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Published: 2004/04/17
by Jesse Jarnow

Phish, Thomas and Mack Center, Las Vegas, NV- 4/16

FROM UNDER THE TOURING DESK: In the Bowels of the Business Center

Circus Circus
Las Vegas, Nevada

Last night, I dreamed a Phish show, and all the people I met there. This morning, I lie in bed, watching the sun splotch out through a crack in the extra-thick hotel room curtains and fan into an elongated spectrum of faded light on the ceiling, thin straight lines moving silently like an abstract speedometer as cars drive by 12 floors below, and remember fragments of music only tangentially connected, barely perceived as a single performance, but different scenes of the same non-linear dream.

— “Brian and Robert,” played near the end of the first set, receiving a huge cheer. The gentle song, once derided for its simple cheesiness, has matured into a swaying, majestic piece. Phish have slowly developed their own equivalent to Jerry Garcia’s ballads — tender, shimmering numbers like “Brian and Robert” and “Roggae” (played at the opener) and “Lifeboy” (also played last night), which – on good evenings, such as this one, allow them access to the seemingly eternal space carved by great pop songs (even if that space only exists for the duration of the performance and doesn’t necessarily hold up on tape). At any rate, the cheers for “Brian and Robert” were reassuring, Phishheads cheering for something mature and nice instead of simply clever, and the performance matched it.

— The band opening the gig with “Seven Below” as a statement of their relevance as a real, working group. Of all the songs debuted since the band’s year off, “Seven Below” has made the best bid for any staying power. “Waves” played later, along with “Walls of the Cave,” have produced fun (read: long) jams, but still suffer from a basic awkwardness that keep the transitions between the sections not-so-smooth. This isn’t so with “Seven Below,” which has a patient grace. In many ways, what makes a good Phish song is an interesting drum part. It’s what makes them turn the corner from groove to transcendence, and “Seven Below” has a beauty, seemingly engaging all of Jon Fishman’s attention, all sensitive cymbal taps and microscopic
one-handed snare rolls. The band sounded, and were, current. The cheer that greeted it wasn’t the cheap nostalgia of a crowd that shared an associative history with the song, but one that appreciated its real newness.

— Walking the outer Strip earlier that afternoon in search of an Internet connection and hearing John Popper’s harmonica bark out Stardust’s speakers and onto the street at some ungodly amount of decibels, yet still lost in the din of the afternoon traffic; thinking how this music entered the mainstream of culture at some juncture, and how a song like “What Would You Say” – the first hit of a fledgling then-jamband from Virginia, the Dave Matthews Band, helped out by a relative elder, Popper – is now just another part of soundtrack to Las Vegas.

— People no longer cheer when Trey Anastasio messes up. It used to be a cute pastime to scream when he flubbed a line or a guitar lick, like a collective laugh on the part of the audience, somehow rationalizing the mistake into the experience. But no more. It happens too often, and I think it makes people uncomfortable. Not that there were too many mistakes last night, particularly, just a general thought. Last night, in fact, was a fantastic Phish show, I think, more than making up for the uneven performance of the opener. The show flowed.

— Seeing the debut of Jon Fishman’s musical dress – a replica of his famed muumuu covered in pads that make scratching sounds when he runs his hands across them – as he sang Syd Barrett’s “Love You” was, on one hand, a little underwhelming. It certainly doesn’t rival the lightbulb cape he used to wear for “Suspicious Minds,” or the amusement of hearing him try out a new cover and it sure ain’t the vacuum. But, on the other hand, seeing Fishman – a charismatic performer when he wants to be (and that’s increasingly less these days) – front the band is a treat no matter what. Fishman songs are part of the repertoire of mannerisms – a capella numbers, trampolines, the audience cues of the Secret Language – that once made up the textures of a
Phish show. Seeing Fishman sing is like seeing Phish dream of their younger, less self-aware selves.

— Better lights: still a little off when I focused on them, but not too offensive when I didn’t.

— Almost anybody seeing Phish in Las Vegas has probably committed some time to the band. Though Vegas is now a city of substantial size, these shows are not being played for locals. Phish do not play here for the same reason that they play in, say, the Bay Area, where they have a market they sometimes need to hit. The people who come to see Phish in Las Vegas are generally those who are already intimately familiar with them. And if it’s not quite as counter-cultural as Burning Man (in fact, it might be just exactly the opposite), these people have also traveled to the middle of a desert to see the band.

If one has been seeing Phish for any amount of time – and most of the people willing to travel to Las Vegas to see them probably have – the experience of going to a show involves running into a lot of people from different periods of one’s life — from high school (the people he might’ve gotten into the band with) to college (people who’ve since moved to other parts of the country and started new lives), from the day-to-day experience of the present (people he might work with at home) to people from childhood (who, after sharing the same murky formative years, through separate paths, found their way to Phish, and now stand three rows in front of you, defiantly proving that childhood wasn’t actually a self-invented past).

Phish shows swoop audience members through powerful memories, cueing them by any means necessary. The various songs jump out, such as the encore of “Harry Hood,” which might have had listeners contemplating any number of things — where it stood compared to other versions (the one last night was one of the best in recent memory, finding its way off the well-beaten path
of the song’s climactic jam), what kind of memories it evoked (particularly strong experiences one might’ve had with the song, as it played soundtrack to formative evenings), how the lyrics render pop culture into three dimensions (looking around and seeing how the song may’ve been hammered into a bootleg shirt, such as the “you’ll never get out of this maze” Pac-Man
shirt bobbing in front of me, through some shared public memory).

It’s a lot to think about — or not think about, as the case were, as the jam careens into the stratosphere and hundreds of green and orange glowsticks rain down on the crowd and form a mobile-like planetarium show of dazzling neon constellations. And one also wonders if it’s just the past the song is evoking — if it’s only rubbing the memories of the same 80,000 people who come to see Phish over and over and over and over again, or if it’s providing new memories for kids just getting into the band, if it’s even possible to get into the band now, or if that would be a useless gesture. Based on last night, I don’t think it is, necessarily.

— Phish played a great show.

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