998. The group often sounds like they are anxious to put the body of the song behind them and get into such improvisation, but as on the comparatively abbreviated takes here, such as 4-3 Nassau "Shafty and 4-5 Providence "Possum, Phish don't give short shrift to the compositions. Instead they impart to them the whimsy which was part of the original composition to begin with, no small achievement in itself given how long they had been playing some of these songs (in the case of the latter, thirteen years and approximately a hundred times!?!?)

The tongue-in-cheek attitude and willfully cryptic approach the band took will still put off some potential fans, as will the group's insistence on playing funk that was less than authentic sounding; the rideout of "Cavern from Providence is far less convincing than the segue from "Wolfman's Brother into "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley, played 4-2 on Long Island, which itself much more convincing as well as more indicative of the band's influences in this realm including the Meters. But anyone who can't imagine Phish as disciplined will be no less than astounded by the supremely tight rendering of the Rolling Stones' "Loving Cup : it's almost as if the group wanted to prove they could do such tight arrangements. Likewise, the convincing blues-rock version of on Seals' Funky Bitch should allay any thoughts Phish were not worthy successors to the likes of Cream and Hendrix. Not coincidentally, the last sounds of Island Tour happen to be the relaxed authority with which Anastasio, Fishman, Gordon and McConnell play Jimi's "Axis: Bold As Love.

The absurdist original material like "Punch You in the Eye or "Chalk Dust Torture, belies the serious intent of the most intense and extended improvisations (as well as the complex original material) you will listen to on these discs. As do the sound check recordings, included as filler, which capture the serendipity of this band perhaps best of all("I like it!, one band member is heard to say after the group stumbles upon a tuneful vocal harmony part). The bulk of the selections herein linked by seques, so the music is virtually non-stop all of it comes through with pristine clarity and remarkable depth through the recording efforts of Paul Languedoc and the mastering of Fred Kevorkian. The most memorable of those moments from Island Tour may not turn you into a Phish fan, but it will give you a whole new appreciation for the band and quite possibly, for the art of musical improvisation itself.


Personnel: Trey Anastasio: guitar and vocals; Jon Fishman: drums and vocals; Mike Gordon: bass and vocals; Page McConnell: keyboards and vocals.

Tracks

LivePhish: 4/2/98 Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY (3CD)

CD1: Tube; My Mind's Got a Mind of Its Own; The Sloth; NICU; Stash; Horn; Waste; Chalk Dust Torture. CD2: Punch You in the Eye; Simple; Birds of a Feather. CD3: Wolfman's Brother; Sneakin' Sally Thru the Alley; Frankie Says; Twist; Sleeping Monkey; Rocky Top; Encore: Guyute.

LivePhish: 4/3/98 Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY (3CD)

CD1: Mike's Song; The Old Home Place; Weekapaug Groove; Train Song; Billy Breathes; Beauty Of My Dreams; Dogs Stole Things; Reba; My Soul. CD2: Roses Are Free; Nassau Jam; Piper; Loving Cup; Run Like An Antelope. CD3: Encore: Carini; Halley's Comet; Tweezer Reprise

FILLER - Soundcheck 4/2/98 Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY; Funky Bitch; Nassau Soundcheck Jam; Birds Of A Feather. FILLER - Soundcheck 4/4/98 Providence Civic Center, Providence, RI; Providence Soundcheck Jam; Shafty; Roggae.

LivePhish: 4/4/98 Providence Civic Center, Providence, RI (3CD)

CD1: Tweezer; Taste; Bouncing Around The Room; Funky Bitch; Ginseng Sullivan; Limb By Limb; Lawn Boy; Character Zero. CD2: Birds Of A Feather; 2001; Brother; Brother. CD3: Ghost; The Lizards; David Bowie; Encore: Harry Hood.

LivePhish: 4/5/98 Providence Civic Center, Providence, RI (3CD)

CD1: The Oh Kee Pah Ceremony; You Enjoy Myself; Theme From The Bottom; McGrupp And The Watchful Hosemasters. CD2: Bathtub Gin; Cities; Sparkle; Split Open And Melt; Down With Disease CD3: Ya Mar; Price Caspian; Maze; Shafty; Possum; Cavern; Encore: Bold As Love.

Style: Jam Band


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