How Phish reimagined the Las Vegas Sphere

How Phish reimagined the Las Vegas Sphere

Concerts by Phish, the beloved Vermont jam band, have become known among fans as once-in-a-lifetime events filled with striking visuals and spontaneous sonic explorations.

Over the decades, the band has performed more than 2,000 shows and is known for its never-ending set list — drawing deeply from their vast canon of more than 300 original songs as well as countless covers.

That hasn’t changed. But now, 41 years into their journey, the band has created another new way to experience their music live: four concerts at the Sphere, a $2.3 billion venue in Las Vegas that was christened last fall with a series of shows by U2. The Phish show starts Thursday and runs through Sunday night.

“It’s a paradigm shift in live music and visual (performance),” Trey Anastasio, Phish’s bandleader and creative force, told CNN in an interview last week about the Sphere dates. “It’s … an exciting new canvas.”

Phish is only the second band to play the Sphere, after U2. The state-of-the-art spherical venue is dominated by a giant LED screen about 250 feet high that wraps above and around the audience. The large screen, along with 167,000 speakers that ensure pristine sound, provides an immersive concert experience.

But while U2 played much of the same set list and paired songs with pre-made videos that repeated nightly, Phish used their usual freewheeling approach.

The band didn’t repeat a single song during their four-night run, and each show’s visuals were different and even improvised in the moment, similar to what fans have become accustomed to from Phish’s longtime lighting designer, Chris “CK5” Kuroda.

“All of our visuals can be executed, modified and manipulated in real time,” the group’s creative director for shows at Sphere, Abigail Rosen Holmes, told CNN. “They will follow the band’s musical performance, and instead of being locked up, allow Phish to play as freely as they do at any other show.”

Of course, on Thursday’s opening night, psychedelic animations and graphics seemed to soar and glide to the music, creating a 3D effect on the Sphere’s big screen. Each song features a different visual tapestry, from layered abstract tapestries to stunning scenic imagery — both mundane and otherworldly.

Phish members said they studied the Sphere 40 residency of U2’s concerts in preparation for playing the venue. Phish’s audio engineers also recreated a miniature version of Sphere’s production setup in a rehearsal studio in Pennsylvania last summer so the band could fine-tune the show’s look and sound.

Last week, Anastasio said it will be a challenge to use the Sphere’s large space in a way that still feels organic.

“When you see a big-scale production — you know, Beyoncé or U2 or anything that’s really a big pop act — the production and the music are one click. So it makes it easier for everything to happen at the right time,” he said. “And we didn’t.”

But after Thursday night’s show, he seemed happy with the venue, saying he felt a “closeness” at the Sphere despite its large size.

“I can see the audience so clearly, which has such a huge impact on the music. When I can look directly at people dancing, I play better. I can respond to their energy. I didn’t expect that,” he told CNN via email. “It’s a great blessing. It feels very comfortable.”

From the beginning Phish cultivated a deep bond with its audience
Phish’s signature sound focuses on progressive rock arrangements infused with various musical genres, including jazz, funk and blues and beyond.

The band formed in 1983 while the members were studying at college in Vermont, where Anastasio met drummer Jon Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon. Keyboardist Page McConnell joined the group about two years later.

“We started as a group of friends, in a room with our friends,” Anastasio said. “We’d play until 1:30 in the morning, and then we’d all go out to Howard Johnson’s for eggs and French toast. Literally, like the band and the audience. And in some respects, that never changed. It still feels that way.”

In their early days, the band began playing residencies at Nectars, then a Burlington restaurant and bar with a small stage in the corner. From the start they practiced their complex arrangements religiously, often following Anastasio’s daily schedule detailing when they would perfect specific parts of each song.

Gradually Phish built a fan base, mostly through non-stop touring across the US.

“We built this following just by playing,” Gordon said in “Bittersweet Motel,” director Todd Phillips’ 2000 documentary about the group. “It was never really records or radio or videos or anything like that that advanced our careers. It’s all word of mouth.”

Fans come to shows “because they don’t know what’s going to happen,” Gordon added, “just like we don’t know what’s going to happen” — a sentiment that band members and fans alike say hasn’t changed.

“We’ve never really been in the public eye,” Anastasio told CNN last week. “We didn’t have hits, or go to the Grammys, or anything like that. It was a community, it was what it was. And it really was. And it still feels that way. I think that’s a big part of what makes us different. ”

Anastasio says he can feel the “energy” from the crowd during every show, and that informs his decisions about what the band plays in real time — an approach Phish has taken throughout its existence.

“It has a mind of its own. It’s all fair game,” Anastasio said. “It’s like a combination of discipline and complete neglect. I don’t think you can have one without the other.”

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