Phish — Thomas & Mack Center — Las Vegas, NV 10.30.1998
I Wilson>Meat>Mule>BATCS>Mule, Long Cool Woman, Antelope, Guelah, Lizards, Cavern
E Driver, Freebird
One night after the tour opener in Los Angeles the caravan had moved northwest along I-15 (or THE I-15 if you are of the west coast persuasion, I suppose) to that ode to human weakness in the desert, Las Vegas, for a pair of shows at the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of UNLV, but a short distance from the main concentration of decadence along The Strip and its surroundings. This was the second time the band had played the venue (and city) and the second Fall Tour in a row to include this stop as they had opened the 1997 Fall Tour in this very place. The pair of shows they threw down here in 1998 builds off of what began in LA (though really with the ambient set from Lemonwheel if we are being honest…) while diving even further into the deep end with several notable jams. The anticipation and demand were very high for these shows, considering that the second night fell on one of the high holidays in the world of Phish, Halloween. But prior to that night’s surprises we are treated to an opening night that holds its own tricks and treats.
This first set starts out innocently enough with Wilson — as if any set can be considered ‘innocent’ when the first song relays the tale of a despot who enslaved a race of people all due to his desire for a certain book (yes, I am vastly oversimplifying it but you know what I mean) — and this first one of the tour gets a little extra sauce in the Trey solo as he brings out that electro run of notes that popped up several times in the first show of tour. From here they dip into the languid funkiness of Meat for the first time this tour. This bleeds right into something of a different sort entirely as they bring the energy up a few notches for Scent of a Mule. The first half of this goes true to form but once Page enters his solo that typically evolves into the klezmer duel they drop into a quite familiar groove which I would expect that many in the audience did not immediately recognize to be the Phish debut of the Jimmy Smith classic Back At The Chicken Shack. Let’s be honest though, the real lack of recognition in this crowd would come the next night when they came out for the second set’s cover album of one of the seminal bands of the late 60s, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves a tad. This debut proves to be a pretty straight forward take on the funky organ-led track which would be sprinkled into seven more setlists over the next two years before hitting the shelf. After working their way through this they return to the Mule to finish up the klezmer duel and to catch their breath for the first real ‘stop’ in the set considering the songs up until now had all been segued together.
At this point Trey banters with the crowd, stating that “they tell us this is the fifteenth anniversary of our first show” (or something. close enough.) in introducing the next song to be played. Even though future research would prove this statement to be incorrect (the actual first show occurred 12.02.1983, some 30 plus days later) it was a nice way to get a performance of Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress (that title is waaaaaay toooo looooong) out of the band after, oh, only 1,207 shows. They rock their way quite well through the Hollies’ radio-friendly hit from back in 1971 and there is a funny moment at the end as Fish tries to get them to restart it since he enjoyed it so much. The band says no. Next up is a mid-set Antelope which is always nice considering its ubiquity in the first and second set closings slots these days. Tonight’s version has that evolving ’98 sound in spades, first in the initial build where they go away from the song structure for several bars before coming back around to the main theme and layering in that ambient sound. Trey adds some color that directly relates back to last night’s Reba awesomeness as they climb towards the ‘rye rye rocco’ section and the eventual peak of this Lope. This is clearly a concerted musical shift for the band here and something we will be hearing time and again throughout this tour. Lope leads us to our old friend Guelah Papyrus and tonight’s is about as unique as any of the plethora of times they played it back in that Spring ’93 tour which is to say it is not unique at all. A lovely run through Lizards follows this with a decent solo out of Trey before we get our third mostly formulaic tune for the set closing Cavern. At this point, a set break is well deserved considering we have gotten not just a bunch of cannon fodder but some quality jams and hints of where things are headed here both in the short and long term.
After what must have seemed like an endless setbreak (they all feel that way though when you are holding your thoughts in your hands and trying to keep your eyes from eating your toes, don’t they?) the band comes out and tinkles around a tad before — just like last night — dropping into a song that has traditionally been a first set tune. The placement within the set is not the same, but just like Reba Stash has been played many more times in setting the table than in the latter half of the show, having only appeared in the second set (75), third set (2), or encore (2) slots 79 out of 398 total performances. That’s 19.85% for those counting at home and I did remove as many of the ‘sandwich’ double mentions as I could in getting that figure. The Stash from this night is not really the main attraction here as the jam gets to some sparser space fairly quickly, leaving the tension & release for another night’s version. It becomes evident fairly quickly that there is something brewing here and once Trey hints at the melody to Manteca you realize this was coming long before then. The segue is flawless and we get a drone-heavy take on the bustout — 219 shows with the last being part of what many consider their favorite Stash ‘suites’ ever. and who would blame them for thinking that about THIS! — which includes the lyrics before dying down into the ambient drone once more. Trey plays around for a bit here and again we start to hear the next song before it arrives as they stick the landing on yet another perfect segue, this time into Tweezer.
