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[We would like to thank Rob Mitchum for recapping last night's show. Rob is a science and music writer in Oak Park, IL. He tweets about Phish @phishcrit, other stuff @robmitchum, and he has undertaken the Sisyphean task of writing about every Phish show on its 25-year anniversary, which will take him until at least 2047…and counting.Thank you Rob! -Ed.]

For all the billions of dollars invested in audiovisual technology at the Las Vegas Sphere, the thing I was most curious about for these shows was decidedly less flashy: would the members of Phish stand in their usual spots? For 99.9% of Phish shows, they have set themselves up in the same way – four-across on a rectangular stage at one end of the venue. But the few times they deviated from this layout have almost always produced memorable experiences and unusual music, from the alternative stages of late-night festival sets and the inward-facing square of the Chilling Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House costume to the flatbed truck in the round and the hourglass stage of MSG NYE stunts.

(c) 2024 {|Stephen Olker Photo}

The influence of staging on the music makes a lot of sense, because Phish has always been a band heavily influenced by environmental choices and constraints. It’s why they’re more picky than most artists about what venues they book, why certain rooms and cities have attained can’t-miss status among fans over the years, for reasons that would seem mysterious to objective outsiders. Even when the band merely reshuffles what order they stand in (as they did in 1999, a year I’m about to become very familiar with), it can have a dramatic impact on their improvisational approach and communication.

So how exactly would Sphere, a venue unlike any built before it, force Phish to reconfigure both logistically and musically? That’s what I wanted to know. Amidst all the flashy imagery that leaked out of the U2 shows, the stage they played on looked weird as hell, a tiny little postage stamp (supposedly based, eye-rollingly, on Brian Eno’s turntable) with minimal lighting. One of the immediate observations from the Phish fan community was that the ever-growing mechanical skeleton of Chris Kuroda’s rig – an instrument as essential to the show as a Languedoc guitar – simply wasn’t going to work there. What else would have to change, and would it move Phish out of their comfort zone, for better or worse?

(c) 2024 Scott Marks

From what I could see through the tiny, imperfect window of social media posts, Thursday and Friday the band’s setup appeared relatively normal – they were all lined up as they have been since Mike moved to Fishman’s left in 2013. The lack of onstage amps and equipment and the expected strip-down of the lighting rig to just six vertical towers left the band feeling a little naked, and the amphitheater-style seating made it look from most people’s phones like the stage was unusually distant. But – ignoring the 256 million pixel elephant in the room – it seemed from afar like Phish just had to show up to work like they normally do.

But naturally, being there in person creates a very different impression. The walk in to the venue has all the set design immersion of a Disney ride, from the Space Mountain fonts and lighting to the lobby art installation and the bespoke ambient music wafting through the concourse. It’s by far the cleanest place I will ever see Phish, a world apart from the sticky-floored minor league hockey arenas and concrete exurban sheds that are their natural habitat.

(c) 2024 ZZYZX

And when you walk into the actual venue, what immediately leaps out is that the proportions are all off for what we expect from a Phish show. I’ve seen them in dozens of venues, and there’s a familiar reassurance in journeying to a strange city, navigating all the drama of getting to the show, and then walking in to see that same old stage, lit in soft blue light, patiently waiting for the band. The Sphere is not like that, at all. Even from a seat in the first balcony, which seems to have the best balance of stage and screen, the relative scale was disorienting with just the preshow washes of color, never mind the full blast visuals. It felt alien, dangerous, wrong…but unmistakably exciting. Constraints and possibilities abound.

I can only imagine that the band feels the same discombobulation walking out from the pixel-covered door at the bottom of the screen. And while I was pumped to see what they would do visually with that billion-dollar canvas, I was also keeping a close ear on whether this unusual environment nudged them into new sonic channels. It delivered one such moment right away, as they repeated the run’s nifty new trick of coming out to a pre-recorded jam – in tonight’s case, a Siket Disc-y haze over trip-hop drums – and layering the first chords of the opener over it.

Perhaps confronting the potential of this setup for severing the intimacy with fans, "Set Your Soul Free" immediately broke one of the rules they had joked about in the run-up to these shows by showing the band on the screen. Uncomfortable with the stadium-size close-ups of U2, the band and tech team landed on an effective compromise, with any shots of the musicians constantly distorted and filtered and manipulated. These visuals (which returned in a slightly different configuration for "46 Days") might not get the phone cameras out like some of the flashier set pieces, but they were a welcome reminder in that gargantuan space that there were four real humans down there making all the noise.

