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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

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

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.

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