Phish Catapult in Vegas

Jam band displays awe-inspiring cohesion, but zero character

One of the casualties of Phish's two-year hiatus -- and it was painfully obvious during the four-show comeback a month and a half ago -- was the band's almost supernatural sense of unity. While Phish's winter run was certainly energetic and for the most part crowd-pleasing, the band members were ultimately unable to nail even their most frequently performed songs and unable to create the kind of spot-on spontaneous grooves they once delivered without warning or detectable communication. The shows were fun, sure. But they were hardly stellar.

Less than two months and an unknown number of practice sessions later, Phish are back with that old awe-inspiring cohesion firmly in tact. At the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on February 15th and 16th, only the second stop on a ten-city tour, Phish played like a completely different band, or at least the one that attracted such a notoriously fervent audience in the first place.

Time off has afforded the boys an opportunity to begin again with somewhat of a clean slate, whereas a couple years ago certain ingrained approaches had grown stale. The sound is the same, but the possibilities are again limitless. In many ways, Phish seem to be propelled by a new energy rather than idling in default patterns and ideas. And there is no longer any need for the apologies singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio offered in January for bungling the crowd's favorite songs.

Power-jamming fifteen and thirty-minute classics like "Reba" and "David Bowie," slipping in a tease like "Catapult," the foursome is slowly getting comfortable again with experimentation. Phish pumped out two exciting covers over the course of the weekend: David Bowie's "Life on Mars" and Stevie Wonder's "Golden Lady." And the final set Sunday night hinted at what greatness there is still to come as the band regains its foothold. Easing into the high-energy slam "Down With Disease" (which remains Phish's only attempt at an MTV video presence), Anastasio reprised the tune throughout the night, tweaking structure as rock riffs weaved in and out of the cyclically psychedelic "Piper."

Moreover, these performances are beginning to feel more balanced, more like a quartet of equals than Master Trey and his Crew of Jam-on-Demand Order Takers. Keyboardist Page McConnell has stepped forward both vocally and musically since he formed and fronted his own group Vida Blue. And fans of Mike Gordon, who once rallied and succeeded in increasing his volume, are another step closer to a bass-dominated Phish. In one particular instance, Anastasio actually let his guitar hang loose around his neck; casually clasping his hands behind his back, he turned to face Gordon who dropped the bottom with an extended funk solo.

As tight as these two gigs were, however, they weren't exactly "Vegas-y." Among the anticipated traditions of Phish's Sin City shows is a certain degree of insanity and silliness, like appearances by Elvis impersonators or Kid Rock. There were no out-of-the-blue guests, no quirky breakouts, and no old school surprises. Drummer Jon Fishman was up to none of his light-hearted antics. Even worse, what remains misplaced (for the time being, anyway) is the ability to draw upon an extensive repertoire, some 500 originals and covers strong. The band has been relying on a few staples and tracks from their latest, less-than-compelling album, Round Room, so far.

Such lackluster, redundant set lists are probably due to the limited number of tunes Phish feel secure in having practiced. Even this, however, doesn't explain the continuation of bad habits like closing shows, two in a row last month in Hampton, with "Character Zero" -- a fantastic, aggressive song with the most negative "Damn, the show's over!" Pavlovian response of any they play -- and encoring with tediously slow new numbers. In fact, failure to return to the stage for a second encore prompted an unusual wave of boos Sunday night. Fans want a little more than the band is giving.

Not to worry. Phish are in no danger of losing its faithful, patient following. It may take some more work to truly win them over again, though.