I'm tempted to write about every anniversary of every amazing musical experience I've ever had. Most go unwritten, eliciting just a hint of pleasant nostalgia, some are acknowledged via tweet, but some just wrestle around in my brain until they receive the full treatment.
Spring of 1998 was a pretty amazing time to find yourself neck deep in the music of Phish, especially with a reliable income and not much tying you down. Personally, I'd run a pretty good gamut over the several years prior, hitting festivals, Halloweens, NYE runs and large chunks of several tours...but still had my eye out for new and different experiences.
Friends who had seen a few shows on the European tours in '97 spoke about them in hushed tones: the tiny venues, the travel, the debuts and musical experimentation, and the camaraderie amongst the die-hards who had made the trip. I had never been lucky enough to backpack Europe as a college student or recent grad.
When hints of another tour started to emerge, I had to make some tough calls -- would it be worth the time, money, arranging a genuine leave of absence from a corporate job? In the end, I decided to make a go of it.
Unlike prior tours, Phish was to play multi-night runs in three distinctly different cities. This time, following tour would be less of a schlep and more of a vacation -- an opportunity to absorb culture and settle into some of the world's great cities: Copenhagen, Prague, and Barcelona.
But like any good European vacation, mine began a few days prior to the start of tour in a little town called Amsterdam. It's easy to be jaded in this more liberal era -- but in the nineties, this was kind of a big deal.
From the moment I hit the ground, the hostel and coffee shop scene was with teeming with Americans, many of whom would be on their way to Denmark in a few days. Some however, were excited to see another big-in-the-USA, unknown-in-the-old-country act: Dave Matthews Band. That was news to me, but was revealed when my delightful wanderings of the city brought me to the gate of the storied Melk Weg, site of notorious Phish and Grateful Dead shows, that would play host to that evening's show.
I was curious about the venue and the scene, but not curious enough to grab one of the extras being scalped outside the sold-out show for 200 Guilders (funny I remember that price but not the comparable US currency... Needless to say it was a lot). I passed and continued to find my way in and out of various shops and bars, taking in the swath of orange jerseys of Netherlands supporters in the just-underway World Cup tournament.
Now Amsterdam can get pretty confusing, so I wasn't too surprised when I stumbled upon the Melk Weg again a few hours later. While the big crowds and scalpers were gone, I noticed a few people gathered eagerly outside the front door. I went to check out what was up and the fans -- all Americans -- insisted that the doorman would let a few more folks in the door if we'd just be patient. Soon enough, I was inside (and for free) -- kind of disoriented but appreciative enough of the chance to beat scalpers and catch a glimpse of the historic venue.
Regrettably, that story was way more memorable than any of the music I heard that night.
The first phase of Phish tour proper began in Denmark. While Copenhagen was only 500 miles away, it's Scandavian charm and hyper efficiency was a world apart from the canals and Vegas-like bacchanal of Amsterdam.
Leave it to Phish's tour planners to find one of the most unique venues in the world to kick off their tour. Sure, the inside of The Grey Hall (Den Gra Hall) was nothing special -- just a flat empty room with a stage at one end -- but it was where it was situated made this stop one-of-a-kind.
Freetown Christiana was a World War II Army barracks, taken over by squatters and transformed into a semi-autonomous state, where public art flourished and authorities looked the other way on a burgeoning outdoor drug market conducted in the main square at farmer's market type stands.
During a trip to market prior to showtime, I found myself in line behind none other than the Chairman of the Boards himself. In this scaled down environment it was not uncommon to see all any member of Phish taking it all in just like the excited fans.
Opening night featured a monster "Ghost" out of the gate that found the band and crowd coasting on the incredible high tide from Island Tour. But soon after the show settled into something very different. They were playing on the intimacy of the room.
We got some of the expected new songs and a glimpse into the band on a more personal level that was beyond the closeness of the performance space. Trey, in particular, was chatty and open.
The second set contained the epochal moment when "Black Eyed Katy" became "The Moma Dance". I have mixed feelings on this, but its worth noting that prior to the great Meatstick craze of '99 there was another audience participation dance. Unfortunately, it was so subtle (just a few taps of the foot during Moma Dance), it never caught on.
More lasting, however, was that the had effectively tamed the wild and open BEK jam. a launching pad during so many Fall 97 shows for good, and has remained a relatively staid repertoire staple ever since.
The following two nights were more of a bridge between peak Island Tour creativity and shift to subtler ambient textures to come. Both featured (essentially) four song second sets and ferocious jamming. A pair of overlooked sets for sure.
Notable also was 7/2's first set, which featured the debut of two Mike Gordon rarities which would find themselves on The Story Of The Ghost: the slow and funky "Meat" and the wistfully psychedelic "Fikus".
The band departed soon after for a festival appearance, but most fans queued up at the train depot to get a jump on the trip to the Czech Republic. With its favorable exchange rate, those of us on a spartan budget temporarily expanded our buying power, referring to ourselves as "rich millionaires" as we explored bothSoviet-eraa remnants and Old City wonder. Perhaps this was why we ran in to many more American tourists on this stop.
The Lucerne was ticked away on a busy thoroughfare, pretty incognito from street level. Upon entry, however, it was revealed to be bigger (it had two levels of balcony wrapped around the entirety of the main floor) and way more ornate than The Grey Hall -- there was plenty of room for the curiosity seekers who just happened to be touring Prague.
For night one, we found an upfront seat on the floor and it wasn't long before the "new" folks made their presence known. Maybe this was one of those days when the environment affected the music, or at least my perception, but the floor was hot and packed with an (oddly, mostly shirtless) horde of college aged dudes that just weren't that in to Phish.
