Photos: Rene Huemer

Phish and the Spiders From Mars Take Las Vegas

Phish has personally transformed Halloween into the holy high holiday of the rock world due to their legendary musical costume performances...

The sights and sounds of fabulous Las Vegas are somewhat akin to a festival atmosphere on any given weekend, fear and loathing for the death of the American Dream aside. Add in the leading musical proponent of the modern American counterculture — Phish — and it’s a recipe for one of the great pop culture events of any calendar year as the rock ‘n’ roll circus comes to town. Double down by making that a Phish Halloween show and fans are looking at reeling in a sonic jackpot for the ages, because this band proves the American Dream is still alive and well.

The Vermont jamrock quartet has been delivering downright epic performances in Sin City since 1996, when they ended their fall ‘96 tour with an instant classic show at the Aladdin that remains revered for its fiery performance and theatrical encore which amounted to a surprise third set. Now, 20 years later, Phish is back again for what promises to be one of their most memorable performances. Phish has personally transformed Halloween into the holy high holiday of the rock world due to their legendary musical costume performances, starting with the Beatles’ White Album in 1994, followed by the Who’s Quadrophenia in 1995 and the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light in 1996. Many other bands have since dabbled in similar classic rock homages, but no one else does it quite like Phish.

The band took Halloween off in 1997 but opened their fall ‘97 “Phish Destroys America” tour in Vegas two weeks later at the Thomas & Mack Center. They upped the ante in 1998 by returning to the Thomas & Mack for a Halloween performance of the Velvet Underground’s 1970 Loaded album. The band delivered such a stupendous jam on Lou Reed’s classic “Rock and Roll” that the song has been an ongoing staple of the repertoire ever since (similar to the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, the Who’s “Drowned” and Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless” in that regard.)

It seemed as if everyone present quickly came to revere “Rock and Roll” as a life-affirming spiritual anthem, with its endearing lyrics about a girl whose life of suburban monotony was saved by discovering the uplifting power of dancing to the music of a New York rock radio station. Phish’s reading of Loaded was nothing short of a revelation to many in the audience that night, with an electrifying vibe that was not unlike a religious revival of sorts. Phish were like shamans taking their tribe on a visionary journey of discovery and no one in attendance was ever quite the same.

The 1998 show was the band’s fourth Halloween musical costume performance in five years, making it seem as if it would be a near annual ritual. Yet it would be 11 long years before Phish would play on Halloween again due to skipping it in 1999-2000, a two-year hiatus in 2001-02 and a 2004 breakup that took the band out of action for five years. But the band’s destined 2009 return led to the dreamlike Festival 8 in Indio, California where Phish renewed their Halloween tradition with a magnificent performance of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. 2010 then saw the band cover Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus in Atlantic City.

The next Halloween show in 2013 surprised fans again with a curveball performance of the impending new Phish album. It was a trick or treat set that some fans considered a letdown when they were ramped up for a classic rock revival. It was a yet another lesson on how Phish will remain ever unpredictable in following their muse. But leave it to Phish to flip the script again in 2014 and blow everyone’s minds with another all-new set of Halloween music here at the MGM Grand based around soundbites from Disney’s 1964 Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House (the year that guitarist and de facto bandleader Trey Anastasio was born.) The creatively incendiary set was instantly hailed as one of the greatest in Phishtory, with most of the songs becoming beloved additions to the repertoire.

The band skipped fall tour in 2015, but the fanbase was set abuzz again when the fall 2016 tour was announced to conclude with an unprecedented four-night Halloween run back in Vegas. Knowing how high they set the bar in 2014, fans can’t help but conclude that this show must be another instant classic in waiting or why else would the band even bother? Phish has been on fire for the first three nights and now the people watching on the way into the main event is quite something as fans dress to make one of the most colorful audiences in concert history.

The World Series between the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs is a factor with at least three versions of fictional Tribe pitcher Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughan sighted, including one accompanied by late great Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray. “Member Berries” from the current season of South Park is another zeitgeist costume, with multiple fans representing. Dressing as Phish songs meanwhile is a popular trend dating back to the ‘90s with costumes such as “Slave to the Traffic Light”, “Your Pet Cat”, “Fluffhead”, etc.

The odds on favorite for the musical costume set has been David Bowie’s 1972 masterpiece concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, due to a soundcheck performance of “Suffragette City” earlier on the tour. The Phishbill traditionally handed out to ticketholders confirms this, so everyone now knows what’s coming up in set two. The band gets the audience properly warmed up with a high-octane opening set that is easily one of the best first sets of the year. The heavy metal of “Carini” opens the show with a seismic blast, the type of opener that announces the band means business. The funky “Your Pet Cat” nods to 2014’s Halloween show, as had the opening songs on each of the previous three nights. Phish is ever mindful of their history, frequently playing certain songs at certain times or adding antics and semi-secret language as acknowledgement to their devoted fanbase that they know exactly what time it is.

