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Gone Phishing

Fire-spewing elephants, cerebral jams and a spate of time-tested covers mark tour finale

August 18, 1998 12:00 AM ET

"Build a city, build myself a city to live in," guitarist TreyAnastasio chimed on the first day of Phish's weekend extravaganza, pausingthat Talking Heads cover mid-song to call out to fans on a nearby Ferriswheel. It was a fitting line, given the setting: a veritable nomad city of60,000 built upon the turf of the former Loring Air Force Base inLimestone, Maine. Lemonwheel, this summer's grand Phish tour finale, waswell underway. And in the tradition of 1997's Great Went (also held atLoring) and 1996's Clifford Ball in Plattsburgh, N.Y., the tribes hadturned out in force.

The return to Loring allowed for creative planning that resulted in a morehighly evolved theme-park vibe. Inside the concert grounds sprouted aGarden of Infinite Pleasantries, an Asian-styled playground with tiki huts,huge papier-mache cranes, a stacked-Portalet pagoda, walk-in saplingsculptures and a rock garden where fans piled stones. Then, of course,there was the music -- more than four hours of Phish per day, as well as anafter-hours jam where the quartet probed Brian Eno-inspired soundscapes onthe main stage, surrounded by several hundred candles painted by fans inthe crafts area. (The Eno influence would surface again in lulling,whimsical tunes like "Brian and Robert" (as in Eno and Robert Fripp) and"Wading in the Velvet Sea" slated for The Story of the Ghost, anOctober studio album partly generated from improvised sessions like theLemonwheel space jam.)

But Lemonwheel's peaks came in robust jam vehicles like "David Bowie," anafternoon "Possum" (a bluegrassy bop with Miles Davis guitar quotes added)and "Down With Disease," which segued into the accelerating trance of"Piper." Those songs found Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, drummer JonFishman and keyboardist Page McConnell locked in shifting, telepathicgrooves that retained a muscular as well as a cerebral focus, driven homeby a monster sound system and light show to rival the Maine sky. Alsowelcome were the playful intricacies of art-rocking rarities "The DividedSky" (played the first day after the sun came out) and "Fluffhead," as wellas the goofy "Sanity," where the band sang "Lost my mind just a couple oftimes ...."

Then, of course, there were the covers. Fishman took center stage in histattered housedress to croon Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," and add a"sounds of love" solo on his vacuum cleaner, which he played like aninverse kazoo. And Phish opened its final set by nailing the Beastie Boys'"Sabotage" with edgy garage-punk glee, and later followed with "While MyGuitar Gently Weeps," revived from Phish's performance of the Beatles'entire White Album as a Halloween stunt in 1994 and rarely played inrecent years.

However, the strangest cover -- and moment -- of Lemonwheel came at theend, when band members lit an onstage fuse that worked its way to a giantelephant sculpture off to the edge of the crowd. Fireworks exploded in thesky as the elephant raised its trunk and blew mist (while Fishman provideda soundtrack on trombone), then rolled toward the campgrounds while Phishloped through Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk."

Lemonwheel was quite a trek even for Phish's road-tripping fans, and drewabout 10,000 fewer people than the Great Went or Clifford Ball. Of course,it was still a big crowd (the band should have kept the video screens ofthe past two years), especially compared to the few thousand folks thatshowed up for Phish's free '91 show on a farm in Auburn, Maine. Yet, in itsartistic scope and carnival-like unpredictability (the campground was atrip unto itself), Lemonwheel offered an unparalleled escape from theoutside world, and a detour from today's cookie-cutter concert venues.

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