The debate over the title for Greatest Active Live Band ended at 1:30 a.m. Thursday morning, when the four musicians in Phish finally put down their instruments and walked offstage at MGM Grand Garden Arena.
I can already hear your under-breath grumbles. Stupid jam band. Neverending songs. Too noodly. Hippie something or other.
Whatever your preferences or prejudices, let me ask: Has your pick for the greatest live band ever made a semi-annual tradition of playing another artist’s album in full—a different artist and album each time—right smack in the middle of one of its two-set concerts? Has it done so creatively, through the filter of its own trademark sound? Has it reinterpreted albums outside its own associated genre? Live albums? Children’s albums?
And, more to the point, has it used this tradition to introduce both a completely dreamed-up band, one prefaced with its own history and mythology (via a pre-show playbill, blog write-ups and an AllMusic entry, no less), and its “forgotten classic” album—by which I mean 10 quietly crafted tracks, which bear scant resemblance to the aesthetic of the real band, but somehow share the spirit and delivery of the real band—to some 17,000 antsy, costumed, heard-and-seen-it-all fans who might’ve otherwise expected to hear Electric Ladyland or OK Computer?
No, it most certainly hasn’t. And it couldn’t.
Only one band boasts that level of versatility and chutzpah. And after Wednesday night’s masterstroke of surprise and execution, Phish has earned some hyperbole.
Ponder the layers of the band’s 2018 Halloween musical costume, which made up the second of three sets during the first of a four-show run at MGM. For starters, Phish didn’t just devise a jam-band alter ego. The fake act, Kasvot Växt (that’s “face plant” in an unspecified Scandinavian language), was fashioned as a funk-laden prog-rock group, all but rendering the set as an homage to David Byrne and Talking Heads—with touches of Roxy Music, Genesis and ELO here and there. That might read as pretentious in nature, but it sounded visceral, invigorating, sometimes boisterous and remarkably melodic.
The verses from its album I Rokk (“into rock”) were meant to sound like rough English translations, which returned Phish to its more lyrically humorous days (examples: “We are come to outlive our brains,” from the same-named song, and “This is what space smells like,” from “Say It to Me S.A.N.T.O.S.”), proffering at least a few additions to the band’s cultural parlance.
And then there were the actual costumes of the set: An all-white motif, down to the band’s wardrobe and instrumentation, with ‘80s-era projections on the stage floor, which matched the imagery on hollowed-out LED squares hovering above the floor audience—a notable deviation from lighting designer Chris Kuroda’s usual spotlight spectacle.
That’s a whole lot of concept, for sure. Reactions of bewilderment were strewn among the unsuspecting throng, at least during the first few numbers. And the whole thing might’ve buckled under its own ambition with a less proficient and pliable band. But Phish performed I Rokk as intuitively as it has previous covers, and with less improvisational heft and a lot more showmanship, it stood out from the night’s bookending sets that much more.
To be fair, the first set had the air of a band trying to establish some momentum while not trying to overextend itself before the main-event costume set. Improvisational passages generally felt more restrained, shorter in duration and/or more atmospheric. Phish opened the set—and acknowledged the holiday—with “Buried Alive” and “Ghost,” as it did during set one four years ago, and ended it with the one-two punch of “Theme From the Bottom,” a rousing, nine-minute build of a song, and crowd-pleasing rocker “First Tube,” with Trey Anastasio demonstrating the night’s first real foray into guitar bravado. Finally, we had liftoff.
The third set, by contrast, might’ve been characterized as Phish’s post-costume exhale, letting loose with long, sweeping, feel-good jams often punctuated by Anastasio’s soaring guitarwork. The familiar boogie of “Tweezer” sent the crowd into a frenzy, then took it along for a 17-minute ride. The narrative of the ensuing “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing” was rendered emotively by keyboardist Page McConnell’s gorgeous ivory work and Anastasio’s wailing riffs. Anastasio would remain on fire for the rest of the set, his sonorous fretwork enhancing “Backwards Down the Number Line” and a climactic “Run Like an Antelope,” which closed the third set at 1:15 a.m.
That didn’t deter Phish from an encore, comprised of the band’s majestic—and longer-than-usual—cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Loving Cup,” and an expected reprise of “Tweezer,” wrapping a five-hour-plus concert.
Has your live band of choice pulled one of those off, too? Never mind—I know the answer.