Phish in Vegas- seldom things were more indulgent and dionysian than seeing the greatest musical show on earth in the most lavish of adult playgrounds. As Hunter S. Thompson once said, Vegas is the greatest town for psychedelics- overwhelming the senses from every angle, carpet pattern, slot machine ding, flashing light, and neon color. Las Vegas and Phish made quite the festive combination. The round-the-clock Vegas experience, spring-boarding off of magnificent Phish shows each night, created the best-weekend long party on tour. From the pool to the blackjack table, to the bar, to your room, to the bar, to the show, to the after-parties, to your room, to the clubs, to the casinos, to your buddy’s suite, back to the casino- it never stopped. All fun, all Phish, all the time. Vegas, baby! After Phish closed out Fall ’96 at the Aladdin Theatre on the strip, Phish found a permanent Las Vegas home in 1997 at the Thomas & Mack Center- the major sporting venue for UNLV. It was in this building that ten shows would take place between the years of 1997 and the final year of 2004, all just a quick walk or cab from your hotel. All shows here were fully general admission creating a Vegas-style free for all atmosphere in the overwhelmingly red venue. Let’s go to the videotape!
1997 saw Phish open its now-legendary tour in the City of Sin, with the back half of the Thomas & Mack Center curtained off due to the smaller crowd. Creating a much more intimate feel, the GA floor was about half the size and had no seats, and plenty of room to move- unlike the later days of human sardines on Vegas floor. The second song, a blazing funk instrumental, set the tone for the fall and had the crowd buzzing at setbreak, trying to figure out the name of “Black-Eyed Katy.” Signaling the focus of Fall ’97, the funk instrumental provided a jolt of excitement to the first set which also included a great Split Open and a solid YEM. Yet, the hands down highlight of the show was the second set opening, Stash. Stretching beyond twenty minutes, this spellbinding jam breaks down to an ambient tribal section before mystically building back into the song. A dark-horse version, this is one of the best and most unique post-95 Stash’s out there. This excursion got the tour underway, in earnest. A deep Mike’s Groove on a small spacious dance floor punctuated the evening. As the Mike’s got into a tender melodic place, it sounded as if they would move into Piper, a move many fans had anticipated for the new song. However, the band played it true with a Hydrogen intermezzo. As the show ended and fans drove on to Utah, the lingering question was, “What was that funk jam?”
1998 brought Phish back to Las Vegas for a two-night weekend around Halloween. These shows would officially stamp Thomas & Mack with the Phish logo, as it would become a favorite tour stop for the rest of Phish’s career. The Friday night affair was Phish’s “supposed” 15th anniversary of their first show, and though further research proved this to be inaccurate, the night progressed with that assumption. Honoring the alleged anniversary, Phish played “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress,” the first song they ever played back on December 2, 1983, and never played again over the next 1,204 shows. A long and blistering Antelope highlighted the first set, but it would be the second set that people would remember from this one. The opening sequence of Stash > Manteca > Tweezer provided the darkest improvisational segments of the evening, and the section of the show that would be played the most on fans’ CD players. The rest of the set mellowed out with a segue into NICU followed by an interesting interwoven jam by Trey and Mike leading the band into Prince Caspian. A Golgi closer and a Freebird encore were also classic nuggets of Phish on their faux fifteenth.
As good as the 30th was, this 1998 weekend will live in Phish immortality for the ridiculous Halloween show the next night. Probably the most “Phished-out” Halloween set, with the band jamming on and extending most songs off Velvet Underground’s Loaded, this show had three sets chock full of great Phish. The first set’s palate was painted brightest by the mid-set Sneakin’ Sally and the set ending, aggressive Mike’s Groove. Having warmed up with some heavy artillery, Phish was ready to slip into their Halloween costume. As they worked through Loaded , you did not have to know the album to appreciate the music that emanated from the stage. Emotionally driven songs gave way to Phishy extensions that created one of the more poignant performances of the band’s career. Classic songs like “Sweet Jane,” “Rock and Roll,” and “Cool it Down,” just sounded right when Phish played them. They especially killed the emotional ballads of “New Age” and ” Oh! Sweet Nuthin.’” With not a single down point in the entire set, you could not help but feel proud of what the band had just accomplished when they walked off stage.
