At the Thomas and Mack Center in Vegas (which would come to be enthusiastically called the “Mack Daddy” all weekend), seating for Phish shows is entirely general admission. This is great because it allows you to sit in one big group with all of your friends. But to get good seats for all those people, you need to get in line early. We had a plan in place: those that arrived early enough would get in line early and hold good seats until the rest of the group could make it.
As Mia and I landed in Vegas, we were heading to the curb (no checked bags to pick up) to execute our planned zip to the Strip, talking to a woman fan from our plane. She got a call from her other friends who were out at the curb and had already been in line for a cab for a half hour and were still in line! Our carefully timed airport>cab>hotel>lot plan was in danger!
But, in another precursor of the rest of our Vegas experience, things worked out perfectly. The woman we were walking with said she was going to jump into the line with her friends, so we asked if we could jump in their cab with them, ride to their hotel (MGM), then continue on to our hotel (the staunch Vagabond Inn, one mile up the Strip across from Treasure Island). She agreed, so we all hopped into the front part of the line! Then, when we reached the front, she and her friends said we should just take our own cab... ch-ching!
A reward was in order, and I was holding. To celebrate the return of Phish, a weekend in Vegas, and generally to promote good Phish karma, I hit Vegas with about twenty-five burned Phish shows on CD in my bag for the express purpose of giving them away to fans who somehow earned it; good conversation, stylin’ clothes, acts of kindness, whatever. About thirteen copies of Prague 7/6/98 (which I had been given gratis a few weeks earlier by my buddy Kevin the phootballer so that I could hear (what had to that point been) possibly the best “Piper” ever), and twelve more copies of a compilation CD of 1993 soundchecks from three different shows. Our Cab Queen earned a copy of both.
We said goodbye, hopped in the cab, and checked in. Time check about 5:00. Izzy, Laurie and Cletus were already in line and in good position, and while I was talking to them Rick found them. Our position secure, we headed to the Vagabond.
The Vagabond was a solid choice; on the Strip, centrally located, clean rooms, heated pool, and cheap: $95 total for Mia and I for two nights. Also a five minute walk to Treasure Island, Mirage, Venetian, Frontier.....
We checked into our room, sprung open our bags, and immediately began mixing the weekend’s first Yucca (for the uninitiated, a masterpiece blend of tequila, ice, lemons, limes, sugar, and a little piece of every drinker’s mojo).
It took about an hour to get our proverbial shit together, and it was 6:30 before we set out in search of a cab. We had talked to our group at the venue, six people holding about 18 seats in the lower sections. We knew we had to hurry to get there, but it was a busy day in Vegas and cab lines were long everywhere.
Begin OPERATION LIMOUSINE. For seemingly no reason we decided to go to the Venetian (instead of any of four other equally convenient hotels) to look for a cab, and as we entered the carport, we saw a very long cab line that we were told was a half hour wait or longer. Then Helms saw a limo and joked, “Hey Ted, ask him if he’ll take us”. What the hell, I thought, just ask that guy (the bellhop or valet or whatever), So we did. “For all of us?” (9 or 10 of us). “Yep, hop in”. And just like that, all of us were in a limo; no, a limo stocked with booze, heading for the Mack Daddy in style. About halfway there we threw in one of my Prague 7/6/98 CDs and entered the lot in a white stretch limo singing “AC/DC Bag” at the top of our lungs. Couldn’t have been better. Okay, could’ve if there was a sunroof, but that’s splitting hairs.
Oh, and our limo driver (Kai) gave us a few copies of his card and said we could call him after the show and he’d pick us up quickly!
Into the venue, and even in the halls the energy was INSANE. People were just fired up to be in Vegas. We had a theory that LA would have some veterans and a bunch of locals, but Vegas would be virtually all veterans; very few fans probably actually live in Vegas, and not too many West Coasters made the Holiday Run, so this was the first big chance for the entire West half of the country to see Phish in two and a half years. And it’s so much easier to just fly in and out of Vegas then to fly to LA, get to Vegas, then make your way home.
We found our group and our seats were very solid indeed: section 107, which is on the Mike side, about half court of the basketball floor, about 10 rows up off the floor. Three rows deep, six seats across. Sweet.
We looked all around the arena and took in the sights, smells, and sounds. Energy crackling everywhere. Occasional outbursts of screams, building in intensity! “ Yeeeeeeeeeeee-hawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!”