The resulting show felt disjointed and thrown together. It was represented by a flubbed "Fee" that was steered into an obtuse, directionless jam that evoked the Cold War artlessness of the city's least attractive elements. It was by consensus that a number of us "tour-heads", who by this point coalesced into a good group, decided to carve out our own space in the balcony for night two, and as a byproduct we seemingly willed the band into producing the sparkling gem of the Europe 98 tour.
Much ink has been spilled about the July 6th show in Prague (subsequently issued as a livephish download) so I won't rehash every detail here, but it comes out of the gate screaming and is one of the few first sets of the tour worthy of a beginning to end re-listen. Of particular note is the tour's third appearance of "Ghost", this version a distant cousin of the funk-heavy monsters in Denmark. It switched into a swirling crescendo laden rock mode with "first night apology" jam written all over it, not relenting until the buttery smooth segue into a shockingly sped up "Cities" which matched its energy note for note.
"Train Song" finally made its way to the stage - a seeming nod to our time on the rails. The breakneck "Maze" featured a stunning stop-on-a-dime moment where Trey stopped addressed the crowd with a sincere appreciation, continuing the contrite theme of the night.
With apologies out of the way, the second set was for blowing minds and having fun. The centerpiece of the show, and yes... the tour, was the multi-faceted "Piper", which emulated the miles traveled and horizon's exposed during our time in the old continent. It was followed by a "Makisupa Policeman" which was so playful, borderedded on the absurd.
That was the Europe tour in a nutshell - a heady mix of the familiar, foreign and fun.
The longest train journey of the tour routed us through Geneva and onto a high speed rail line that delivered us to Barcelona. It was in this leg that I first saw the video footage of the prior nights show (through the viewfinder of the videographer's camera) of the soon be widely circulated bootleg that, years later, would also find its way to YouTube.
The dreary industrial landscape of Eastern Europe was replaced by abundant sunshine and beaches (!) of Spain. Bustling nightlife on Las Ramblas, institutionalized siestas, and flowing Absinthe was the spirit of the day. In fact, Zeleste was an 800 capacity discotheque that had to be cleared out each night post Phish for Spaniards seeking afterhours nightclub action.
By this time World Cup action was heating up with Brazil emerging as a clear favorite. In football mad Europe, this meant the crazily catchy soccer chant "Olé, Olé, Olé" would even find its way into the sets of an American band playing for a largely US audience. But, damn it was fun and, to this day, hearing that chant pulls me back to a specific place and time. It was the theme of the first show and it spilled over into all three Spanish gigs.
A world turning "Bathtub Gin" that wound into a psychedelic slow burn was effective early on, but inferior versions of show highlights "Ghost" and "Piper" from the previous gig couldn't save the second set, which was somewhat buoyed by on-stage antics involving a Chilean named Beatriz who had befriended the band the night before.
The middle night in Barcelona had numerous highlights which made it many people's (including mine) second favorite performance of the run. What Phish was able to do here, more than any other show of the eight I caught, was bring the thundering arena filling sound that was cultivated so well throughout 97, into the cozy confines of the club.
While the previous night's "PYITE" and "Frankenstein" were full of bombast, the "Tweezer" from the 9th was ripe with that sparse, expansive funk and endlessly creative Trey riffing designed to occupy spaces 10 times the size. It was suitable for contrast that an acapella, no-amplification "Sweet Adeline" and the set break were sandwiched between the "Tweezer" and anothershow-stoppingg bit of improv -- a second set opening "Drowned" that would have felt as home in a shed in Indiana as the sweaty disco on the Mediterranean.
We didn't know it at the time, but the "Blister In The Sun" tucked neatly inside of "Scent of a Mule", would be the first shot in a barrage of from-out-of-nowhere covers that summer. As it was it was perfectly placed and executed. The set closed with another burner, an unfinished "Hood"that melted into the soon-to-be-banished-from-the-rotation "Isabella".
The final night held a great deal of promise, but ended up being bittersweet. Knowing the party was almost over, expectations were sky high, but were soon sent groundward by PA problems which led to aborted "Divided Sky" and "Mike's Song" amidst various pops and obnoxious fart-like noise.
We were promised something special for our patience, and for our trouble were rewarded with an extended "Halley's Comet" second set opener, complete with a proto-"First Tube" jam. Technical difficulties reappeared a bit later in the set and drastic measures were nearly taken -- luckily issues were ironed out before Trey's suggestion of playing to the room via the stage monitors was carried out.
In the meantime, one of the most intimate moments in a week full of them played out, with the band casually telling jokes at one another's expense. Fish was nearly goaded into telling the famed "Prison Joke" on the cusp of the problems' resolution. The rip-roarin' "Mike's Groove" that followed was incredible compared to today's versions, but somehow didn't elevate this show to where I required it to go (although upon relisten the "Simple" is quite impressive).
Like the DMB show that bookended this trip, the whole thing made for a good story, but not transcendent musical experience. Yet, the symmetry was good enough to cap the musical segment of the tour.
Heartfelt goodbyes were issued as the tribe split up to varied destinations near and far -- many of us would meet up again on the US portion of the summer tour. As for me, I had a few days to make my way to London for a return flight to the States. I decided to go there by way of a night in Paris. As the crazy capper to this trip, it happened that the Cup final was being held in France, and the French team was playing Brazil, and on my one and only night in Paris... they won. Holy shit!!
Note: Most of the photos that are in this post were taken by me. However, the really awesome stage shots were mailed to me sometime after the tour. The photographer contacted me when this piece originally ran in 2013, but his photo credit has been lost. Please reach out again to be properly credited.