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Trapped In Time: Phish Welcomes Fans To First Night Of Jams At Las Vegas’ Sphere [Photos/Videos]

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Screen Shot 2024 04 05 at 12.03.26 PM
Screen Shot 2024 04 05 at 12.03.26 PM

Phish fans had been waiting for Thursday night for a long time—since the day the plans for the state-of-the-art, multibillion-dollar Sphere in Las Vegas were first announced in early 2018.

Even when the one-of-a-kind venue was just a press release, a digital rendering, and a James Dolan dream, the connections between Phish and Sphere were too notable, too numerous not to assume that this weekend’s run was inevitable. In addition to boasting a long resume of extended runs at Dolan’s “other” arena, New York’s Madison Square Garden, Phish guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio was involved in the slow rollout of Sphere’s many new technologies: Back in August of 2022, when New York’s Beacon Theatre, an MSG Entertainment property, installed a scaled-down version of Sphere Immersive Sound, Sphere’s innovative “beamforming” audio setup powered by HOLOPLOT, a pair of Anastasio solo acoustic shows served as the first performances to utilize the sound system. Plus, Phish has always demonstrated an eagerness to up the ante on its live production, from lavish New Year’s and Halloween spectacles to the ever-evolving lighting rig of the band’s “fifth member,” LD Chris Kuroda.

Sphere, it seemed to many, was practically made for Phish. On various occasions, Anastasio himself has echoed versions of that sentiment. “From the moment we first heard about Sphere and its potential, we’ve been dreaming up ways to bring our show to this breathtaking canvas,” Anastasio said in a press release when the four-night April 2024 run was announced. “We’re thrilled to present this completely unique experience to Phish fans.” On Anastasio, Jon FishmanMike Gordon, and Page McConnell‘s first night at the Sphere, they certainly hit that mark: this was a live Phish experience unlike any before it.

With that in mind, it’s tough to compare this show to any other that fans have seen without an array of asterisks and caveats. While the billing may say “Phish at Sphere,” in truth, it was more like “Phish and Sphere”—two distinct phenomena laid on top of one another in real time. From my seat in section 305, that duality felt quite literal: Straight ahead, above, and 180 degrees around, the venue’s vast interior screen displayed a different visual motif for each song, toying with forced perspective, optical illusions, and sensory stimulation, often to breathtaking effect. Below all that, Phish played a show packed with beloved songs from a strikingly small and simple stage (where are the amps, though?), a tiny raft in an ocean of endless “anything.” Chris Kuroda’s streamlined light rig—comprised of six spotlight towers contouring the back of the stage and a glowing “fence” behind the band—still managed to convey the classic “Phish stage” look, adding to the impact of that contrast.

The audio played on that yin and yang, too. While it admittedly took a few songs for the crew to work out some kinks, many of the night’s most memorable, thrillingly disorienting moments came via front-of-house engineer Garry Brown, who deftly utilized the venue’s beamforming audio tech to send sound bouncing around the room in all directions, accentuating various moments of tension-building dissonance and psychedelic fluttering in novel fashion.

On most every song, my attention drifted between the two worlds coexisting inside the glowing globe. First, the novel visuals would suck me in, and I’d spend a few minutes with my head on a swivel, jaw-dangling, trying to take in the spectacle happening all around me. Then, I’d start to acclimate to the new visual environment and the music would bubble to the surface, pulling focus back down to the band.

That process inextricably altered my takeaways from the night. If last night’s Phish show had taken place in any other room, I might have referenced the rocky start but eventually solid jam out of the opening “Everything’s Right”, but the wall of geometric pillars that multiplied and stretched to the heavens like we had just won a game of computer solitaire dominated my attention at the Sphere. I might have noted that “Back on the Train” was quick and relatively uneventful, but the dual landscapes that engulfed the room during the song made it feel more significant to the plot.

“Wolfman’s Brother”, one of the standout jams of set one, toiled under fractals of light throughout its 16+ minutes, its swirling and amorphous sonics matching the wisps of light and color above the band.

On “Maze”, the band members were rendered in a tower of video panes that stretched to the skies, blew apart, reformed, and used optical illusions to lean precariously toward the audience as the song peaked and Trey squared up and faced off with Page (anyone else sincerely duck for cover?). How does this “Maze” stack up against others? To be honest, that’s not the “stack” I’m thinking about as I remember this “Maze” in the light of day.

