There’s always been something special about catching a rock ‘n’ roll show in Las Vegas, something to do with how Sin City’s reputation for gambling and debauchery enhances the vibe surrounding a show. This draws music lovers from around the country for many of the tours that come through, making a Vegas show akin to a national convention. The Grateful Dead used to fill the 40,000-capacity Silver Bowl in the early ‘90s and there was no doubt that only a minority in attendance were locals.
Phish grabbed the Vegas baton from the Dead in the mid-’90s, playing a series of legendary shows from 1996-2004 including a Halloween blowout for the ages in 1998 when the Vermont jamband donned the Velvet Underground’s Loaded as their musical costume. But their spring 2004 Vegas shows were widely derided as subpar, triggering a chain of events that led to the band’s untimely break-up that summer. Phish reunited in 2009 but it wasn’t until this year that the quartet returned to the scene of the crime to make things right in Sin City.
They accomplished this and then some by delivering a three-set Halloween show that stunned fans with a set of incendiary original jams based around Disney’s 1964 sound effects album, Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House. But Phish fans are known as music fanatics who can never get enough of a good thing, so there’s always a segment of the fanbase looking for an aftershow party. The men of moe. have developed a similar audience of their own jam rock fanatics and there’s plenty of crossover between the two fanbases. The announcement that moe. would play a Phish aftershow party featuring a Big Lebowski theme was thereby met with glee by both “phans” and “moe.rons” alike.
The jam rockers from upstate New York are no strangers to the Phish aftershow circuit and may well be the best band in the land for such duty. They followed Phish’s 2003 Vegas shows with their own late shows at Mandalay Bay’s House of Blues, where none other than Phish bassist Mike Gordon sat in. The band also played after Phish in New Orleans this past spring for Jazzfest, and it’s always two tastes that compliment each other so well.
If Phish’s Trey Anastasio is considered the premier guitarist in the scene, moe.’s Al Schnier and Chuck Garvey are not far behind. They even covered Phish’s “Stash” at their own 2009 Halloween show. They upped the ante for their 2014 Halloween show with both the cinematic theme and special guests including Little Feat’s Bill Payne on keys and Trey Anastasio Band horn players Natalie Cressman and Jennifer Hartswick. moe. knew Phish was going to do something special, and so they knew they had to follow suit. The show thereby had instant classic written all over it. Attending moe.’s Big Lebowski show after Phish’s Halloween bonanza was akin to doubling down after hitting the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll jackpot, except that the odds heavily favored those willing to gamble the rest of their evening.
The show featured a slew of tunes from the Lebowski soundtrack, interspersed with fan favorites from moe.’s own vast songbook. The contrast between the classic rock covers from the film with scintillating renditions of moe. fan favorites provided a truly sublime experience. Fans thereby relished every minute of the show that went until nearly dawn, a party that would be difficult to duplicate in any other city (save for New Orleans) due to the puritan liquor laws of most states. But here in Vegas you could suddenly realize around 4 a.m. that you hadn’t yet quaffed a White Russian in honor of “The Dude” and still go get one.
There was a surreal atmosphere surrounding the entire event, starting with how most attendees were already entering the venue with minds blown from the Phish show. But walking into the Brooklyn Bowl and seeing Cressman in a sexy viking costume ala Julianne Moore’s “Maude Lebwoski” character instantly kicked the trip in to yet a higher gear. Hartswick was next to her in a bikini t-shirt ala “Bunny Lebowski”, with Payne in a cowboy hat that made him look like Sam Elliott’s “The Stranger”. Burly bassist Rob Derhak wore a vest pegging him as John Goodman’s “Walter Sobchak”, while percussionist/xylophonist Jim Loughlin wore a purple jumpsuit and hairnet that made him John Turturro’s “Jesus Quintana”.
Drummer Vinny Amico donned a bowling shirt for most of the show, identifying him as Steve Buscemi’s endearing “Donny” character. Schnier and Garvey both sported old school German-style motorcycle helmets, ala “the Nihilists”. It was Hollywood meets Las Vegas in the best way, with cinematic soundtrack moments juxtaposed with psychedelic space rock jams that took fans on a wild ride. The first set featured “Hotel California” and “I Am the Walrus”, followed by a deep journey on “Recreational Chemistry” that was elevated by the horns and duel guitar fireworks. But what makes moe. such masters of the sonic arts is how their rhythm section can keep such a strong groove going behind the fiery guitars.
Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Looking Out My Back Door” and Santana’s “Oye Como Va” kicked off the second set to set the stage for moe.’s slinky “Silver Sun”, a newer tune quickly achieving classic status. A heavy Pink Floyd-ish section mesmerized as the jam visited a vast sonic landscape that featured a “Crazy Train” tease before ultimately reprising the sensationally psychedelic “Meat” jam from the first set. Dazed fans were then set up like bowling pins for the band to knock down with Lebowski’s Kenny Rogers tune, “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”.
A space jazz jam on “Downward Dog” was another gem, before the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling” was disrupted by a “Dude” character barging onstage to declare his distaste for the Eagles. moe. obliged him by ditching the song for Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas”, much to the delight of all. The band topped it off with “Plane Crash”, with Derhak’s soaring anthem to flying too high providing yet another sublimely fitting selection on an infinitely ecstatic evening like this one. The horns propelled the song to even greater heights, with Hartswick and Cressman helping deliver one of the tightest jams of the night.
A Lebowksi double encore of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” and David Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes” wrapped the show with dramatic style and by that time it was 5 a.m. The show was so stupendous that the band went ahead and gave away the soundboard recording for free – #winning.
Photography by Paul Citone