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Published: 2007/12/21
by Randy Ray

Vegas ’96 – Phish

JEMP Records 1003

Phish grew up in 1996. In August, they held their first major festival called the Clifford Ball in upstate New York, attracting 75,000 fans. In October, they released their sublime Billy Breathes, dispelling the myth that they couldn’t create a studio classic. On Halloween, they covered Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, discovering their inner funk child. However, from October through December, the band stumbled artistically during an awkward transition playing hockey arenas while their setlists lacked innovation.

The debut trip to Las Vegas for Phish, on December 6th of that year, gave the band a chance to live up to an event’s expectations and they didn’t disappoint. A demarcation point was being drawn into the desert sand. Playing the relatively small (and soon-to-be relocated) Aladdin Theatre, before future trips at the sprawling Thomas & Mack Center, served as a symbolically appropriate location for the Vermont quartet with an identity crisis.

The first set begins with maximum party frills on “Wilson” and the recently revived “Peaches En Regalia,” segues into old school frivolity on "2001 > Llama,” and grabs the collective jugular on “You Enjoy Myself,” with an “I love donuts” vocal rap for added flavor. “Down With Disease” transforms the gangly energy into a concentrated exclamation point. When the band returns to the vocal chorus after a focused jam highlighted by a rotating riff sequence from guitarist Trey Anastasio, they are riding a euphoric peak and the momentum effortlessly melts into “Frankenstein.”

The second set delivers the unpredictability that was always a brilliantly strange and beautiful trademark of the band. The funhouse atmosphere from the first set hasn’t leveled off as Phish jolts into “Julius” and “Sparkle,” but finally, thankfully, the energy is tweaked into another space quadrant entirely on a landmark version of “Mike’s Groove.” They sandwich a deliciously ambient “Simple” and a transcendent “Harry Hood,” between a hyper “Mike’s Song” and a pedal-to-the metal “Weekapaug Groove,” replacing the traditional “I Am Hydrogen” interlude with nary a complaint.

“Sweet Adeline” is sung a cappella without microphones and is the first in a series of had-to-be-there’ moments. The encore is thirty minutes plus of Vegas schwag with 2/3 PrimusLes Claypool and Larry LaLondeplaying “Harpua”‘s bizarro time signature, wrapped inside Anastasio narration discussing the plight of Jimmy in the desert, entering Sin City for the first time. A country number follows, “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” sung by Heather August, Anamieke Carrozza and featuring John McEuen, who also shows up with four Elvis Impersonators and Jon Fishman as the King on a “Suspicious Minds > Harpua > Suzy Greenberg > Suzie Q” quartet of madness, which eventually includes all Veguests. This excitement does not translate completely on audio but it is another sign that the band did know how to rise to the occasion when duty called in the pre-cow funk, early adult phase known as Phish 1996.

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