Last week, Myke Menio (@LawnMemo) asked if I wanted to co-write a piece on the Vegas run. I hadn’t felt the motivation to write on my own just yet, so I figured this might be the perfect opportunity. Myke took the lead on organizing topics and a format for our piece, and as we went back and forth, we wound up with quite a lot of content. We have decided to post our musings in three parts, and today we present you the first. Enjoy!
I haven’t been the same since.
The jams, the memories, the impact of Ziggy Stardust. It was only four days, but three weeks later I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t stop listening to it. I want to talk about it with anyone who wants to do the same. I am lucky enough to have someone who is as passionate talking about Phish as I am in Dave aka Mr. Miner. After most shows we usually hit each other up and give a quick take on what we thought. After runs, those conversations last longer. After runs that floor us, they can turn into short novels. As you might imagine, our enthusiasm for this year’s Vegas run is oozing out of us. Almost every day since, one of us been blown away on a relisten of one jam or another, so this time, in the wake of such monumental Phish, we decided to take conversation public.
So let’s get this show on the road! I’ll start…
Topic 1: Setlist Construction
I think my overall lasting impression is just how well the run as a whole was laid out. Dave mentioned how impressed he was with the Vegas “setlist construction” in one of our conversations. I thought that was the perfect term with how things played out. Whether it was decided pre-show or whether they were adjusting on the fly, almost every single call made sense and more importantly, was executed to perfection. Flow is such an integral part to killer Phish show and for four days, I moved right with the band.
The decision to open the run with “Martian Monster” and pay homage to the incredible last Halloween in Vegas was brilliant. It was the perfect Phishy choice. From there, the machine was in full force. These four days had it all—old school Phish, some bustouts, and most importantly, new material dropped at the right time. Each song from Big Boat (and “Mercury”) didn’t seem to be shoved down our throats. Instead, it helped sustain energy and often times increase it.
Dave, anything stick out to you about how Phish constructed these setlists?
I thought that the musical flow of the first three second sets were impeccable. The sets weren’t just collections of songs but thought out, conceptual musical statements over 90 minutes. There was never a glitch or a bump in any of them, and that alone makes such a difference in the delivery of a set. Spectacular jams were aplenty over the three nights, with clear standouts in each show, and the band filled in around them smoothly and tastefully. These second sets were complete journeys from beginning to end, the type that I love so much. They set sail, brought you into the depths and then back home again. In addition, the 28th and the 30th had very clear thematic statements as well. I’ll say a bit about each.
10/28: Crimes of the Mind, Golden Age > Simple > Light > Twenty Years Later, Blaze On, The Squirming Coil
The second set of the 28th contained a poetic narrative about the journey Phish has taken over 30 plus years. The set started out with the juxtaposition of “Crimes of the Mind” and “Golden Age,” a song hearkening back to their earliest days and a song that could be considered the anthem for the modern era and all Phish has become since 2009. They let loose on “Golden Age” with an extended and celebratory multi-peak groove exploration that blew the roof of the MGM Arena—the longest jam of the tour—and then segued into “Simple,” with the opening line “We’ve got it simple, cause we’ve got a band.” The clear meaning of this combination immediately struck me, and quite honestly gave me the chills. Phish is so self-aware at this stage of their career and they are beginning to reflect on the totality of their career and their lives, as can be seen in the lyrics of their newest songs. They have reached a place where they can rejoice in everything they have accomplished while still pushing forward with enthusiasm. Over the past couple years, they have openly spoken of the deep gratitude they have for the ability to do what they do for a loving and loyal fanbase over the course of three plus decades. That first line from “Simple” fully rings true for them at this point in their lives, and bringing it out of such a profoundly happy jam really made such a huge statement.
They continued with two songs that maintained this reflective theme, “Twenty Years Later” and “Blaze On.” It doesn’t take an English major to understand the symbolism of these song choices. “Twenty Years Later,” a song, quite literally, about Phish’s twisting career path, spoke to the theme of the entire set with its lyrics “Twenty years later I’m still upside down.” Coupled with this was one of their newest songs, “Blaze On” which speaks to their present state of being in this stage of their career—”The worst days are gone / and the band plays on / you got one life, blaze on.” Phish is in such a state of grace and peace at this point in their career, they persevered so much in their collective life together and have come out in the most positive place imaginable. Blazing on is exactly what they are doing as they continue to make new music, push new boundaries and play as well as ever—something no other band has ever done thirty years into their career. It’s absolutely beautiful. They closed the set with “Squirming Coil, another one of their earliest songs, bringing their musical self-reflection full circle.
10/30: Disease -> Birds, Fuego, Miss You, Harry Hood -> Have Mercy -> Hood, A Day in the Life
Not only has Phish become reflective on where they’ve been and where they are at this point in their lives, they have also been clearly been coming to terms with their own mortality and the inevitable end of Phish. Trey mentioned this in an interview about Big Boat, referencing the subject matter of “Breath and Burning.” Though this theme is present throughout the song, it crystallizes with the lyric “And what does it matter / That the end’s in sight? / We’re not going gently / We’re gonna rage with Page at the dying of the light!” Additionally, he spells out this mindset very clearly in his new ballad “Running Out of Time.” The band have members reached an understanding that this life they have been blessed with in Phish will not last forever, nor will their time in this earthly realm, and they have infused this understanding into the songs of their new album.