(c) 2024 Rob Mitchum

Forever masters of tension-release, tonight slow-rolled the real eye-popping scenery and opted for more “minimal” (an absurd use of the word) visualizations over the first three songs: colorful squiggles for SYSF, bubbles for "Tube," prismatic gem facets for "Stash." These flexible, non-scripted patterns seemed to line-up with the band being in a jammy mood right off the bat, with all three songs finding unusual tributaries. And it allowed for appreciation of the Sphere’s equally ambitious sound system, which was especially effective as Page and Trey deployed stranger and stranger effects in the thick of jams, synth and digital pedal squiggles and bloops darting out from unexpected corners of the room.

Just when I started to think the visuals had to hold back in order for the band to be fully free improvisationally, that theory was shattered by "Pillow Jets," the night’s first triumph. Moving slowly through a generative forest landscape that slowly morphed into an Avatar-like neon ecosystem, trees exploding with veins of light like a fireworks display, it was the first time the visuals lived up to the venue’s immersive promise. But more importantly, it inspired the band as much as the audience, transforming a song I previously found forgettable into one of the undisputed musical highlights. I came in with plenty of doubts that the screen imagery could organically influence and interact with the music with the same intensity and cohesion of Kuroda’s lights, but this performance settled it decisively.

(c) 2024 Rob Mitchum

That exquisite balance wasn’t always on display – I found myself missing the regular lights and the murky darkness of a normal Phish indoor show in "Stash" and "Steam," and at the end of the night, "Tweezer Reprise" didn’t explode as expected with Kuroda unable to work up the usual climactic frenzy. And there were points where the visuals almost made the music incidental. The presentation of "Taste" was a jaw-dropper, with Jim Pollock’s Live Phish CD art rotating like tapestries and hovering in astoundingly effective 3-D over the band, and the experience was so overwhelming and emotional I barely remember a note of the performance of one of my favorite Phish songs.

But the centerpiece of set two restored that balance through an ingenious combination of low and high tech. When I read that Abigail Rosen Holmes got her start as lighting director for Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense shows, I was both excited and confused – that happens to be my favorite concert film of all time, but its deconstructed staging felt like the completely inverse of what these full-production Sphere shows promised. So it was a delight to see "Fuego" use one of my favorite setpieces from the movie, the front-lit silhouettes from “What A Day That Was,” updated and enlarged four decades later.

(c) 2024 Rob Mitchum

For the entire half-hour of "Fuego," a single motorized spotlight roved back and forth along a track at the front of the stage, throwing a shadow of one band member at a time behind them. Then this silhouette was multiplied and manipulated across the rest of the screen, melting and flickering to fit the night’s subtle “fire” theme. It was simple and adaptable enough to let the band stretch way out with a pointillist funk jam that frolicked around the room’s spatial audio, but compelling enough to not wear out its welcome over a long performance.

I kind of missed that organic touch as the rest of the night’s visuals returned to abstract patterns that tastefully flavored mid-size jams in "Golden Age" and "Twist" and a rare standalone "Hydrogen." Everything was still so damn technically impressive, but the accompaniment did feel more reactive compared to the cohesive audiovisual dialogues of "Pillow Jets" and "Fuego." No shots; by creating 50-some different visual experiences for this run, some were bound to work better than others. I took the opportunity to sit for a bit, and enjoyed the haptic sensations of Mike’s bass vibrating through the Sphere seats, like his pick was plucking my spine.

(c) 2024 {|Stephen Olker Photography}

The late-show appearance of "Chalk Dust" may have constrained it somewhat from building upon its instant-classic performance in Mexico – it didn’t get nearly as dark and weird in the sci-fi bubble as it did on the beach, environmental influences be damned. But as starry constellations formed and burst apart above a fully-concentrated band, it finally clicked that this one-of-a-kind venue and its unusual proportions isn’t such foreign territory after all.

It turns out that Sphere, for all its groundbreaking tech, is actually of a piece with one of Phish’s favorite venue categories: arenas that look like spaceships. As children of the moon landing, the members of Phish are the right age to still see space as a limitless territory of awe and wonder, not commercial real estate for internet satellites and nuclear missiles. It’s no accident that so much Phish improvisation gets described with space-related terms, or that they cover the disco-jazz rearrangement of the classical theme from the greatest space movie of all time (and hopefully will tonight…”air” includes outer space, right?). Space is the place where Phish thrives, and Sphere, at its essence, is just a really, really big and really, really fancy planetarium.

(c) 2024 Scott Marks

So for all that the unusual logistics that these shows required – the months of technical and artistic preparation, the pre-written setlists, the lack of onstage amps and the plexiglass around Fishman – it still only took three nights for the Sphere to feel like home. Despite everything, the band still found its comfort zone, which may have meant that these were more “normal” Phish shows musically than part of me hoped for, but also that they would be terrific performances, even the morning after on headphones without all those pixels in my face.

In the end, they were still standing in the same place, experimenting and taking risks just like they’ve done for 41 years. Only the room has changed.

(c) 2024 {|Stephen Olker Photography}

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