Phish Cover Velvet Underground for Vegas Soiree

Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, October 31,1998

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One would think Las Vegas and hippies would mix like oil and water, but actually, the neon-plated Oasis of Greed has played host to some of the most awe-inspiring performances by many a jam band, Phish included. On one memorable evening two years ago, the quartet capped off an already jaw-dropping show with a forty-five minute encore that included various members of Primus, four Elvises and a dog named Harpua -- the stuff of legends.

Unfortunately, whatever mojo the band had working for them that night seemed to have depleted by the time they returned this year for their much-celebrated Halloween show, where tradition decrees that Phish cover a classic album in its entirety. For the first time since this tradition's 1994 inception, Phish failed to capture the essence of that album, which in this case was the Velvet Underground's 1970 album Loaded.

Phish's Halloween performance -- as explained in the "Phishbill" handed out at the gates -- is a statement, a showcase for what the band sees as a classic record. It's for enjoyment, but it's also for edification, to introduce Phish fans to another great and historical element of rock & roll. While 1994's rendering of the Beatles' The White Album and 1995's version of the Who's Quadrophenia were performed note-for-rockin'-note, Phish proved in 1996 when they covered the Talking Heads' Remain in Light that they could add their own verve and still retain an album's sum and substance. Unfortunately, that didn't happen this year, and the group ended up doing the Velvet Underground a disservice.

The album -- as performed by Phish -- was lively and beautiful and distended, as the band is so affably wont to be. Problem is, that's not the Velvet Underground. The subjects and the sounds that populate Lou Reed's songs -- even on Loaded, which was a relatively upbeat, rocking album -- are burnt out, broke down, and close to the street. These were qualities that Phish failed to convey.

"Sweet Jane," with keyboardist Page McConnell's crystal-clear vocals and rich piano chords, came off a little too ... sweet. Gone were the hoots, strains and chuckles that have made that song a classic. "New Age" -- a sad little love poem to an over-the-hill "fat blond actress" was turned into an anthemic and romantic saga. Only two tracks -- "Who Loves the Sun" and "Sweet Nuthin'" -- held true to the original. Phish executed the former in a concise manner, nailing the sunny harmonies and bitter tone. And the latter, with its cold, redemptive feel, languid vocals and roominess for jamming, was the perfect end to the set.

Of course, this musical misstep was only one-third of the evening's performance. The other two sets that flanked Loaded were classic, if not totally inspired Phish. Highlights included a rarely performed "Sneaking Sally Through the Alley," an especially searing rendition of "Mike's Song," and an atonal jam fueled by a massive glowstick war, where the audience hurled thousands of the cylindrical concert accessories back and forth across the arena while the band jammed in synch.

Perhaps the best testament to Phish and their fans was the performance of the "hit single" "Birds of a Feather." Where at most shows, the radio song would elicit cheers and singalongs from the audience, the folks here were uncannily silent as Phish sped through the first three minutes of Elektra's latest bankable Phish-y moment. Just before the last chorus, however, the band drifted off into a relatively short, but new and inspiring jazzy jam. Then -- and only then -- did the fans start to pogo and cheer. With Phish it's got to be new or it might as well be nothing. At least it keeps both the band and the crowd on their toes.