The second set of the 30th dealt with precisely this theme, serving as an extended meditation on mortality. The opener, “Down With Disease,” served as a launching point of this subject matter with the refrain “this has all been wonderful, but now I’m on my way.” I won’t get into the profound nature of this jam right now (in my opinion, the most prolific of the weekend) but the collective musical statement that materialized from this lyrical theme was profound. “Birds of a Feather” speaks to the social connection of life and the transient relationships built with people encountered while moving through one’s time on earth. Additionally, the elevated and ethereal jam that came out of it contained the most transcendent melodic themes of the weekend and felt like a musing on the beauty of existence. “Fuego” provided an anomaly to this theme, but it quickly resurfaced in “Miss You,” a universally accessible song about mortality and the feelings that people on earth are left with when loved ones depart. “Harry Hood,” a song who’s jam I’ve always felt embodies the spirituality of life and existence came next. Written by Trey in Greece in 1985, after he and Fishman had returned to shore following a life-threatening experience with a storm at sea, a capsized raft and high-quality LSD, I’ve always thought that this piece was his reflection on the sacredness of life and the beyond. Amidst this uplifting jam, the band pulled off a surprise segue into “Have Mercy” in which Trey sung the lyric “Time is running out” far louder than any other, emphasizing and underlining the theme of the set. “A Day in the Life” closed the frame powerfully and poignantly, and its meaning as the punctuation on this musical statement needs no explanation.
I love your lyrical and setlist breakdowns Dave. Great work! I agree with you that Phish knows exactly what they are doing when grouping songs and sets together. As good as both the 28th and 30th second sets were at creating improv and an emotional impact, I know we both have an incredible connection to the 29th. The opening five song adventure of the second set was a journey that when it was finished, left me floored. From “Mercury” to the end of “I Always Wanted It This Way,” it felt like one long symphonic jam. Sixty-five minutes of improv. “Mercury” finally got to stretch and and explore like we always knew it could. “Piper” was a throwback to the monster versions of the previous eras. “Scents” provided the perfect bridge from “Piper” to “Tweezer.” Speaking of “Tweezer,” this one is a full throttle sports car. Placed in the middle of a heater set, this “Tweezer” is a furnace placed on the equator. It reminds me of the criminally underrated version from Atlantic City in 2013. MGM was left in ruin and yet there was more…
“I Always Wanted It This Way” was the song I was most looking forward to seeing. This song is something different, and for me, something special. In an era where we criticize many new songs as “dad rock,” “I Always Wanted It This Way” is the most unique song I can remember. I am glued to every listen trying to figure what the hell is going on yet loving every second of it. It feels like the best kind of acid trip, the kind devoid of all the garden gnomes trying to scare me. I already love it, and nothing excites me more than the places it might go.
Then…after 65 minutes of incredibly flowing improv Phish stopped to catch their breath. Then…the entire MGM Grand took a breath and we all looked around in disbelief. I will never forget the sound that collective breath made after the last note of “I Always Wanted It This Way” finished, and we tried to process how a band 30 plus years in can still deliver creativity like that.
Your thoughts on the 29th Dave?
10/29: Mercury > Piper > Scents > Tweezer > I Always Wanted, The Horse > Silent, Golgi
Yeah, man. I walked out of there on the 29th saying it was one of the best sets I’d ever seen. It is rare that Phish throws down such non-stop action for over an hour at a time. Beyond that, four of my current favorite five songs were featured in this maniacal run of music in “Mercury,” “Scents, “Tweezer and “I Always Wanted is This Way.” Needless to say, this set really spoke to me. I thought it was easily the best set of the weekend from start to finish. The jams never stopped and they flowed like a river. Though the entire set was outstanding, on listen back, the true centerpiece was the combination of “Piper” and “Scents.” The music contained within this one-two punch is some of the best playing of the weekend, and illustrates just how locked in the band was on this night. A wide open and fluid jam space in “Piper” moves through several feels and eventually climaxes—along with the crowd’s energy—in several minutes of monstrous, screaming groove, a righteous peak if there ever was one. “Scents” wastes no time in elevating into an dark and abstract spiritual foray that perfectly compliments the more vigorous music of “Piper.” A “Tweezer placed at this point in the set was a straight pipe dream, but the band was on fire and went for the jugular with a powerhouse version that was the musical equivalent of a Mike Tyson uppercut. Phish capped this marathon jam sequence with their most stylistically forward looking new song, “ I Always Wanted it This Way.” From the moment I heard this on the leaked album I knew that it could provide Phish with a totally new paradigm in which to work. The song combines a retro-80’s synth vibe with distinctly future sounding electronica, creating a state-of-the-art milieu for their improvisation. The piece of dance music is comprised of addicting rhythms and grooves that hold limitless potential, and the band only scratched the tip of this iceberg on Fall Tour. Its pairing with “Tweezer” combined the band’s seminal launchpad with its freshest artistic jump off, creating energized and hypnotic one two punch. As Page sang the chorus to “I Always Wanted It This Way” at this juncture of the night, the words expressed a sentiment with which every fan agreed.
Stay Tuned for Part II Coming Monday…