The third set, however, was when the demons of All Hallows Eve came out. The supremely ominous and darkly exploratory 30 minute Wolfman’s provided the jam of the weekend, as Phish fused their new ambient style with their excessively dark psychedelia. Reacting to one of the deepest points of the Fall ’98 highlight, the crowd, inspired by the sheer madness of the music, responded with a collective roar of insanity and a flurry of neon glow sticks. Mired with darkness, artistic noise, and masterful improv this is a masterpiece of terrorizing Phish. The jam finally segued into a Piper, bringing some upbeat and melodic resolution to the darkness, and finally into a strangely abbreviated, set-ending Ghost, with delay loops left playing onstage. Many fans were perplexed as to the reason for the abrupt ending, but one way or the other, they had just witnessed Phish at it’s maniacal best. A classic that now lives on in the Live Phish series, this was the hallmark weekend for Phish at the Thomas and Mack Center.
Somehow missing Las Vegas during a heavy touring year of 1999, Phish next came back to the desert oasis in 2000, on the brink of their hiatus. September 29th, and 30th- the latter being Trey’s birthday- would be the last Vegas Phish party until 2003. With only five shows left after this stand, the shows began to take on more meaning, knowing that this would be it- indefinitely. The circus came in full force to Las Vegas for another weekend of debauchery. The first set of the run featured a late Spock’s Brain, Bathtub Gin combo that got the improvisation moving, after a rocking Carini, Rift, Frankenstein opener boosted the energy to start. The Gin was the real noteworthy highlight, featuring a wide open up-beat funk jam, not too far off from a 2001-type groove.
The second set opening sequence obliterated the building with the bust out Dinner and a Movie, followed by a huge Moma Dance, paying homage to the song’s roots. Not letting up for a second, they dropped into a 2001 > Fluffhead. These four songs had the crowd as high as possible, which was good, because following a Meatstick, the set degraded into a Kid Rock-fest with crappy covers of “Walk This Way,” what could have been a phenomenal “Rapper’s Delight,” and “We’re An American Band.” Our beloved superheroes were now kicking it with Kid Rock- he and Trey had apparently hit it off. Times, they were a’ changin’.
Trey’s birthday show, officially released as Live in Vegas, was high in bust out material and somewhat less in consistent heavy improvisation. Opening with Walfredo, the catchy tune with all band members on different instruments, played for the first time since 1997, was a classic Phishy way to begin the show. Stepping into their normal places on stage, the band played the recently busted out Curtain (With), the original composition with a blssful ending jam that would evolve into Reba. Esther, a Forbin’s > Mockingbird, referencing the upcoming hiatus for the first time, A Day in the Life and Emotional Rescue all appeared for the first time since 1998 throughout the course of this show. The improvisational highlight came in the second set ending Twist > Sand > A Day In the Life. As Phish bid farewell to Vegas and headed west to Phoenix, and then up the coast to Shoreline, fans became more nostalgic and reflective on the significance of these last few nights in the desert.
After a lackluster comeback run over New Years of ’02-’03, many were left wondering if Phish had lost their mojo. After a series of shows that were noticeably lacking in adventure and engaging material, Phish had business to take care of as they embarked on their Winter ’03 tour. After a strong opening statement in the form of Walls > Carini at the LA Forum on Valentine’s Day, Phish headed four hours east, back to the Thomas & Mack, for yet another two-night stand. Playing with a renewed fire and explosiveness, Phish tore apart the Thomas & Mack once again, with a first night’s second set of Waves > Bug, Ghost > Free, Hood. On this night, Phish showed that LA was no fluke, and that they were back- at least for now.
The second night of ’03 got underway in a hurry with an opening Bowie > Catapult > Bowie, and a unique amorphous jam out of the new title track, Round Room. The second set saw a masterful transition from Disease into Seven Below, and then back into Disease. Later in the set, the long Piper jam would contain a reprise of Disease, while also teasing Seven Below, making this a very thematic set. Both of these nights, again scheduled over a weekend for fans nationwide to attend, fully established Phish’s return. They went on to play a solid Winter tour, and a stellar Summer tour before ending the year in Miami with four amazing shows. 2003 was a good year.