Even with all the tech at its disposal in the Sphere, the band opted for some IRL accents on “Leaves”, raising Chinese lantern-style lights on wires as a starry night sky dotted the dome overhead. (Did they actually have a “breeze” production cue or did I just catch a well-timed gust of AC during this one?)

On “Life Saving Gun”, another high point of the first frame, Phish cleared out its metaphorical prop shed, sending images of everything from “YEM” trampolines to “Slave” traffic lights to Henrietta vacuum cleaners to Page sandwiches spinning around the space. These soon gave way to towers of retro TV sets with grainy clips of the band playing on their convex screens (“The Phish TV show,” sans Abe Vigoda).

“Dirt” was a powerful palate cleanser—the crowd pin-drop quiet and the sound subtle yet enveloping—but it seemed the band finally got comfortable on a set-closing “Carini” that careened through corridors of blue, red, and orange like a runaway train.

Set two got started with a sprawling “Sand” under a mist of tiny white bubbles (Joy album cover, is that you?), one of the most engaging visuals of the night. Kuroda did his part here, too, casting the classic “Sand” red and yellow on the band as the Sphere magic unfolded above them and the sound circled the venue from all directions.

Related: MSG Sphere Immersive Sound Arrives At The Beacon With Help From Trey Anastasio [Photos/Video]

“Tweezer” was up next, and reliably launched the band into improvisation (at more than 25 minutes in length, it was the longest jam of the evening). We could talk about how it stacks up against other such meaty “Tweezers”, but how many other “Tweezers” take place under a mosaic of cartoon cars expanding, contorting, and zooming overhead? “My Friend, My Friend” got reliably fiendish and menacing next as silhouette shadows of the band adorned the sphere, accentuating its perennial “evil Phish” allure.

Though most songs got their own unique imagery, the “Mike’s Groove” combo that followed was rendered as a visual suite. During “Mike’s Song” we were introduced to an idyllic landscape with a surreal, gyroscope-like edifice in the distance and a spread of swirling gems hanging in midair above it. As the song went on, we moved closer to the mysterious centerpiece as the leaves slowly changed seasons. The scene turned to night, the statue turned gold, and the leaves seemed to burn like embers as the band moved into a tear-jerking “Lifeboy” (Sphere stuff aside, this may be my favorite “Lifeboy” to date). Once “Weekapaug Groove” arrived, night turned back into day for a euphoric conclusion to the IMAX-style journey. “Blaze On” was up next, its visuals providing a psychedelic foil to the magical realism of the “Mike’s Groove” scene.

After a night dominated by novel sights and dynamic sounds, the set-closing “Fluffhead” was a satisfying return to normalcy. Way up high on the Sphere ceiling, the closest thing all night to a “regular” video feed of the band played, but all eyes were on the stage as Phish brought Fluff to the Sphere under Kuroda lights. Frills be damned, that s— still works. Just in case anyone forgot.

While some groans from the crowd accompanied the start of an encore-opening “Farmhouse”, the sight of an actual farmhouse (not unlike Trey’s Barn studio in Vermont) and actual northern lights above soon won them over, and Trey’s path from acoustic guitar (for the intro) to his Languedoc (for a delicate solo) and back to acoustic (for the conclusion) was a nice touch.

With “Tweeprise” still looming, the band took option B and closed the show with an unhinged “Run Like An Antelope” to wrap night one. The infinity mirror of white dots that passed over and around the crowd as the song ramped up was a perfect high note on which to finish.

Now, a bit of housekeeping: In an interview earlier this week, Trey mentioned that the Sphere shows would be linked by a theme. While there may not have been an overarching theme as clear-cut as past Vegas gigs like the “numbers” or “animals” shows from 2021, there were definitely connective threads in Thursday night’s set—many of them based around the concept of “time.”

I’ll admit, Phish’s Instagram post on Thursday morning—”It’s only a matter of time”—certainly planted the notion in my head, but there’s plenty of evidence to back it up on the setlist and in the visuals.

 

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The lyrics and themes of “Everything’s Right” (“there’s no time to lose”), “Back on the Train” (“it took me a long time”), “Wolfman’s Brother” (“it was many years ago now”), “Maze” (“never” is certainly a timely notion), “Dirt” (“beneath their heels I’ll spend my time”), and “Carini” (that thesis took a long time to write, huh?) all seemed to fall in line with that framework on some level during set one.

