Phish — Thomas & Mack Center — Las Vegas, NV 10.31.1998
I Axilla>PYITE>Roggae, BOAF, Sally->CDT>Lawn Boy, Mike’s->Frankie Says>Weekapaug
II Who Loves the Sun, Sweet Jane, RnR, Cool It Down, New Age, Head Held High, Lonesome Cowboy Bill>I Found A Reason, Train Round the Bend, Oh! Sweet Nuthin
There are few days as special in the world of Phish as Halloween. It is a holiday that leans right into the path of so much that draws many of us to this band, what with the juxtaposition of dark and light, the opportunity to fool those around you — as well as to prank the unknowing in a somewhat playful/harmless manner, and the opportunity for some form of story telling or showmanship either by tale, costume, or other manifestation. Phish has made it a somewhat regular thing to capitalize on the potential of Halloween in taking their game to a different level having played shows on Halloween in 1986, 1987, 1989, 1990, and 1991 before really taking things up several notches to something we will get to shortly. Those early Halloween shows leaned on the antics and musical playfulness of the quartet, offering up unique takes on setlist construction not to mention some interesting teases, jams, and cover tunes. These are all fun shows but nothing you are putting on a top whatever list or recognizing as an evolutionary shift in the band’s outlook.
But that all changed in 1994 when they took on the challenge of playing a full three set show where the middle set was a musical costume of a classic album, in this case the wonderful White Album by The Beatles. This was a very important night for several reasons, not the least of which being that they took the time to learn an entire double LP’s worth of new songs (28 tunes if you are counting at home) during the course of a lengthy Fall Tour that saw them in the midst of further developing their already considerable skills at crafting engaging, psychedelic, improvised music. The next year the stakes got higher as they played on the fanbase’s predilection towards debate in teasing several songs over the Fall Tour that were not a part of the eventual Halloween album Quadrophenia, even going so far as to open the ‘costume set’ with a prerecorded bit of the fan favorite choice Thriller as one last ‘trick’ before diving headlong into the arena rock concept album (for what would be my 1st Halloween spent with Phish). That night was a game-changer of sorts as they were only really able to play that album once they had graduated to the large arenas that they were at that point finally popular enough to book and fill consistently and as such they chose a perfect album to mark the occasion. The following year they continued the trend of choosing albums that were influences on the band, playing the one that would begin a major transformation in the sound of the band, Remain in Light by The Talking Heads. Another thing that changed with this performance was the band handing out a “Phishbill” for the first time to fans attending the show as a way to get everyone ready for the set to come as well as to provide some of the band’s reasoning behind playing that album… not to mention some funny fake ads and such. Much can be (and has been) written about what this performance meant for the future sound of the band but we will leave that to others since our focus today is on the next album to come in the Halloween hit parade.
But before we get to that we should also note that in most cases, particularly since they began the album-as-costume phase of their career, the sets surrounding the costume set are filled with some of the highest level of Phish musicianship one could want. I’ll give you a few examples because I tend to do that…
- 1994: start with the Simple>Divided if you aren’t into raging Frankensteins to open shows.. the bliss starts in the Simple and the Divided takes off to the stratosphere. Julius goes full hose. Reba is quite possibly one of the best versions of the song ever. Bowie is strong though straight forward, Antelope elevates like it did back then, Harpua has a fun story about the Vibration of Death, and overall the playing here is about what you’d expect from Fall ’94 which is to say top notch.
- 1995: another high quality Divided after the only Icculus opener ever and a Harpua with Mike taking story telling duties for a quite memorable one bookend this energetic first frame and then after the theatrics of the costume we have a 40+ minute YEM for the ages, a rambunctious JJLC with fantastic horn work out of The Truth, one of those awesome horn-filled Suzys that make you wish every Suzy had horn accompaniment, and then an encore only Phish could dream up: bluegrass My Generation culminating in instrument destruction and Fish’s kit being blown up.
- 1996: Sanity>Highway to Hell opening combo should tell you where things are headed here. The uplift of the soaring Caspian gives way to a Reba that is downright devilish but it is really the third set here that captivates (to say nothing of the costume itself). Karl Perazzo sticks around for the whole third set adding extra sauce onto everything, particularly the groove clinic Simple and the show closing Suzy (with horns again).
