Mmmm…Las Vegas, where nothing is what it seems. A tour closer in Las Vegas, Sin City, the desert oasis…this was definitely not to be missed. When we flew in from Austin, TX, on Thursday night we immediately headed to the infamous strip. The Aladdin is in the middle, bisecting the strip between the MGM Grand and Caesar’s, right across from the Monte Carlo. The Aladdin was one of the last privately owned and operated casinos, and was smaller and friendlier than many of the new mega-casinos. We easily found it because of the big sign that said "PHISH Friday 8pm — Sold Out." We were definitely in the right place…there were fans in the casino, gambling away.
One blackjack dealer told us that TicketMaster had oversold the show, and that the casino was going to close its doors early the next day and be extra tight on security. She said we should get there really early. This was a funny idea, a casino closing its doors? Hahaha. But it did scare us into getting there at a decent hour.
On Friday the casino was overflowing with Phish fans, who were snagging the slot machine cups to beg for spare change and give their ubiquitous puppies water. Security was being cool, only asking the obvious riff-raff and schwillers to go elsewhere. This was in the days before “wookies” became the dominant type of tourscum. The show had a special feel to it: everyone had traveled to get there (not many fans live in Vegas) and it was one of only two shows on the tour to sell out in advance (Halloween being the other). When it got close to show time the Aladdin high command decided that they were not going to let people enter the theater through the casino: everyone had to go out and around. The reasoning was they didn't want their regular patrons disturbed. The World Rodeo Championship was also in town that week, making Phish fans the second most dominant group, behind rodeo-loving country-music fans (guys drinking bad beer and straddling bulls — never really got that).
The Aladdin was the only theater booked for the whole tour. The main things that set it apart (besides the size: it only held seventy-five hundred) were the size of the stage and the placement of the lights. The stage was small and the band members were much closer to each other than they had been in awhile. Page and Fishman were actually in the same time zone, imagine that! The ceiling behind the stage wasn't too high, and they didn't construct huge light risers, so the lights actually shined on the band and out into the audience. This was one of the only shows in the recent past that was really loud. After taking our seats in the eighth row (which was quite close, compared to eighth row in an arena) we eagerly waited for the show to begin. We knew they had something planned (from a “rare” Fishman leak) and knew that since it was Vegas, and that everyone came here, it wouldn't be a standard tour-closing show. They opened up with “Wilson” and from the beginning it was clear that there was a sense of urgency. This was diametrically opposed to NYE 1996's “Wilson Lite”.
The band was clearly on and the rocking began, complete with heavy-metal licks and serious feedback. “Wilson” led directly into a well-played “Peaches En Regalia”, which had been exhumed in L.A. just five days before. “Peaches” is a welcome treat and was a great tune for the "2" spot. (Note: it wasn't an old-time “Wilson” -> “Peaches” with Trey singing the "blat boom" part of “Wilson” as the intro to “Peaches”). “Poor Heart” followed and actually rocked out. No kidding, really…Trey extended his solo for four extra measures and wailed.
Everyone's friend, egomaniac Trey, was in the house. After “Poor Heart” the space began and “2001” emerged from the murkiness. This was the tour where “2001” came into its own and became a song, not merely a lead-in. This version, clocking in at nearly ten minutes, didn't disappoint as Trey and Page each took multiple groovin' solos. For an added bonus Trey threw in the James Brown lick that he had introduced the previous week in Sacramento.
This was clearly the beginning stages of the funk as we know it these days. The low point of the show followed: a mediocre “Llama”, which Trey started by chording out of the post-“2001” space. This was the only tune the whole night that wasn't superb, which is surprising since “Llama”s are usually excellent.
A strong first-set “YEM” came next. It was nothing earth-shattering, but an 8:30 PM “YEM” is always welcomed. It was complete with a "Donuts, I love donuts" vocal jam which melted into a standard but always fun “Cars Trucks and Buses”.
Continuing the best set of Fall Tour 1996 was a standout version of “Down with Disease” that seemed to merge the grooviness of the Halloween and Seattle versions with its old-school 1994 roots. The outcome was an energetic and jammed-out “DWD”, easily one of my favorites from 1996. The set ended powerfully with a tight “Frankenstein”. This first set reminded me of a first set at Halloween, which is so good you expect them to say, "thanks a lot, good night," at the end. It was an all-encompassing set that could have been a second set as well. A “Wilson” > “Peaches” opener, “Frank” closer, and some hearty meat in the middle. After a rather lengthy set break (almost an hour) it was time for more action.
