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Concert recap: Phish makes its four-night Vegas Halloween run memorable

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Phish, performing at MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Photo: Rene Huemer

It’s highly unlikely Phish will ever become a “resident” Las Vegas performer in the sense of Elton John or Santana, yet in its way, the Vermont jam band has become as mighty a fixture on the Strip concert scene as any long-term headliner.

No one would have predicted that just five years ago. Back then, Las Vegas Phish fans—and those who’d flocked to town for 11 shows here from 1996 through 2004—were simply hoping for another shot. Though the band emerged from a five-year hibernation in 2009, Vegas found itself passed over until 2014, when Phish returned to town for the first time in a decade, for three nights at MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Those weren’t just any shows. As in 1998, Vegas was gifted with the band’s legendary Halloween run, which includes a bonus October 31 “costume” set, in which the group performs a full album, usually by another band (The Beatles’ White Album, The Who’s Quadrophenia and so forth). Overnight, Las Vegas went from the Phish doghouse to Phish heaven, and our city has stayed there ever since.

Anastasio

Anastasio

Having re-established its Vegas bona fides with those 2014 concerts—the first of which saw Phish cover the 1964 Disney album Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House—the band brought its next Halloween special back to town two years later for three 2016 shows, presenting its take on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars during the finale.

Flash forward two more years, and Halloween in Vegas has been unofficially established as an even-year Phish tradition. And this time, the band went one bigger, ballooning its run here to four consecutive nights. That might pale in comparison to last year’s Baker’s Dozen series—in which Phish played 13 shows over 17 nights at New York City’s Madison Square Garden (without repeating a single song)—but beyond the Big Apple, Vegas once again appears to rank near the top of the band’s favored cities list.

That was made clear not only by band’s expanded presence here, but through the power with which guitarist Trey Anastasio, drummer Jon Fishman, bassist Mike Gordon and pianist Page McConnell performed. These 2018 shows eclipsed their ’14 and ’16 counterparts for both consistency and dazzle, with all four nights loaded with smart setlist selections and exploratory, meaningful jams—all of it augmented by Chris Kuroda’s mesmerizing light show.

It began with the blowout, Wednesday’s three-set Halloween party, which started around 8:30 p.m. and ended after 1 a.m. The Weekly has already reviewed that night in full (click here for the details surrounding the elaborate Kasvot Växt costume hoax, the material debuted during Set 2 and the relative strength of the other two sets), but the overall quality of the new í Rokk music is worth re-emphasizing, pushing Phish into a more experimental, polyrhythmic direction for the night—and hopefully well beyond. The four musicians referenced back to several of those songs as the Vegas run progressed, a signal the band intends to incorporate those sounds into its sets going forward.

Thursday went down as a solid if somewhat forgettable show, simply because the other three nights overshadowed it. Listening back now, it’s dotted with highlights—“Wolfman’s Brother” and “Chalk Dust Torture” in the first set, an adventurous “Blaze On,” followed by “No Men in No Man’s Land” and “Fuego” in the second, along with a crowd-pleasing “Harry Hood”—but nothing truly set it apart. When that’s a band’s baseline performance, you know you caught a heater of a run.

Friday, meanwhile, brought total fire. Thirty years into its career, the Grateful Dead—the band to which these improv-rock masters most often get compared—was treating the first set as a low-key warmup. Phish, at relatively the same stage in its timeline, has been coming out blazing from the start, epitomized by Night 3, Set 1 in Vegas. We got unexpected rarities (sublime ballad “If I Could” and fun oddity “Weigh”), fan favorites (“Suzy Greenberg” and “Martian Monster,” retained from the 2014 Chilling costume set) and dynamic jams (“Sand” and especially “Mercury,” which took a series of unforeseen detours during its 24-plus minutes). In short, it was a set for the ages, firsts or otherwise.

The second set maintained the mojo, melding sounds and styles—the precise instrumentation (and whistling) of “Guyute,” the funky good time of “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley,” the jazzy atmospherics of “Lights,” even a nod to Santana during “Down With Disease”—as if the four men shared one musical brain. Anastasio, in particular, demonstrated a calm confidence unseen here since the late ’90s, gliding across the rainbow of material with force and assurance.

Fishman!

Fishman!

And then, to begin the encore, he sat at the drum kit and ceded his mic to Fishman, who, for the next several minutes, became the single greatest entertainer in the Entertainment Capital of the World. He joked with the crowd (“The pressure is impossible … Thank God I don’t take anything seriously”) before putting his theatrical spin on Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd classic “Bike”—complete with one of Fishman’s throwback vacuum cleaner solos (singing into the vacuum’s tube to create strange and wonderful noises), dancing, running a lap around the stage and … twerking. For a while. 

When Anastasio returned to the front of the stage for the night’s final number, Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times,” he took a moment to compose himself. “Where do you go after that? … Sorry you guys, give me a second here. It’s not often that you get to see something like that.”

Returning 24 hours after one of the top shows in Phish Vegas history, the band also delivered a memorable capper on Saturday. After closing a solid first set with the ever-popular “Mike’s Song”/”Weekapaug Groove” combo—sandwiched around just the fourth rendition of “Lifeboy” since 2004—the band elevated further in Set 2, segueing smoothly from each number to the next, and filling each tune with at least one huge jam. High points included a savage opening “Carini,” an elegant “Scents and Subtle Sounds,” a party-starting cover of the Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless” and some dark and spacey journeys during “Split Open and Melt.” But really, Show 4, Set 2 had no nadir.

The only disappointments? That Phish didn’t quite sell out shows two, three and four (though the arena looked full all four nights), and that the band didn’t end its epic Vegas stand with an appropriately massive encore reward, like “You Enjoy Myself” or “Divided Sky.” But after 12 and a half hours of constant creativity and more than 80 unique songs, it’s tough to complain. Maybe it’s good to have goals left over for if—OK, let’s say when—the band returns for Halloween 2020.

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Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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