Remembering Phish’s Island Tour 20 Years Later
When Phish concluded a three-set New Year’s Eve performance at Madison Square Garden in New York City On December 31, 1997 they were on top of their game. The quartet had not only successfully integrated over a dozen new songs into their repertoire, Phish had infused the New Year’s Run and the historic fall tour that ended just a few weeks earlier with plenty of what guitarist Trey Anastasio would describe as “cow funk.” While fans were sad Phish was not expected to return to the road until the following June, the group wound up changing their minds in February of 1998 and announced a four-show run featuring two nights in Long Island and two nights in Rhode Island dubbed the “Island Tour” that began 20 years ago tonight at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York.
Phish went a mere 37 days between announcing The Island Tour and taking the stage for the first of two at Nassau that would be followed by a pair of performances at the Providence Civic Center. Tickets would be put up for sale just four days after fans learned about The Island Tour, which meant no Mail order for the first time since 1994. With so much excitement about the run, these would be tough tickets and many wound up lining up at their local Ticketmaster outlets overnight in hopes of scoring entry to the shows.
All of those efforts from fans were paid off in a huge way by Phish. There were dozens of magical moments interspersed throughout The Island Tour starting with the otherworldly “Tube” the band opened with 20 years ago tonight. Phish had picked up right where they off and arguably raised the bar even higher over the course of the epic run that has stood the test of time.
The Island Tour has it all from top-shelf jams to unhinged versions of songs that aren’t known for improvisation to the debut of fierce compositions to creative setlists. Guitarist Trey Anastasio told the audience eary on in the run that Phish was bored and hence plotted the short tour. The band’s boredom was a big win for its followers.
All four shows featured incredible openers. The first night in Nassau started with an adventurous “Tube” that set the pace for what was to come. On April 3, 1998 Phish kicked off perhaps the best show of the run with an outstanding “Mike’s Song” -> “The Old Home Place” > “Weekapaug Groove” sequence that included a jaw-dropping “Crosseyed” jam and a taste of what would become “Mozambique” during the “Weekapaug.” Then, opening night in Providence began with a 17-minute “Tweezer” that touched on funk and space themes. Phish opened the finale with what still stands as the only “The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony” > “You Enjoy Myself” pairing.
Phish debuted two songs as part of the opening night of the run. The quartet unveiled “Birds Of Feather” and “Frankie Says” during the second set on April 2, 1998. “Birds” quickly became a staple and remains so 20 years later. While the version of “Birds Of A Feather” in Nassau hinted at its use as an improvisational springboard, the band took the song deep just two nights later in Providence. The 15-minute “Birds” from April 4, 1998 was a highlight of the run – not too shabby for the second time it was played.
Another recent addition to the repertoire Phish blew up during The Island Tour was “Roses Are Free.” The foursome had debuted the Ween cover on December 11, 1997 and played it again on New Year’s Eve. However, the version on Night Two in Nassau was a master class in improvisation. The four members of the band moved as one for over 20 minutes as Phish patiently worked over one of the greatest grooves they’ve ever created.
The Nassau “Roses” was part of a legendary second set on April 3, 1998 that also included a dark, scary and mind-blowing “Piper.” Next up was a “Loving Cup” during which an audience member jumped on stage only to dive back into the crowd before he was about to be tackled by drum tech Pete Carini. Drummer Jon Fishman noted, “The game is don’t let Carini get you. If you’re gonna run up on the stage don’t let Carini get you.”
Trey would chime in during the intro with “Carini’s gonna get you” and Fish harmonized with the guitarist on the line. All of this led to a huge build of energy as the crowd went nuts at every line the members of Phish said during the incredible “Antelope” intro. One of the last great glowstick wars broke out at Anastasio’s urging while the foursome built “Run Like An Antelope” to a ferocious peak. The quartet tipped its hat towards Pete once again by fitting “Carini” into the evening’s three-song encore.
A remembrance of The Island Tour wouldn’t be complete without mention of the madness that brought the final set of the run to a close. Towards the end of the second set on April 5, 1998 Phish segued from “Maze” into the debut of the funky “Shafty,” a reworked version of an original unveiled the previous year entitled “Olivia’s Pool.” A wild, unfinished (!) “Possum” came next and gave way to more funkiness initiated by Anastasio.
Page, Mike and Fish dropped out as Trey worked over a rhythmic progression. The band joined in on the sequence the guitarist initiated. Anastasio then told the crowd, “So it’s getting near the end of this little four-day run here. It’s been really run and it’s kinda weird having to stop after four days but for those of you who cane to a lot of the shows or those of you who just came tonight thank you very much we really appreciate everything.” The guitarist then explained, “I started this little funk groove because we can’t end this whole thing without a little more funk as that’s been the theme. For those of you want to take off, take off, but for those of you who just want to dance to the funk we’re going to stick around and keep grooving.”
Needless to say, the crowd stuck around and danced to what would soon be revealed as the funkiest “Cavern” in Phish history. The Vermonters reinvented the A Picture Of Nectar staple for the evening in a way that would’ve made James Brown proud. Fish in particular was on fire throughout the “Cavern” and while he rarely takes drum solos, he threw a few righteous breaks into “Cavern.”
Thankfully, Phish released official recordings of The Island Tour in June of 2005. Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring each and every note from the all-time run along with soundtrack excerpts from Nassau and Providence:
Tour Dates for