So, my favorite band Phish just performed one of my favorite albums of all time, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, as a tribute to one of the most influential human beings of the modern era, David Bowie. Somehow, I only cried once. It was a great night.
My beloved editorial team of Kendall Deflin, Gideon Plotnicki and Andrew O’Brien took you through more traditional tellings of the band’s first three performances at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, sharing highlights and jam grooves that brought a continuous onslaught of great energy and Halloween anticipation. I’m beyond grateful for their efforts during what has been a non-stop Halloween weekend celebration.
For me, this story goes back to middle school, right around the time where any teenager discovers the depths of rock and roll. My father encouraged my newfound music appreciation with selections from his extensive collection, Ziggy Stardust among them. I dove into classic rock with a reverence for Mr. Bowie, artfully adding a theatric showmanship to a heavily guitar-driven genre. Bowie navigated the waters of rock and pop with an inspiring brilliance, and Ziggy Stardust is undoubtedly the peak of his efforts. Following Bowie’s death, I listened to the album daily to help cope with the loss of an icon. I even got emotional watching “David Bowie” (the Phish song) on the webcast from Phish Mexico just a few days later. Thanks to David Bowie and the countless heroes in the pantheon of rock and roll, and my musical navigator – aka Dad – I have an unwavering devotion to music.
In college, two of my closest friends ultimately inspired a sonic awakening of sorts, introducing me to improvisational rock music. Before long I was ensconced in the jam band scene, seeing Phish, Grateful Dead members, and so many more whenever possible. After years of musical molding, I reversed roles with my father. I was now sharing new music with him, and it didn’t take long before we were seeing Phish shows together.
So there I was, sitting with my father on one side and those two college friends on the other, watching Phish play the Ziggy Stardust album in completion. It was that lyric, “Your face, your race, the way that you talk/I kiss you, you’re beautiful, I want you to walk,” right before the final chorus of the opening song, “Five Years.” That was when I cried, basking in the beauty of both this full-circle moment and full-scale tribute to the legacy of the great David Bowie.
Now I’ll continue with where most of these types of pieces begin, which is of course the first set. Once the Phishbills had been distributed and the excitement for a Bowie Halloween was in the air, the ~17,000 people in the MGM Grand screamed louder for Phish than I’d ever heard before. Those screams only carried through for “Carini,” a song that hadn’t been played as a show opener since 2000. As the band rocked out on stage, fans couldn’t help noticing that Trey Anastasio was wearing the famed Gucci shirt from his Tonight Show appearance. Naturally, Trey changed a lyric of “Carini” to “the people all were screaming when they saw the shirt” to make light of a hilarious situation. He also changed the “Run Like An Antelope” lyric to “been you to have any shirt mon?” at the close of set one.
Watch the official video of “Carini” below.
I’ll keep things short for the first set, noting that the band’s energetic mood translated into tight-knit playing. Most of the songs were played as one would expect them to be played, and the band even got a plastic ass handed to them during “Ass Handed.” There were also two great references to the last two Halloween shows, including the Chilling Thrilling instrumental “Your Pet Cat” and the ever-funky “Wombat” that got the Abe Vigoda treatment back on Halloween of 2013. RIP Abe Vigoda.
Among the many great moments from a fun set one was “Tube,” as the band seems to have found the space to jam within the funky number. Amazingly, Phish’s newfound “Tube” jamming stems from Trey learning of a Twitter account called “Did They Jam Out Tube?” before their show in Chula Vista, CA along summer tour. Good guy Trey put it in the repertoire, and now Phish is jamming out “Tube” in Vegas.
One strong reason (amongst many) for Phish’s fandom is its reciprocity. Phish fans love their band, and the band loves them. That’s why I included that “Tube” tale in this narrative. But really, not much speaks more strongly to that quality than the lengths at which they went to create a Ziggy Stardust Halloween. They learned eleven new songs, each ornately composed for all of Phish, as well as the nine accompanying musicians (three vocalists and a six-piece string section) that Phish recruited. In the end, it came out beautifully.
The album opener “Five Years” started the celebration, providing an emotional opening with all four members trading lyrics. The Phishbill explained that bassist Mike Gordon was the least familiar with the album of the band members, but his playing and singing were on point for the whole night. Trey started out on an acoustic guitar, switching out of his silly shirt for a more formal jacket to lead the ceremonies. He stayed on the acoustic for “Soul Love,” with Page McConnell taking lead vocals with great care.
Watch the official video of “Five Years” below.
One of the set’s biggest highlights came in the form of “Moonage Daydream,” with Trey leading the vocals through the fun rocker. It was quite apparent that the song had a lot of space for improvisation, unlike the majority of the album, which was mostly played truly to the studio original from 1972. “Starman” saw Gordo take his only lead vocals of the set, and he nailed it. The sing-along continued a momentuous performance, backed by a full string section and backup vocalists.