One of the great existential moments occurs with “AC/DC Bag” from Anastasio’s college musical thesis “Gamehendge”, a series of songs about an ongoing revolution by the peaceful lizard people against an evil tyrant named Wilson who has taken over their land. The hard rocking song from the band’s early years serves as something of an allegorical reference to the greed and avarice that plagues American government. When a packed arena of fans sings out lines like “Brain dead and made of money, no future at all” in unison as if the unrecorded song were a hit single, one can’t help but feel genuine hope for humanity even amidst this foul political year of 2016.

The funky grooves of “Wombat”, “Tube” and “Wolfman’s Brother” have the energy flowing at a high level for a raging Sin City dance party before the band returns to a subtle socio-political commentary with 2016’s new “Ass Handed”. The short song is something of a prank written and sung by drummer Jon Fishman, long the band’s most politically-minded member (so much so that he ditched his traditional donut mumu on the summer tour in favor of one with a pattern of Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.) Could it be mere coincidence that “Ass Handed” was debuted on July 15 at the Gorge Ampitheater in Washington, at what was the band’s first show following Sanders’ deflating endorsement of Hillary Clinton? Due to the timing of the debut, the brief yet cutting lyrics about getting your “ass handed to you every day” would seem to indicate a frustrated commentary on Sanders’ courageous yet ultimately failed attempt to wage political revolution on the Washington D.C. establishment.

Such a message seemed to resonate further still when Phish released their new album Big Boat in the early fall, with the band relating in interviews about how producer Bob Ezrin had challenged them to get more personal in their lyric writing and Anastasio seized the day on “More” (which closed the first set on the first night of the Vegas run) with lyrics of “I’m vibrating with love and light, pulsating with love and light, in a world gone mad, in a world gone mad, there must be something more than this…” While some cynical fans find the song trite, most find it speaks to them with Anastasio basically summing up the band’s mission to use rock music as a metaphysical tool to make the world a better place. The new album’s elaborate “Petrichor” follows as the band runs through an elaborate instrumental workout still finding its way, yet with great jam potential on the groovy “and the clouds will open and the seas will rise” section that’s currently hit and quit all too quickly. The anthemic “Run Like an Antelope” wraps the set in grand fashion, setting the stage for Ziggy Stardust.

It’s here that Phish puts on a true masterclass in Classic Rock 101, splitting up the lead vocals amongst the quartet and delivering the album with a heartfelt flair that lights up the soul. The band adds a trio of female backing singers in Jenn Hartswick, Jo Lampert and Celisse Henderson to augment the album’s theatrical sound, as well as a six-piece string section for further orchestration. The album opener “Five Years” establishes a compelling and foreboding sci-fi theme as the alien Ziggy Stardust reports that Earth has just five years of existence left due to using up all its natural resources. “Soul Love” finds keyboardist Page McConnell on lead vocals with the backing singers adding supporting harmonies that add a vintage quality to the song that transports the audience to another era.

“Moonage Daydream” is pure triumph. When Anastasio sings “Don’t fake it baby, lay the real thing on me, The church of man, love, is such a holy place to be, Make me baby, make me know you really care, Make me jump into the air” , it also serves as a tacit recognition to the fans in this sonic temple that he knows exactly what they desire for soul salvation and he’s out to deliver. The female harmonies soar to ignite the spirit, as does the band when they jam the descending bridge section in a scintillating fashion recalling the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, with Anastasio ripping off deep licks that conjure the best work of Eric Clapton and the spirits of George Harrison and Jimi Hendrix.

Bassist Mike Gordon takes the vocal on the infectious “Starman” about “this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the Earth”, as Bowie explained to William S. Burroughs in a classic Rolling Stone interview. Can it be mere coincidence that this song became Bernie Sanders’ campaign anthem, played as outro music following his barnstorming speeches to huge crowds eager for political revolution over the past year? It all seems like yet another brilliantly synchronistic move by the band to pick a multi-dimensional album from the past that speaks to so many different aspects of the current zeitgeist. Anastasio sets down his guitar to play frontman on “It Ain’t Easy”, delivering a rhythm and blues blast of deep soul that again seems to speak to that modern revolutionary struggle — “Well all the people have got their problems, That ain’t nothing new, With the help of the good Lord, We can all pull on through, We can all pull on through, Get there in the end…” The song also conjures the vibe of the Jerry Garcia Band on songs like “Sisters and Brothers”, especially with the soulful female backing singers.

Anastasio moves to acoustic guitar on “Lady Stardust” with McConnell starring on vocals and tapping into a larger meaning once again singing, “And he was alright, the band was altogether, Yes he was alright, the song went on forever…” Some day Phish will be gone, but with over three decades of live recordings, the band has a legacy that will indeed live on forever. Fishman gets the spotlight on “Star”, singing Ziggy’s anthem about becoming a transformational rock ‘n’ roll star, recalling his own star turn singing the Rolling Stones’ “Happy” during the band’s Halloween 2009 performance of Exile on Main Street.