Set two’s “Sand” (“flowing through the hourglass”), “My Friend, My Friend” (“a statement from his former life”), and “Blaze On” (“when I screw up once, I do it two more times”) all referenced time, too, while the visuals on tunes like “Leaves” (a nighttime tune with a moon-lit backdrop), “Life Saving Gun” (visuals of Phish props through the years), and “Tweezer” (old-timey cartoon cars), and “Mike’s Song” > “Lifeboy” > “Weekapaug Groove” (time passing and seasons changing over the same scene) didn’t stray too far from that “passage of time” aesthetic.

In fact, the visuals themselves could even be connected to a “time” theme. While the sights of Sphere night 1 were no doubt impressive, their creative aesthetic across the board was relatively… retro? Sure, these looks were being displayed on a notably modern canvas, but the visual concepts themselves were never too complex. The seeds of all of these looks were simple and nostalgic—the sort of imagery many tend to associate with the ’90s and before. Even as they were rendered spectacularly, the idea that these graphics were relatively “old-school” lingered throughout the show. And maybe that was the point…

If Phish was playing with “time” on Thursday night at Sphere, maybe that extended to the visuals, too. Maybe, as we move through the run, time (and the creative style of the spectacle) will move toward the future with us.

We don’t know what awaits us at the Sphere the rest of this weekend, but they’ve only just begun to test what this thing can do. All we have to do now is wait. After all, as the band itself said, “It’s only a matter of time.”

View photos from night one of Phish at Sphere below via Alive Coverage, Rich Fury, and Rene Huemer.

Order your Phish Sphere webcasts for the rest of the run here to get in on the action from home. Revisit audio from Phish’s Sphere debut—and every Phish show since 2003—with a subscription to the LivePhish+ subscription streaming service. For more information or to subscribe to LivePhish+, head here.

[Editor’s Note: Live For Live Music is a LivePhish affiliate. Ordering your Phish Sphere webcast or LivePhish+ subscription via the links on this page helps support our coverage of Phish and the world of live music as a whole. Thank you for reading!]

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Setlist [via phish.net]: Phish | Sphere | Las Vegas, NV | 4/18/24

Set One: Everything’s Right, Back on the Train, Wolfman’s Brother, Maze, Leaves, Life Saving Gun, Dirt, Carini

Set Two: Sand > Tweezer -> My Friend, My Friend > Mike’s Song > Lifeboy, Weekapaug Groove, Blaze On > Fluffhead

Encore: Farmhouse[1], Run Like an Antelope

[1] Began and ended with Trey on acoustic guitar.

Notes: The band took the stage while the pre-show electronic music continued. During Back on the Train, psychedelic images of passing countryside were displayed behind and above the band, rotating in opposite directions in different sections of the dome. During Maze, psychedelic live images of each band member appeared, stacked on top of each other. These images then fragmented and spread out, dancing and turning throughout the jam. During Leaves, several giant paper lanterns appeared, flanking the stage, while the dome showed a multitude of paper lanterns floating over water, with the moon shining above. During Life Saving Gun, the dome displayed stacks of old-style televisions with rabbit ears, with each television showing a live shot of one of the band members. These TVs moved and rotated as the jam progressed. After the song, Trey said that he “loves any song with a Jon Fishman percussion rinse,” and told the crowd they should see the Sphere from the stage. During Dirt, the dome showed a forest view, looking upwards through trees at a purple-hued sky. During Tweezer, a field of multi-colored cars appeared behind the band, changing in size and shape and with their headlights blinking on and off in patterns, while other cars drove past overhead. My Friend, My Friend included live spotlight silhouettes of the band members projected across the entire dome. The projections during Mike’s Song made it seem as if the venue was outdoors, with the band playing in front of a body of water with a rotating sculpture on the far shore. During Lifeboy, the sun went down and a number of other rotating sculptures lit up in the sky, creating a golden star-scape. The sun then rose again during Weekapaug. Farmhouse began and ended with Trey on acoustic guitar, as well as images of a farmhouse in a field under a night sky filled with stars and aurorae.

The post Trapped In Time: Phish Welcomes Fans To First Night Of Jams At Las Vegas’ Sphere [Photos/Videos] appeared first on L4LM.

Source: L4LM.com