Trey Anastasio, Thomas and Mack Center, Las Vegas, NV, 5/31
Sometimes bands bring a manic energy to a certain city or venue. For Phish and their fans, Las Vegas is the place out West where things get crazy. Whether covering the Velvet Underground’s Loaded in 1998 or bringing out Kid Rock to "play some rock and roll" in 2000, the shows have always been memorable, if a touch sloppy.
When Trey joked about a surprise reunion during his summer tour while being interviewed on a Seattle radio station, Internet chat rooms lit up like slot machines at the Venetian during a senior’s convention. Would it be Vegas?
The first nights lineup looked strong, bolstered by the political funk of Spearhead and classic Mexican rock from Los Lobos. Instead of a TAB show, it became a one-night festival with three marquee acts, in Vegas to boot.
In the spirit of good festivals, there was enough collaboration between artists throughout the night to satisfy the appetite of any live music junkie.
Spearhead started things off, and then Los Lobos ambled onstage glowing with the radiance of living legends.
The magic started early when Trey joined Los Lobos for a powerful rendition of "Bertha," that electrified the arena, as David Hidalgo’s Spanish-tinged delivery brought authenticity to the oft-covered classic tale of the romantic old West. Trey waited patiently, and then ripped into a solo that elevated this rendition to places the Dead seldom reached.
As the players jammed on stage, a familiar beat emerged. Smiles in the audience got even wider when "Bertha" segued into "Not Fade Away." At this point, everyone would have happy if the evening had become a classic rock showcase, with Trey playing guitar god all night.
After a short set break, the TAB took the stage. Having seen Trey in all of his solo excursions, I enjoyed seeing the full set of musicians he put together for his summer 2002 tour the most. The addition of percussionist Cyro Baptiste and keyboardist Ray Paczkowski rounded out the group’s sound, and the other players, most notably Jennifer Hartwick, grew into their roles and contributed much more to the overall energy. Over the course of the night there were many "Jennifer, will you marry me?" calls from the crowd.
The opener, "Simple Twist Up Dave," allowed every member of the band to get their feet wet, as Trey traded licks with his horn section, raising the intensity of the jam until it seemed the bubble would burst. Finally he sang the first verse, but soon the musicians were in another Caribbean-jam, urgently pushing the envelope further.
Fans often reinterpret the lyrics to this song, and by the time Trey sang the chorus again, it had become "simple twist of fate," as in, how did we end up back in Vegas again.’
Trey knew what we were after, and the crowds’ response to "Push on Til the Day" showed that for many of us, watching the sun rise is the only way to deal with Las Vegas.
The next major treat of the night came when Michael Franti walked onto stage, and the familiar horns of "Small Axe" started. We had already heard what Trey might have sounded like sitting in with the Grateful Dead, now we were getting Bob Marley.
Franti’s authenticity made this much more than a cover song; his political convictions and stirring delivery brought us back to Jamaica and the oppressive past of British plantation owners.
Bringing another member from Spearhead and most of the members of Los Lobos onstage for "I Want to Take You Higher" resulted in a fiery version that greatly improved over the past rendition with Dave Matthews.
We had been treated to an epic evening already, and we still had at least one set to go.
The tribal rhythms of "Last Tube" immediately renewed the energy in the room, and the beautiful ballad "Flock of Words" caused anyone who wasn’t in love with Jennifer to join those proclaiming their affection.
Later in the set, the new epic "Pebbles and Marbles" emerged, and the energy was so much like a Phish show that if you closed your eyes, you were transported to the future, to a time when Phish was back from hiatus, performing this spectacular new song. The musicianship of everyone in Trey’s band cannot be overstated; they are all pros, as keeping up with Mr. Anastasio is no easy task.
Then it happened. No one really saw the exact moment, because we were still recovering from "Pebbles and Marbles." Somehow Page appeared, waving nonchalantly and taking Ray’s place behind the keyboards.
Imagine your every hair on your body standing on end. Imagine 15,000 people with the same feeling of shock, surprise and pure joy. Imagine Page playing the most dark and menacing "First Tube" possible, like there had been no break from fall 2000 whatsoever. That’s what happened, and Trey wore the same goofy grin the entire song, laughing at the madness he had created.
When the song was finished, we figured that the set was over. What more could they possibly do? Well, how about playing "Bug," and how about a version as tear jerking as the one played at Big Cypress. Tears from old memories and pure happiness adorned everyone’s cheeks. This was an unqualified moment in Phish history. We had no idea it was coming. We had hit the jackpot.
Ray was the last person to come onstage for the encore, and we cheered him heartily. He deserved it, and tipped his cap in appreciation. "Sultans of Swing" sent us dancing out into the night, babbling like kids just back from summer vacation, talking about how good the next year was going to be. We knew Phish was alive and well, and the wait until the end of hiatus was made just a little bit more tolerable.
The classic cover songs, electric energy and surprise guests made this show my favorite of 2002.