So you can see how these three years of Halloween shows have set the fanbase up for some pretty lofty expectations heading into the 1998 — especially with the band having taken 1997 off from Halloween, starting tour about two weeks later in this venue we are discussing today.
Now, I was not at this show as I mentioned in an earlier post so I cannot personally speak to the experience but all of my friends who were as well as everything I have read indicates that this was an off-the-rails-careening-down-the-mountain-shouting-to-the-moon-through-the-open-window kind of night. In a certain sense, everything up to this point had led the band to this place. They had a track record of playing seminal albums quite well on this date, they had begun another sonic evolution, the fanbase was just about as big as it would get, they were hot on the release of a new album, and they had the confidence and swagger of a band that could try and succeed whenever they took the stage. Looking back this was a potential recipe for disaster and I think that may have contributed somewhat to the mixed bag of responses you will get if you poll fans about what they think of this show and also the album that they played. But we will get to all of that…
The first set kicks off with an energetic combo of Axilla>PYITE to get everyone moving before heading into a relatively downtempo Roggae which shows off the new ambient feel while they work their way through the end jam. Nice version but feels like table setting at best. BOAF offers up a bit more than the version from LA two nights ago but is still firmly within the song structure. Just as you are starting to think this set may just lope along in setting up the costume they start up Sneakin’ Sally for a take that is a far cry from the funky versions of its resurgence starting on the NYE Run of 1997. Here the funk drops out fairly early for an atmospheric jam (with a quick Superbad tease out of Trey) that is definitely headed somewhere that isn’t patently clear until Trey starts to bring the energy up and up towards the full segue into Chalkdust Torture. This provides a rocking lift midset but even this does not have the normal edge that CDT carries, staying somewhat diminished until they head into the lounge act portion of the show for Page’s take on Lawn Boy. After that they crank up Mike’s for what should (and will) inevitably be the set closing suite of songs. Trey kicks in the loops right away after the lyrical portion of Mike’s and the band proceeds in a patient, almost purposefully plodding fashion with a Simple tease along the path before they make a nice transition into Frankie Says. This would be the first of two times Mike’s and Frankie are paired (07.14.2000 Polaris Amphitheatre) and it works, I suppose, though I personally would have liked more out of the Mike’s before they made the move. After that breezy interlude we get the punctuation mark on the set we wanted in an amped up Weekapaug closer that leaves nothing on the table. Trey goes electro in fitting in as many notes as possible to his solo and the crowd heads off to setbreak to try to figure out which songs from the Phishbill will make good jam vehicles.
Which brings us to the meat of the matter. For this costume set the band took on The Velvet Underground’s Loaded album which is in and of itself a controversial choice if you know the history of that band. If you read the linked allmusic summary in the previous sentence you will get the full story but the gist is that when VU made the shift to Atlantic Records they were asked to make an album “loaded with hits” and without the sex and drugs that typified their experience and thus their sound. Due to the politics of the band amongst other factors this album is heavy on Lou Reed with more polish than the “full band” albums that proceeded it. And to top it off, before it was released Lou left the band which pretty well sealed the deal on where they were at that stage. That being said, it is a solid album full of some great tracks and it is really a good entry point to this highly influential band. If you like it I would recommend digging into their back catalog to find the live stuff and other albums that are more in line with the reality that was VU.
In a way though this set up all makes the album choice a good one for Phish to try to play on Halloween. It is not so obscure that there are no tracks that someone who has listened to rock radio or went to college in the past 15 years or so would not be able to recognize at least one, probably Sweet Jane. The music presented here covers several different styles (sounds like a band we know…) and offers a template for further exploration if desired (again…). The subject matter in the lyrics is oddly appropriate when you consider where Lou Reed was mentally when writing these songs and compare that to where Phish is at this stage in their career, riding a peak with a big record contract and fabulous touring success but perhaps not necessarily as content as the surface suggests. And being an album that a sizable portion of their fanbase would not be familiar with it offered the opportunity to stretch outside of their norm a bit while exploring a new sound that felt more akin to this music than to what they had played only three and four years prior. Now, I have put this all into perspective by stating that I had already found VU long before this time, actually right around the time I discovered Phish back in 1990 because high school is a time when many of us start to really explore our options musically. I had always thought that there were songs that Phish should be covering by VU but it just never happened. And with that in mind my happiness in finding out the next day that they had covered this band just raised my opinion of Phish more if that is even possible.
