Phish began life in 1983 and didn’t play Las Vegas for another 13 years, but the Vermont improv-rock quartet quickly made up for lost time in Sin City. Beginning with the band’s first visit in late 1996, many of its stops here have been notable—if not downright legendary—points along a 33-year concert chronology filled with guest collaborations, surprise song breakouts and other unexpected elements.
Even when Phish went a full decade without coming to town, from 2004 to ’14, it returned in style, delivering another of its famous Halloween “costume” sets, for which the foursome covers a full album typically not its own. To prepare for this weekend’s longest-ever Vegas run—four shows, Friday through Halloween Monday—here’s a look back at five of Phish’s most famous, and in some cases infamous, Vegas performances.
December 6, 1996 (Aladdin Theatre for the Performing Arts)
A musically sizzling start to Phish’s Vegas career turned full-on manic when the encore arrived and Primus’ Les Claypool and Larry LaLonde appeared to join in on “Harpua,” country novelties “Wildwood Weed” and “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” (the latter with vocals by The Yodeling Cowgirls), “Suspicious Minds”—featuring four Elvis impersonators on the mic—and “Suzy Greenberg”/“Susie Q.” Preserved for posterity on the 2007 CD/DVD release Vegas 96.
October 31, 1998 (Thomas & Mack Center)
After taking on The Beatles’ White Album, The Who’s Quadrophenia and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light from ’94 through ’96, Phish channeled The Velvet Underground’s 1970 outsider classic, Loaded, for its first Vegas Halloween. The night was packed with epic highlights—from the funky “Sneakin’ Sally Thru the Alley” in Set 1 through epic V.U. cuts like “Rock & Roll” and “New Age” in Set 2 to a 31-minute “Wolfman’s Brother” in Set 3—though, truth be told, the previous night’s T&M gig might have been even better. The entire 31st show, plus a chunk from the 30th, were released as the four-disc Live Phish Volume 16 in 2002.
September 29, 2000 (Thomas & Mack Center)
A rock-forward night got far rockier with the Set 2 appearance of one Kid Rock, who took over on lead vocals for a succession of insipid covers: “Walk This Way,” “Rapper’s Delight,” “You Shook Me All Night Long” and “We’re an American Band” to cap the show. (Jambands.com would later rate Kid the all-time worst guest in Phish concert history.) At the following night’s T&M show (later released as the band’s first full concert DVD, Live in Vegas), Phish told the audience—and the world—that it would go on extended hiatus at tour’s end.
April 15, 2004 (Thomas & Mack Center)
Poll longtime fans about the low point in Phish history and many are sure to respond “Vegas ’04.” The band limped into town for three shows short an important weapon, longtime lighting designer Chris Kuroda, and looked—and sounded—uninspired. A stab at Jay Z’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” stood out for its novelty, but this night and the next two are remembered for all the wrong reasons. Later that year, Phish staged the rain-impaired Coventry festival in Vermont and called it quits until 2009.
October 31, 2014 (MGM Grand Garden Arena)
A decade-long Vegas drought had fans worried Phish might never return to the scene of its ’04 crime. When Messrs Anastasio, McConnell, Gordon and Fishman finally found their way back, they did so with a Strip-sized splash, choosing for their Halloween album Disney’s 1964 sound-effects record, Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House, and doing it surprisingly compelling justice. Two solid nights followed, setting the stage for the band’s third Halloween-in-Vegas production this Monday.
Phish October 28-31, 7:30 p.m., $65. MGM Grand Garden Arena, 702-891-7777.