If you are looking for a bombastic Tweezer with a massive blissy peak and a bunch of shred, this will not be the one for you. Nor is it an off-the-reservation-face-melting psychedelic juggernaut. But this is a great version for entirely different reasons. With the benefit of hindsight we can now understand what they were doing here (and in several of these jams we have mentioned from the prior show and the first set tonight) as it builds off of the ambient vibe they are laying down while also pretty well providing the blueprint of what the Halloween set will be, if you know anything about that band’s style and musical execution. I want to save the full discussion of that correlation for the next post where we will cover all of that but I cannot ignore it either. So let’s focus on the other aspects that make this a noteworthy jam. First, they play around the Tweezer theme for a bit in the typical way before Trey lays down a ‘drone’ loop that provides the background for everything to come. With this still in place the band begins adding more and more layers to this soundscape, Page providing dark intonations, Mike pulsating on the bass, Fish offering ideas and colorful fills/crashes, and Trey harkening back with Manteca teases and moving elsewhere with teases of the Joe Tex standard You Better Believe It Baby. That song doesn’t sound like something that would work in this context, but it does and you have to wonder if Trey was making a purposeful nod with the song title (as in “yeah, this is really happening. you better believe it, baby!”) or just riffing on the old soul tune as it happened since we all know he tends to bring things he had been listening to off stage up with him.
This jams proceeds for a bit before Trey changes his direction and gets more melodic hinting at another transition that eventually reveals itself to be (oh, just yet another) wonderful segue into NICU once Trey changes keys to get into the song properly. At this point you start to wonder if these were all planned out or if it occurred organically which would make them pretty much the only organic things in the venue that night, all things reconsidered… Anyway, they run through the punchy tune in an almost lazy manner and you start to mentally think about what the end set will involve here but then instead of heading to the final “blap” moment Trey keeps the drone tone on, Page adds a bit, and Fish hits the kits a few times before they let the drone take over and then all dive back into the deep end for a few minutes of very very telling music (again with the foreshadowing!). They take this out a bit, with Trey providing melody and Page/Mike the baseline — honestly, at one point or another it feels like it could fully go into about four decidedly different songs (e.g. Norwegian Wood) — but then it gets quite dark and sparse and Trey brings us up into the light of Caspian.
Now, I am not exactly the biggest Fuckerpants out there (well, except for the Magna Tweezerpants, but THAT’S DIFFERENT and you should go spend the 34 plus minutes it takes to be changed by it if’n you aren’t already in the know) but this just works here. Song placement can often cause head scratching worse than a Head and Shoulders commercial but on this night and in this set in particular there is none of that. This is the resolution to the darkness we have had all set. It provides an uplifting exclamation point on what was a set quite unlike most in the past, which is not meant to put an arbitrary value or ranking on it. Trey has a nice solo here above the band and even here you can here the difference in the full sound they are putting out as Fish rides the crash cymbal and Mike has a diminished feel to his playing that somehow adds depth to counterbalance the uplifting notes coming from Trey, not to mention Page as he comps along on the baby grand. From here we have our last segue of the night in arriving to the Golgi closer that offers a happy exclamation point to the set and even though it isn’t really in congruence musically with everything that came before it, the placement is solid and the reference is clear as this was by all accounts a very difficult ticket to procure. Your encores tonight are another Trey-acoustic take on the new tune Driver followed by the hilarious a cappella of Free Bird, one of my personal favorite tongue-in-cheek tunes in the canon.
It is clear already that here two shows into this tour there are simply so many more things to cover than in the old, straight ahead shred days from five plus years prior. I would apologize for my typewritten vomiting of effusive praise but I am not sorry. For as much as I loved the old school Phish with their precision and attack it has also been their ability to evolve seemingly on a nightly basis that has kept me coming back again and again. And I know I am definitely not alone in that regard. So with that I’ll cap this show by saying that this one includes a lot of not-so-subtle hints as to what would occur the night following, both in the costume set and beyond. There is a lot to cover with those three sets so let’s bring this one home by saying if you do not spin this entire show you should at the very least hit the Antelope, Stash->Manteca->Tweezer->NICU>Jam->Caspian and if you want to stretch a bit the Mule>BATCS>Mule and perhaps the Long Cool Woman bustout.
Rest up. Halloween shows have a tendency to propagate my loquacious leanings.