The truth is that they had covered two songs from this album before. The most prevalent was Lonesome Cowboy Bill which popped up three times in the Fish Fun Time slot in 1995 (SEE! That slot still haunts us!!) with Sweet Jane being debuted earlier in 1998 at MPP (08.08.1998) along with another cover of an entirely different sort, Sabotage. Neither of these covers made much of an impression at the time though you have to wonder if playing it only a couple months before this set was any indication of what the album would be that fall. Tough to say considering that Summer 1998 is the Tour of Covers with at least one seeming to debut nightly but it does make you think in that wondering stoner kind of way. But outside of that and those throw away LCB covers this was all new to us.
The set starts out with a straight forward take on Who Loves the Sun?, a playful ditty that wonders about subjects darker than the music implies. Sweet Jane is next and while mostly about what you expect if you know the song Trey does take off for a blissy solo in the back half. Next up is a tune that is now quite familiar to Phish fans, Rock and Roll. Even here in the debut you can tell that this is a song they will enjoy playing as the elements are all there for what will become one of the more reliable cover jam vehicles Phish employs on a regular basis (74 total performances as of this writing). We get more of that electro trilling out of Trey (perhaps that was all setting up to this jam) and some brief full band exploration before they wrap it up nicely in getting to the next tune. That next song is Cool It Down, another tune that has had a bit of staying power considering it has graced six more setlists over the years. The feel here is almost CCR-ish at times, something they would clean up in subsequent performances but overall the performance is fine enough to keep everyone engaged. At this point even if you weren’t familiar with the songs I would think you would have to have liked what you heard but I’m not as jaded as some so maybe if you were expecting them to play Zappa or something you could be standing there with arms folded. Imagine how those guys felt in 2013!
Here in the midset they get a couple of songs to stretch out a bit starting with the aptly titled New Age. They play this true to form at first before elevating to a soaring full band jam. The performance here works on more than one level as they are paying homage to an influential band from their past while also looking ahead with the new sound they are forging on stage. I’m actually kind of surprised that this song has never been played again as it really fits in well with their sound and could be a great vehicle for improvisation if given the opportunity. Oh well. Next up is a punchy take on the rocking though oddly worded Head Held High which gets us to that Lonesome Cowboy Bill we have expected only this time it isn’t framed as an antic as it was three years ago. Here we have a faithful take on the song before they go beyond into a jam that ranges from groove-based rock to the ambient textures they have been developing of late, eventually leading right into a lovely, soft version of I Found A Reason. The ironic Train Round The Bend with its downtrodden lyrics counterpointing the uplifting melody and tone provides the intro to the set closing Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ that feels like it was written for this band to make their own. Listening here it is hard to believe this is the first time that they played the song. It is well executed with a soaring peak and quiet return that brings this set to a close quite nicely. Oddly enough it took until 3.0 for this song to come back with five performances between 2009 and 2013 before it hit the shelf again. And now everyone gets the lights shined on them to figure out what they thought of what went down in that second set and to prepare for what should (will) be a dichotomous set if ever there was one in Phish history.
But before we get to that let’s talk about this costume set which for quite some time was the worst received (overall) costume that the band ever assumed on stage. There are some who are not fans of the Velvet Underground’s music and that would be a perfectly acceptable reason for not preferring this set. And there are others who were not familiar with the band or album and therefore chose to not like it because why like something you don’t already know? I mean, why didn’t they play ::insert album of big band everyone has memorized from their youth here:: ? That would have been perfect! Except it wouldn’t have been perfect. You have to consider why Phish chose each album that they did to understand this I think, but the reality is that as much as the costume set is for the crowd it is also for the band. The White Album is the outlier a bit but it does fit in with the band in a lot of ways what with all of the different types of music on display and the way that they performed it. Quadrophenia is a direct link to that album having influenced them as kids and having the opportunity to play it loud and proud in a big, open arena. Remain In Light was the band adding more tricks to their bag, exploring the quirky polyphonic funk of The Talking Heads while simultaneously pushing their own music to much greater heights as a result. And here we have another formative album from their youth that offered an entirely new template to explore musically. More can be said about the Halloween cover albums to come in 3.0 but that is a long way down the line from this night.
