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Published: 2004/04/16
by Jesse Jarnow

Phish, Thomas and Mack Center, Las Vegas, NV- 4/15

FROM THE TOURING DESK: Circus Circus is the Place For Me

Circus Circus
Las Vegas, Nevada

Our hulking burgundy minivan wasn’t quite the sleek desert warrior I was envisioning when I made the rental reservations, but it jumped nonetheless, and we made it from Burbank to Vegas in just over four hours. We listened to apropos BitTorrent acquisitions — an Elvis soundboard from the International Hotel in ’71 (what Duke and Gonzo might’ve heard had they thromped into an Elvis gig) and – as we sighted the Strip – a makeshift Sinatra bootleg titled Solos, his Duets record stripped of the flown-in guests. As we approached the shimmering skyline, we saw billboards for upcoming performances – Prince, Barry Manilow, Jerry Seinfeld – all (like the Phish shows we were about to see) multi-night stands, part of what Hal Rothman calls Vegas’s “excuse market.”

Phish and their fans are no different. The fact that the band is only playing three shows this spring, and all three happen to be in Vegas, says a lot. People will come, the band knew. Everybody’s got a different set of excuses, and those of Phish fans are quite unique. But even pumping one’s body full of dangerous narcotics and stumbling through the casinos and staring at the pretty lightbulbs isn’t anything particularly subversive. It’s just part of Las Vegas, though no less fun. On their first night in town, Phish – unintentionally, one hopes – simultaneously offered a fairly thorough parody of Vegas’s polished glitz, providing two sets of extremely uneven performances that ranged from downright embarrasing to incredibly sublime, and mirrored Vegas’s reality — both the out-of-body transcendence it promises (but rarely delivers) and the unfortunate actuality of the fact that no hotel window will open more than two inches, so that one can’t jump
out after losing his savings.

The first set, give or take, was an unmitigated disaster. After opening with a “Buried Alive” that oozed with a rehearsed confidence, and a quick splice into “AC/DC Bag,” the band lost steam.. During “AC/DC Bag,” as they traced circles around the chord changes, they seemed to stumble and disconnect rhythmically, unable to hook back up as the jam wound to a close. Adding to
the confusion was the light show by Chris Kuroda substitute Fenton Williams. In a perfect world, the absence of the band’s veteran lightman (considered the fifth member of the band by those who care to make such proclamations) would throw the band out of their comfort zone and make them play more agressively. Unfortunately, it’s an imperfect world, and the band seemed
disoriented on stage during the first set, even nervous, guitarist Trey Anastasio puttering around between songs, back slightly hunched. (My friend said he resembled Ozzy Osbourne.)

Despite the lackluster performance, the song choices were lovely, focusing on the band’s elegant numbers from the Story of the Ghost era, such as “Limb By Limb,” “Roggae,” and “Water in the Sky” — all of which highlight the peak of Anastasio’s writing for four instrumental voices and four singers. Unfortunately, the band routinely missed cues, and couldn’t get their vocals in synch, ruining the delicate effect of the tunes. The jam on “Stash” was sadly non-existent (the band usually engages well), Anastasio aimlessly chording for a minute before settling on the rearranged Josh White blues tune, “Timber,” for which he promptly forgot the second verse.

The second set was better, if a little more bizarre. Anastasio continued to blow cues, notably in “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” where he seemed to miss one of the big notes in each of the song’s choruses (and all of the notes are supposed to be big), and “Down With Disease,” whose solo crumpled around itself. The band redeemed themselves in two jams (the lights improved, too). The first, coming out of a cover of The Who’s “Drowned,” was surprisingly (and thankfully) led by keyboardist Page McConnell, who delivered a fierce piano solo, and navigated the band through twinkling ambient territory on his Fender Rhodes. For the bulk of the show, Anastasio toyed with a truly obnoxious guitar tone, filled with abrasive distortion and sounding a bit like King Crimson’s Adrian Belew. As “Down With Disease” melted away, the band found themselves in a dissonant space jam. Somewhere, they turned a corner, and suddenly contextualized Anastasio’s tone. It sounded perfect, and the band sailed neatly into their best playing of the night, a long and twisted fusion mutation led – again, not by Anastasio – by drummer Jon Fishman, whose ultra-quiet playing made the improvisation.

“Down With Disease” is now 10 years old. It was premeired in April of 1994, along with four other songs from the then-new Hoist. Though it’s since grown into a beloved chestnut, it was despised at the time — partially because the band made a video for it, but also because they played it (and many of the other Hoist songs) nearly every night. They were clearly excited as hell about them. By two or so hours into the Thomas and Mack show, one could very easily wonder about what excites the band these days. With the exception of “All of the Dreams” near the end of the first set, and “46 Days,” to open the second, the band hadn’t played a single song written in the past five years. Even though I kvetch about it and don’t necessarily like it, I’m a firm believer in the band’s new material — at least in the sense that if I’m going to continue to see them, I want to do it because they are still making interesting new music, and aren’t simply a nostalgia trip. Despite what they might claim, the band seems as wary as their fans of the material written since their two-year hiatus. Sure, their repertoire is big, but if they were really excited about the new stuff, they could easily clear room in the playlist. They’ve done it before and, hopefully, they’ll someday be excited enough about their recent work that they’ll do it again – fans’ complaints be damned – and with their old reckless confidence, taboot (taboot).

“Scent of a Mule” sacrified its jam for a best-forgettable take on Jay-Z’s “Girls,” rapped dorkily/stupidly/half-assedly by Anastasio and his side-bandmate Jen Hartswick. Anastasio lacks the game unselfconsciousness of Jon Fishman, however, and I can already feel my brain clearing the spectacle before it arrives in long-term storage. Then, finally, after two hours (more, even?), a lot of fuck-ups, two wonderful jams, and mind-boggling weirdness, the band got to their new material. First up was a newly rearranged (presumably for their upcoming album) “Secret Smile,” which was a tremendous improvement over the song of that name they were playing last summer. The song is darker now – minor, I think – and bauble-like. If the band were to play it frequently, it would probably even develop a whole spectrum of nuance and nookery. “Crowd Control,” played once over the Thanksgiving run, was an inoffensive catchy rocker, simple, though not
obviously deceptive in its simplicity. After a “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley” which decayed into a vocal jam with Anastasio, again, attempting (with a little more success) to rap, the heads disseminated into the Vegas night.

After a stop at the Hard Rock (and the discovery of a guitar signed by Phish, though clearly never played by any of them), we drifted back to Circus Circus, and the scene there. The Phish show, weird on their terms, was nothing, really: a Hispanic couple whooping/hollaring/screaming at a slot machine, kissing coins and pounding the touch screen with their firsts; a disheveled man in a “Jesus Loves Me” shirt macking on an Asian cocktail waitress by explaing that he’s got $6 and a full pack of cigarettes and he just wanted to say “hi,” and – every now and again – a dreadlocked Phishhead wandering into frame. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for Vegas at three a.m on a Thursday night/Friday morning and Phish are just sucked right into the vortex of floral carpets and air-conditioning and mathematical probabilties coming alive and unfolding on the blackjack table. And so it’s to bed, and to rise, and a search for a cheap breakfast buffet and wireless hot-spots around this weird desert town.

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