After “Starman,” Trey put his guitar down and stood at the front of the crowd. The string ensemble left the stage, clearing the way for the soul-rock grooves of “It Ain’t Easy.” The only cover on Ziggy Stardust, “It Ain’t Easy” saw Anastasio take center stage and belt out the lyrics powerfully. Trey really commanded the room.
As the band switched to side two of Ziggy, it was Page who got the opening call for “Lady Stardust.” He sang the rock and roll ballad with pride, belting the song with enthusiasm. Page really took the lead on “Lady Stardust,” but it was drummer Jon Fishman who took his turn leading the next song, “Star.” With the encouragement of his bandmates, Fish locked down a steady version of a classic. It’s great to hear the band give Fishman more singing involvement, especially in such an important medium.
“Hang Onto Yourself” came next, with the full band singing and rocking out to a “C’mon, c’mon” jam out progression. Page then came out of his piano nook and brought a microphone to the front of the stage. He would sing the Bowie classic and near-title track, “Ziggy Stardust.” Page and Trey even shared a mic singing the chorus for “Ziggy,” but it was Page who really led the show on the classic rock masterpiece.
The band took a pause next, before lighting up the MGM with a crowd-rocking version of the classic “Suffragette City.” Trey was wailing on guitar throughout the whole song, even while he was also leading vocals. The crowd was in a frenzy at this point, working up to the album’s dramatic conclusion with one of its most exciting songs. It was “Rock and Roll Suicide” that ended the show, which feature Trey singing lead without his guitar in hand. What. A. Set.
The room erupted in applause for the musical costume, as Phish finally went back to their decades-old tradition of covering albums in their entirety on Halloween. In retrospect, an album cover was the only real justification for scheduling a show on Halloween Monday, and they absolutely made the trip worthwhile with that one set alone.
Of course, there was a third set as well, one packed with some all-time jams like the opening “46 Days” and a spacey rendition of “Sand” that picked up heat with some Gordo bass bombs. “Twist” was the winner of the set, as a groovy jam evolved into a full band drum jam. It started with Trey going to the marimba lumina before Page joined the fray. Soon Gordo was in on it too, with the whole band crowding around Fishman’s kit. This “Drums” jam lasted quite a while, before Trey rocked the main “Twist” progrssion on the marimba. He put down the mallets to great applause.
Watch the official video of “46 Days” below.
As if the super “Twist” wasn’t enough, Phish then brought out the classic “Meastick.” Around this time, we realized that there was a familiar face in the crowd. Sure enough, riding the rail at the MGM Grand in Vegas, wearing a full body unicorn costume, was John Mayer. If he wasn’t converted this past summer, then this might’ve gotten him hooked. For me, seeing Mayer rock out to Phish in a unicorn suit is a highlight worth mentioning in the review of this glorious show.
“2001” came next, and this was a real build-up and peak rendition of the song. One of the build-ups featured lyrics teases to Bowie’s “Fame” from Trey. Is it any wonder? The big “2001” went into an uplifting “Backwards Down The Number Line,” and the band closed out the set with a heartwarming “Slave To The Traffic Light.”
With just one more song to play at the end of their Vegas run and fall tour, Phish naturally took one more opportunity tnor David Bowie with their a cappella rendition of “Space Oddity.” I had the pleasure of witnessing its debut at Wrigley Field, and the sound of 40,000+ singing along to “Space Oddity” was something I’ll never forget. This show marked the song’s fifth outing, which saw the band harmonizing as tightly as ever. Amazing.
And there you have it. After years of appreciating David Bowie, years spent chasing dozens of Phish shows, everything came together so perfectly and meaningfully on the final night of the band’s four night stand. Thank you, Phish, for everything you do, and for how well you do it. I’ll see you at MSG in a couple months.
Setlist: Phish at MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, NV – 10/31/16
Set 1: Carini, Your Pet Cat, AC/DC Bag > Free > Possum, What’s the Use? > Wombat, Tube, Wolfman’s Brother, Ass Handed, Petrichor > Run Like an Antelope
Set 2: Five Years, Soul Love, Moonage Daydream, Starman, It Ain’t Easy, Lady Stardust, Star, Hang On to Yourself, Ziggy Stardust, Suffragette City, Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide
Set 3: 46 Days > Sand > Twist -> Drums, Meatstick > Also Sprach Zarathustra > Backwards Down the Number Line > Slave to the Traffic Light
Encore: Space Oddity
 Lyrics changed to make reference to Trey’s shirt from The Tonight Show.
 Trey on Marimba Lumina.
 Trey on Marimba Lumina, Page and Mike on percussion.
This show was webcast via Live Phish. Carini featured lyrics altered to reference Trey’s shirt, which he wore on The Tonight Show. Trey teased Martian Monster in Free. The second set “musical costume” was David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. All of the songs in the second set were Phish debuts. Twist and Drums featured Trey on Marimba Lumina, and Drums featured Mike and Page on percussion. Also Sprach Zarathustra contained Fame quotes from Trey.