2004, not so much. Phish’s final trip to Las Vegas’s Thomas & Mack is a time many fans point to where things really unraveled. For the first time, Phish and Vegas were not going so well together. Many in the once musically focused Phish community now seemed to favor the post-show party over the show itself- band and fans alike. Trey’s voice was noticeably haggard throughout these three nights, and while each show contained its moments- this was still Phish, after all- the band seemed less unified than ever, producing some shows that would go down in Phish history for all the wrong reasons. Despite the three-night struggle, the Disease on the first night was awesome, and the Twist and Tweezer from the second and third nights respectively were also solid. Interestingly enough, I thought one of the more intense moments of the three nights was the seven minute Secret Smile late in the show on the first night. This song saw Trey emoting a beautiful, yet sorrowful extended solo. Looking back with perspective, he was crying through his guitar, talking to the world the best way he knew how, fully knowing that Phish was spiraling towards an imminent demise. Phish doesn’t play three nights without ripping really hard at many points over the course of the shows. It was quite perplexing. This was the beginning of the end.
As rumors now swirl about March dates and Summer dates, one would assume that Phish would go back to Vegas and do it up again. Yet, perhaps, that is exactly what they don’t need- a 24-hour party. Only time will tell if we will enter the familar confines of the Thomas & Mack Center again; to squeeze onto the floor, or find a bit of room on a third level balcony behind the stage, directly level with the speakers. Perhaps Phish has matured past Vegas, for everyone’s well-being, or perhaps we will walk the strip wide-eyed all night once again. Regardless of the future, Phish definitely has a rich past in this classic venue.
To commemorate Phish’s Thomas & Mack Shows, I present Miner’s Picks: Thomas & Mack. With about five and a half hours of pure Vegas Phish, this one should bring back some memories. I had to leave out the Halloween ’98 show (ouch!) and the 2.15.03 show, because I only have the official releases. Nonetheless, there is plenty to keep you busy in here. The link and tracks are below.
MINER’S PICKS: THOMAS & MACK <<< DOWNLOAD LINK!!
1. Black-Eyed Katy 11.13.97
2. Split Open and Melt 11.13.97
3. Stash 11.13.97
4,5,6. Mike’s > H2 > Weekapaug 11.13.97
7. Antelope 10.30.98
8,9,10. Stash > Manteca > Tweezer 10.30.98
11,12. Spock’s Brain, Bathtub Gin 9.29.00
13,14,15,16. Dinner and a Movie > Moma, 2001 > Fluffhead 9.29.00
17. The Curtain (With) 9.30.00
18,19. Twist > Sand 9.30.00
20. Round Room 2.16.03
21,22. Down With Disease > Seven Below 2.16.03
23,24. 2001 > Down With Disease 4.15.04
25. Twist 4.16.04
27,28. Halley’s Comet > Tweezer 4.17.08
(all photos @ Thomas & Mack Center. Credit: anonymous photographers at Phishpics.net)
DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY: 8.6.93 Peacock Pavilion @ Cincinnati Zoo, OH
This is a classic show in the classic month of August 1993. Smack in the middle of Phish’s “speed jazz” era, Phish was embarking on high-paced journeys every night. This show, actually in a zoo, is a keeper right from the hot Split opener. The real heat is turned on in the second frame with a Buried Alive > Tweezer, and a YEM > Halley’s > Slave. Grab this if your missing it, its a staple of a complete collection. Set two is a nice soundboard!
1: Split Open and Melt, Poor Heart, The Curtain, Sample in a Jar, Rift, Horn, The Divided Sky, Nellie Cane, Chalk Dust Torture, Suzy Greenberg
2: Buried Alive-> Tweezer*, Guelah Papyrus, The Squirming Coil, Uncle Pen, You Enjoy Myself**-> Halley’s Comet-> Slave to the Traffic Light, HYHU-> Cracklin’ Rosie-> HYHU, Tweezer Reprise
E: Amazing Grace
*With “Tequila” tease. **With “Cocaine” (J.J. Cale) jam, including some lyrics.