“Hang on to Yourself” is a raucous romp with the band harmonizing together and the female harmonies taking the song to another level as they beckon the audience, “So come on, come on, we’ve really got a good thing going, Well come on, well come on, if you think we’re gonna make it, You better hang on to yourself.”. It’s uncanny how the lyrics seem to speak directly to the modern Phish audience, but such is the wisdom of performing an album about an otherworldly rock star out to take his fans to a higher level of existence.

The cosmos seems to unify in majestic peace and harmony as the band delivers an electrifying take on the album’s rocking title track “Ziggy Stardust”, with McConnell playing the dynamic frontman next to Anastasio’s Mick Ronson guitar hero. The only critique here is that the band fails to seize the opportunity to jam on what seems a golden opportunity with how much the audience is loving this song, but there’s still a whole third set to come for more jamming. They tear through “Suffragette City”, again augmented in sensational fashion by the female singers who have been like sonic alchemists throughout the set, adding gold plating to each song.

Anastasio then delivers one of the most heartfelt moments of his storied career as he plays frontman again on the poignant album closer, “Rock and Roll Suicide”. The song resonates deep into rock’s space-time continuum when he emphatically sings, ”Oh no love! You’re not alone, No matter what or who you’ve been, No matter when or where you’ve seen, All the knives seem to lacerate your brain, I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain,You’re not alone, Just turn on with me and you’re not alone…”

“It was after the Summer of Love. Everything was buried by drugs — the winter of discontent. But he was writing, in his genius way, this summation of hope to all the people who got caught up in this rock & roll thing, who believed in it,” Anastasio explains his connection to the song in the Phishbill, an insightful commentary which complements Hunter S. Thompson’s legendary 1971 Vegas monologue/eulogy for the San Francisco socio-cultural musical revolution of the ‘60s. It also speaks to all the Phish fans who have been following the band for years and years because they believe in rock ‘n’ roll above all else in this world gone mad.

The third set is gourmet icing on the cake, highlighted by a shimmering jam on the 1999 fan favorite “Sand”, one of the band’s most socially conscious songs in which the narrator speaks truth to power as Anastasio sings, “If you can heal the symptoms but not affect the cause, then you can’t heal the symptoms”. The band spins the song’s dynamic minor key dance groove into a rare major key change for an uplifting melodic “hose” jam that feels like it’s assuring everyone we will all get by and rise above the chaos of modern times (with “hose” being a nickname derived from Carlos Santana when Phish served as opener for his summer ‘92 tour on which he reportedly told them, “When you guys were playing, I was picturing the audience as this sea of flowers, the music was the water, and you guys were the hose.”)

“Twist” features an energetic and playful percussion jam, while the funky “Meatstick” rocks the house with a big groove artfully nicked from the Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain”. Phish pushes the set over the top with an 11-minute cosmic dance party on Deodato’s “2001” theme, with this being the longest version of the perennial fan favorite since the band’s 2009 return. The endearing “Backwards Down the Number Line” finds the band offering another great melodic jam on what’s become an anthem relating to how being a Phish fan is about more than just chasing the music. It’s also about getting together with all the friends you’ve made along the way on the journey through the years that has created arguably the most vibrant fan community in rock history. The seminal “Slave to the Traffic Light” closes the set in masterful fashion, with the band gelling for yet another classic performance of one of their oldest songs.

The encore is an appropo acapella rendition of Bowie’s 1969 classic “Space Oddity”, first debuted this past summer in Chicago. The mind-boggling vocal arrangement is similar to the band’s acapella version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” in the ‘90s, with Phish once again demonstrating a level of creativity that most bands can only dream of. When the lights come up, most just sit in awe to take it all in for a minute, like a mind-blowing post-coital bliss.

“Ziggy had achieved what Bowie set out to do – he altered music forever by introducing the notion of the rock star as a fearless changeling who could recast image and persona when necessary, whether the audience was ready or not,” wrote Alan Light in a Rolling Stone retrospective on Ziggy Stardust this summer. The quote could also speak to Phish and how the they’ve been ever fearless in pushing the creative envelope to fulfill their own artistic desires, even if they suspect their demanding audience might not always be ready to follow along. The band’s new album Big Boat has received mixed reviews amongst the Phish Nation, with some trashing it while others have praised it as a heartfelt instant classic that encapsulates everything the band has always been about.

A jamband is always going to have peaks and valleys because of the inherently adventurous mission to mix it up every time they hit the stage, as opposed to how the majority of groups will play the same set night after night. 2016 finds Phish continuing to lead the way in unprecedented fashion, having just delivered yet another mind melter that instantly stands as one of the best shows of the band’s illustrious 33-year career.