Recorded on the Vermont band's first visit to Sin City, Vegas '96 captures Phish at the point in their career where performance art was still a large part of the presentation (the ultimate extension of which would turn out to be their multi-day events such as "IT" and "Big Cypress"). It's not the stuff that will enlighten why Phish became the new millennium definition of rock and roll (via the jamband tag), but the performance is important to hear in context.
Longtime fans and novices alike will, no doubt, go straight to the DVD in the deluxe edition (including a booklet crammed with photos that create the illusion of being in the venue at show time). The appearance of four (!) Elvis Presleys join forces with the quartet, as well as guests including quirky bassist Les Claypool of Primus. Yet it's drummer Jon Fishman who steals the encore.
By 1996 Phish had been hitting their stride for over two years as a performing band, after wood-shedding in the Northeast, their evolution dovetailing with the migration of Deadheads from that community since Jerry Garcia's death in 1995. The coincidence of those cultural phenomena can't be underestimated, but to give too much emphasis to it demeans the extent to which Phish created a singular personality for themselves as individual musicians and as a performing unit.
Theirs was an unusual concoction to be sure, incorporating elements of their major influencesZappa ("Peaches en Regalia ), Zeppelin ("Good Times Bad Times ) and 1970s kitsch (The Edgar Winter Group's "Frankenstein ). Phish also tossed in choice elements of contemporary bluegrass, as parleyed by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, for good measure.
On Vegas '96, those elements collide to some degree and throw the focus slightly askew, the musicianship not surprisingly coming in second if not exactly getting short shrift. But, as is so often the case on any given night by any band, the middle of the show is the peak, here represented by a mini-set including "Simple and "Weekapaug Groove, the likes of which tunes would remain staples of the repertoire as the band moved further into the mainstream.
At this point and prior (at least to the uninitiated), Phish might've seemed a novelty act at least in part, but the very point of appearing in Vegas is part tongue-in-cheek comment on the culture (again, the Zappa influence, albeit a more subtle one). The danger in entering the mainstream is that such nuances become increasingly diluted. But there's no missing the finer points of the band's playing, here on "Mike's Song," the likes of which never really disappeared as the band jettisoned so many of its idiosyncrasies.
The production values match the content itself in Vegas '96. In contrast to the ultra-sophisticated, high-definition recording of Live in Brooklyn(Rhino, 2005), the video included on this DVD is a single camera shoot and, as such, it reemphasizes the progressive attention to detail of recording, archiving and production Phish endeavored to maintain throughout its twenty year-plus career. And it imparts a surreal atmosphere that is perfectly appropriate to the goings on.
Personnel: Trey Anastasio: guitar, vocals, percussion; Jon Fishman: drums, vocals; Mike Gordon: bass, vocals; Page
McConnell: keyboards, vocals.