Set II opened in fitting fashion with a rockin' “Julius” (after all, we were in Vegas) followed by the show's only throwaway song, “Sparkle”, which was its usual waste of time. As the “Sparkle” sped up we wondered what was next. They had played “Bowie” and “Mike's” the show before, “YEM” in the first set…maybe “Bathtub Gin”? Then out of left field “Mike's Song” was dropped on our heads. This was the most surprised I had ever been at a Phish show. “Mike's” was the toughest monster jam to get and here it was, twice in a row. Wow! They definitely weren't fucking around tonight. The “Mike's” was twelve minutes long, tight, and evil. It featured the gold lights that were added for the holiday tour and tested in Vegas. The “Mike's” disappointingly segued right into “Simple”. There was this guy who draped a huge "Simple" (the shoes company) sign over the balcony. What a schmuck, make a good sign dammit. Luckily my friend Speed Racer prevented me from going up there and strangling him. Nevertheless, the crowed roared with approval from the first notes of “Simple”. This “Simple” was actually pretty good, mellowing out to some nice work by Trey and then building gradually. After eighteen minutes Trey nodded to Fishman, who started up “Harry”. This “Harry” is one of my all-time faves and includes some of my favorite intro jamming. The end jam was nice and drawn out, and came to a real peak, which many don't accomplish these days. “Weekapaug” exploded out of the conclusion to “Harry” and the energy never let up. I am a major fan of “Weekapaug” bursting out of high-energy songs, instead of starting from scratch, like at the following show, 12/28/96 (three “Mike's Grooves” in a row — must be a post-1988 record), where it began after the “Strange Design”, which had sucked all the energy out of the whole city. The 1997 New Year's show is a prime example: instead of starting the “'Paug” after “Circus”, they threw in the Ween tune, “Roses are Free”, which served as a platform for the “Weekapaug”. Well, back to Vegas. The “Weekapaug” was masterful and started out with some high-energy jamming, which then out of nowhere came to a dead stop. Fish then started up the “Weekapaug” again and the place exploded.
After doing this a second time, they moved into a pretty section that featured Trey using his watery Leslie effect, and came to another dead stop before punching into the “Weekapaug” finale. This was reminiscent of the hilarious 1991 “Weekapaug” at the Somerville Theater, where Trey ends the “'Paug”, and the set, three times! Vegas had a fantastic “Mike's Groove”, which was followed by the necessary respite, “Sweet Adeline”. Then it was time to "get the Led out." I breathed a sigh of relief as the band started “Good Times/ Bad Times”. It seemed like they were going to end the show in normal fashion and that everything was going to be a-okay. But then it happened: instead of ending the tune after the requisite Jimmy Page-like solo, Trey's ego took over as he took it through for one more monster chase to end the tour. The dissonance built up, Chris chased the lights, and Fishman banged on the drums, and Trey exploded out of it wailing on "the note." You know, the one you always want but don't get anymore? The one that makes the ALO version “Slave” melt in your mouth, hands, and brain? Wow! Shortly after, the “GT/BT” ended triumphantly and I gave the band the rocking signal…because they absolutely rocked. At this point I will already argue that this was the best two-set show of the tour. The energy and intensity of the playing was unparalleled. It was a shame the tour didn't go on for another week — people would still be talking about it. By the time the holiday run came around they had lost the tightness and intensity. Too bad.
There was an encore that began with, "We'd like to bring up a couple friends to help us out with this one, Larry and Les from Primus." And like all good stories, this encore started with an oom-pah-pah. “Harpua” started out slow and funky…they were playing it in 4/4 as opposed to the usual 7/4. Following the standard beginning, Les chanted the old-time story of the "Wildwood Weed." Then the real story began. You see, Jimmy was getting bored of suburbia and decided to go to Las Vegas…after a full day of walking he realized he wouldn't make it so he set up camp with his favorite feline, Poster Nutbag. They loved each other so much that they stared in each other’s eyes and started to yodel. Enter the August Sisters and John McCuen on banjo to play an old-time country tune “Cowboy Sweetheart”. Fishman came out from behind the drums to get a better glance at the well-endowed sisters, with a sheepish grin on his face. The next morning, Jimmy and Poster woke up refreshed and realized that they were in fact close to Vegas. When they got there they were confronted by the four Elvii. Fishman proved he was quite a man: with some help from Chris' lights he sang “Suspicious Minds” better than the four Elvii (who did dance better than him, though).
Finally they made it to the Aladdin where Jimmy put his whole $12 life savings on number seventeen on the roulette wheel (coincidentally, $12 wins $420 in roulette). But just as the wheel started spinning, “Harpua” appeared across the room. Well you know, big fight, yadda yadda, dead cat, sad kid…. “Harpua” finished and launched right into “Suzie”, which included Malachi from the movie Children of the Corn on percussion, Les and Larry, the yodelers, and the Elvii who were quite pleased to be back onstage. Following the second chorus, Trey pointed at Mike, who gave a "who me?" and then Les stepped up and showed Mike how it was done…beginning the funk breakdown which lead into Elvii madness. Trey played leader firing his megaphone at everyone as the Elvii hammed it up for the crowd, singing “Suzie Q” among many other things! Leaving the show all I could say was "Rock" since that was all that was necessary. Everyone understood. Phish destroyed Vegas…Vegas-style!
Epilogue: in fall 1997 the Aladdin was demolished to make room for the new Planet Hollywood Casino. This marked the end of the independently owned and operated casinos on the strip, and the second venue that had to be razed after Phish played a monumental show there on 1996 fall tour (The Omni in Atlanta being the other).