And getting back to that night we have another set to discuss! If you thought that cover set was divisive wait until you start asking people about the Vegas Wolfman’s. To say that this version causes OPINIONS is an understatement. I could go through and give you a breakdown of what happens over this 30+ minute version but I really believe that this is one you need to hear and judge for yourself. Here is the PJJ version so that you can focus on the controversial jam itself. In some camps your take on this type of Phish jamming will either put you in good favor or remove you from it. This is not a jam that you kinda sorta maybe in the right mood like. You are either for deep, dark, hide-under-your-chair, ambient Phish or you are not. There really is no middle ground. Some people hate this type of Phish and point to it as an example of the band headed on the downward spiral that led us to Hiatus and eventually The Break Up. Others, like me, see it as a natural shift in exploring musical themes that they had previously overlooked or avoided for whatever reason. Here you get the band as patient as they ever could be, allowing the ideas to come to them rather than trying to force their ideas upon the music. There are lags and their are moments of true connection, there are a couple of teases (Lifeboy, Makisupa) and there and moments where Fish throws in some vocal tones, and overall it just works considering that it moves forward through several different phases on the path through the darkness. It is really about the best “Halloween” music they have ever played… until you factor in the 2014 album which is something else again that is not up for conversation here. Anyway, your opinion may vary from mine and that is totally fine because this band Phish is not one thing to all people. It is many different things to everyone, evolving to something else again as quickly as you become comfortable with what was the previous norm and for that we are all the better.
Towards the end of that aural adventure they build an uplifting groove before going into Piper and you may be thinking, “okay! here we go! let’s rock this shit!!” and it does in fact rock along quite nicely in the first jam. After the final refrain they follow that pulsating groove for a few minutes before they jump off and head into the start of Ghost. Things start off fine enough here in the first Ghost of the tour (with the last one in a show being a quite happy version at that surprise 10.15.1998 show) as Trey lays down the loops and they head into what seems like it will be a throw down version for the ages. But only a few minutes into the jam things get sparse before it just… ends. No journey, no peak, no resolution. Trey just leaves the stage. And everyone else eventually follows. Don’t believe me? Check out the video. Some will tell you Trey was pissed about how the crowd reacted to the VU set. Others will say he really had to pee and could not wait a second longer. Still others will claim that he was off his head on ::insert substance here:: that night and just lost focus and wandered off. True conspiratorians will watch the interaction between Trey and Mike around the 47:30 mark to point to how Trey had PLANNED IT ALL ALONG! IT WAS A PHALSE PHISH OPERATION!! I KNEW IT! Okay, wait. Let’s all just settle down here. The truth is obviously somewhere in between all of these rumors and theories. If he was really dosed as some suggest, why did he take the time to set all of his loops and grab the glass of water on his way by the back riser? And why does the rest of the band follow along with nary a double take or sideways look? And if he was really coming on that strong how does he play the encore so fluidly only a few minutes later? I think that what is really going on here is that they had a plan to leave this unfinished, perhaps to revisit it elsewhere along the tour (the next Ghost is a really good one a week from now in Chicago but we shall get to that). Musically, he had said what he wanted to in this show. Maybe there are other factors and it is a bit odd to just walk out like that mid song, but it wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last he did something like that. And with that the encores are the fun Monkey>Reprise pairing that caps this run at the Thomas & Mack quite nicely.
I have said a lot here and so I won’t go further into trying to deconstruct this show because I think it is clear where I stand here. I will tell you that for takeaways I would suggest Sally->CDT, Mike’s->Frankie>Paug (particularly the Paug), RnR, New Age, LCB>I Found a Reason, Oh! Sweet Nuthin’, and the entire third set. Yeah, there’s a lot but it is a three setter for Halloween. You should be spinning the entire show anyway. Now we have a night off and then a skip show up in Utah (he he he) before heading to Denver and off to the Midwest…