A fourth set?! Is that what Trey just said? Had they ever done that before? Apparently, this year’s installment of the secret late night on-site set wouldn’t be a secret at all. They were gonna come out on the main stage and play another set “as the spirit moves,” in the words of Trey, himself. Before that happened, a huge ring of torches would be set up, surrounding the entire audience. The “temple of fire” that had been joked about on Phish’s summer tour advertisements for months was not a joke in the end. We would all be surrounded by flames, unifying the audience in a mass of tonal sponge to absorb the spiritual emanations from the stage. Was this real? This was the Lemonwheel- ten years ago today- the exclamation point to Summer 98, Phish’s very own summer of love. The tour that featured a two-week European stint that kicked off in Copenhagen’s Den Gra Hal for an epic three nights, two ridiculous nights at The Gorge, a dark-horse Texas run, a straight romp through Phish’s classic Midwestern haunts, and a surreal stop at Virginia Beach, had once again twisted up to Limestone. And on the first night of the festival, where they usually had played a quirky late night set somewhere on the festival grounds (the flatbed jam and “disco” tent) they instead would come out and just play.
Yet, after a prolonged break- they needed to set up the fire after all- Phish indeed came out and spun an hour long tale of mystical beauty, starting from a simple melody and flowing naturally through so many segments, all filled with the most familiar, yet brand new music. Moving in a natural bell curve, the hour slowly built to an organic peak and then carried us back down the hill again into silence. All four band members were moving as one, no one leading any more than the other, and the result was a completely sublime experience for us all. I distinctly remember closing my eyes for most all of the set and upon its end, not believing how much time had passed. The music transcended time, and still exists as one of the most magical hours of Phish’s career.
This style foreshadowed the ambient jams that would be added to the band’s repertoire in the Fall of the same year. Jams like the Greek Theatre Reba (10.29), the Vegas Wolfman’s (10.31- though a bit darker), the UIC AC/DC Bag (11/7), the Bi-Lo Wolfman’s (11.18), the Hampton Simple (11.21) are all examples of the type of playing that became magnified throughout the autumn months. But all song-based jams aside, the ambient set exists as, literally, one of the greatest things the band has ever done.
To be honest, I was thinking that the NYE Big Cypress set would be more like this, in terms of music being played with no reference points to know where the band was going or when something was winding up or winding down. Though the Cypress Roses that brought the darkness into the light of the new millennium, did provide one massive 40 minute excursion in this vein. Nonetheless, that torch lit summer night in late August of ’98 remains a unique and one time experience that brought out the very essence of Phish music. It could have only happened on the hallowed grounds of Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine. If you were there, you vividly recall where you were on that field when Phish came out in the middle of the night and just played.