Phish in Vegas 2016: The boys deliver another MGM blockbuster on Halloween

Phish performs at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Halloween night, Monday Oct. 31, 2016.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

Four stars

Phish October 31, MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Ziggy played … by Phish Let’s cut to the chase. For its Halloween night musical costume—where someone else’s album is covered in full—Phish chose widely rumored The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars by David Bowie, and despite the fairly straightforward interpretation by the improv-rock masters, it was a no-brainer for many reasons: It’s poignant not just for Bowie’s passing last January, but its tragic narrative; it’s a tribute to the man whose name titles one of the Vermont quartet’s most revered songs; Ziggy is a benchmark album in line with previous musical costumes (Phish’s own Fuego and Disney’s Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House sound-effect album excepted); and it offered the band a chance to showcase talents not easily exhibited during its more jam-heavy material. For instance, each band member showcased their vocal strengths throughout the 50-minute, second-set performance (often aided by three backup singers and a six-member string section), including drummer Jon Fishman’s standout singing on “Soul Love” and “Star,” and Mike Gordon, whose confident intonation on “Star Man” held the line despite his simultaneous recreation of its prominent bassline and the MGM Grand Garden crowd’s deafening singalong.

Phish Halloween Concert

That being said, Phish’s signature musicianship soared during the swaggering “Hang On To Yourself,” with pianist Page McConnell particularly leveling the roughly 17,000 spectators, and a rendering of “Moonage Daydream” so outstanding, it could have closed the set if not for its early placement on the album, with credit mainly due to guitarist/singer Trey Anastasio’s Bowie-similar croon and heavenly leads, made even more celestial when paired with the backing vocalists. In all, Phish’s Ziggy may not have been as imaginative as diehards might have expected, but few could quibble with the veneration, precision, enthusiasm and care its players demonstrated. What a thing to have witnessed.

Halloween parade Phish’s Halloween show is as much about the crowd—and, specifically, what they’re wearing—as whatever the band has musically donned. And even though the “phans” always seem to exceed the quota of Dudes and Walter Sobchaks, Marios and Luigis and Hunter S. Thompsons, their costume craftsmanship and creativity still abounds. There was a Bucky Larson, the most glamorous Medusa ever, the couple that went as Phish songs (“Maze” and “Possum”), the chef that had “Fe” on his apron (think the periodic chart of elements) and the dude dressed as the Stranger Things alphabet wall Winona Ryder’s character uses to communicate with her missing son, Will. So how do you possibly stand out in such a vast congregation of characters? Go as stick figures, like the one couple in Section 5, wearing nothing but black bodysuits and bright green electroluminscent wire, which was visible even when the arena lights went out.

Trey attacks Ziggy was the second of three sets Monday night (which, with a single-song encore, made for a nearly five-hour show), during which Anastasio shone not only as an occasional Bowie, but as electric guitarist Mick Ronson’s stand-in. He was also the star of the preceding set, which sounded unusually muscular and strident for the early portion of a Phish show. His “Kashmir”-like riffage in opener “Carini” drew one of the loudest crowd roars of the night, his frenetic fretwork stole the show during “AC/DC Bag,” his clarion chords for “What’s the Use?” soared even with his other three bandmates contributing more downcast tones and the only thing cooling down his scorcher of a solo during “Run Like an Antelope” was the immediate gearshift into a ragga jam—one of several turn-on-a-dime transitions that made that particular song such a perfect end to a bracing first set.

Play it again, band Of the 31 songs that comprised Monday’s prodigious setlist, five overlapped with Phish’s last local Halloween show two years ago in the same venue: Set-three one-two punch “46 Days” and “Sand,” “Tube,” “Your Pet Cat” (from Chilling, Thrilling) and set-one highlight “Wolfman’s Brother,” which was also featured in Phish’s first Vegas Halloween show in 1998 at Thomas & Mack.

Other notable appearances from the Phish catalog: “What’s the Use?” from the band’s experimental and mostly instrumental album, The Siket Disc; “Ass Handed,” an interlude-like Fishman ditty that didn’t make the recently released album Big Boat, whose sole inclusion Monday night was one of its better songs, the narrative-rich opus “Petrichor”; and “Also Sprach Zarathrustra,” otherwise known as Richard Strauss’ dramatic theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey and one of Phish’s most beloved covers. During the latter song, Trey teased the chords from Bowie’s “Fame,” sealing his status as the night’s MVP.

It’s worth noting that Phish didn’t perform anything twice during its MGM weekend run. That’s 90 different songs over four nights.

Rough landing As it turned out, the third set couldn’t compete with the robustness and adventure of the first or the grandness and resonance of the second, despite “Sand” being almost as much a space opera as the entirety of Ziggy and the numerous peaking “Zarathrustra.” The latter set a high bar of fun that “Backwards Down the Number Line” couldn’t reach, though Anastasio certainly tried during a commendable end-jam. Ditto for closing chestnut “Slave to the Traffic Light,” which felt like a jog to the finish line.

However, it may have wound the crowd down for the fitting encore: a four-man a capella version of Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which, unlike the faithful Ziggy renditions, was more characteristic of Phish, even as it sounded just as reverential and affectionate. (The song also nods to 2001, the sort of cross-association at which Phish excels.) I was hard pressed to find anyone around me not singing along with the band, and I presume those same audience members also shared my goose pimples. A stunner of an encore, an ideal capper for the night—and a sublime way to send the marathoning faithful back home.

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Mike Prevatt

Mike started his journalism career at UCLA reviewing CDs and interviewing bands, less because he needed even more homework and ...

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