Up above the tapers section, directly out from the stage and slightly to the Page side, at the bottom of the upper level someone had draped a big sign off the rail, probably about four or five bed sheets strung together, that read: “871 Days Since Last Ghost”. Finally, probably around 8:30 p.m., the lights snapped off and it was ON!
I will always remember Saturday, February 15, 2003; the night the Mack Daddy lifted off the ground and flew around Vegas. Two or three times. From the first notes to the last, the energy in that room was the stuff of legend. 15,000 barefoot children inside, shakin’ it down in pure ecstatic release. I was lucky enough to be in NYC for the recent NYE show, and that energy was awesome, but I think this was even more insane. It was a more pure, happy, over-the-top Vegas style hoe-down.
Paul leaned over during “Reba” and said, sagely, “This is a heavyweight set already”. True indeed. “Reba” chased us around the arena, then floated us up above Vegas for a lap around the Stratosphere.
Just as the “Reba” and the Mack Daddy nestled back to Earth with that trademark Fishman drum roll, we settled nicely and were greeted with
the second first set bustout in 2 nights: “Life on Mars?”, a David Bowie song. Phish had first pulled this one out back in 1996 or so, but it didn’t last long in the rotation, and hadn’t been played since about March 1997. It was a brilliant, composed counterpoint to the ethereal mindfuck that had been “Reba”.
Then it was back up against the ropes for more body blows. On this night the space/time continuum was being stretched in every direction, like pizza dough. During “Antelope”, the Mack Daddy was being whacked around like a piñata. It was like those sci-fi scenes when they shift to light speed, and the stars suddenly become lines streaming past you. Utter chaos. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together....mass hysteria!
At setbreak we finally caught our breath, and a few of us headed out on a mission to find my buddy Jeff in the taper’s section. Mission accomplished, quick hellos and knowing nods, and back to the halls. I gave away a few CDs to fully decked-out strangers. Matt and I even chatted up a couple of Vegas's finest, asking a young lady cop (I think) if they were having any problems. Of course they weren’t. It was a funny conversation though, with me in my disco-shimmery green leprechaun hat and Matt in his yellow, purple and green felt jester hat.
GHOST! All eyes were on the “871 Days Since Last Ghost” banner, and people were shining lights on it, making a very trippy effect. Somewhere during this madness, I pulled out a small bag that I had brought of this sweet iridescent confetti, white glowy pearly stuff. I was only going to tear open the corner and pour some out, but the energy was flying and I somehow determined to tear off the corner and helicopter it all over the place. It made a glowy snowstorm all over our group, and I got multiple high-fives for the rest of the night (“Dude! that confetti was awesome! Dude!”)
Finally at some point the Ghost segued tastefully into “Free”. I feel the feeling I forgot! Indeed! At this point there was absolutely no question that (1) Phish was back, with a vengeance, and we were riding on top of the wave, and (2) this show was one for the ages.
The “Harry Hood” was one of those absurd, laugh-so-hard-your-sides-ache-the-entire-time affairs, where you’ve already had the crap beaten out of you and you just keep getting pummeled with more. The last groove dropped in, and a glowstick war was attempted, but it never really got off the ground. (We would see a better one the next night). Harry was so long and so sweet and built and soared and rose and dipped and soared again, and we were soaking in sweat and happiness and smiles and friendship. You can feel GOOD! I feel GOOD! Good about Hood! You got that right.
Looking back, the encore could’ve been better, but we were finished. Slumped in the corner, cuts above both eyes, sniffing smelling salts. “Sample in a Jar” was a chance for a last singalong before they released 15,000 phreaks into the Vegas night.
Stepping outside I expected to find us still soaring above the Strip, but there we were back on the UNLV campus. Everywhere you looked people were laughing and hugging and high-fiving and exchanging knowing looks.
Now we’re a mile and a half from the Strip, what to do? Call the limo! Paul had a head on his shoulders and a card in his pocket, and somehow he steered ten of us to the pickup area (under Cox Pavilion, of course) and we were headed back to the Vagabond. I have vague recollections of a serious radio singalong.....Zeppelin? Some sweet ‘80s tune? It was The Black Crowes’ “Hard to Handle” as we pulled in to the hotel.