How Phish Mastered Sphere With Its Weird, Wonderful Four-Show Residency (2024)

It wasn’t the technicolor morphing cars, or the giant robot shooting lights from its eyes into the crowd. It wasn’t the lava-lamp-like oozes, or the stories-tall geometric patterns, or the hyper-detailed videography of misty mountain ranges and sun-drenched clouds.

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No, the trippiest part of Phish‘s Sphere visuals was the “You Enjoy Myself” car wash – and what immediately followed.

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One of Phish’s oldest and most commonly played songs – and a frequent launchpad for improvisation throughout the revered Vermont jam band’s four-decade career – “You Enjoy Myself” is strange enough in its audio-only form. An intricately composed instrumental passage builds to an all-out scream (which audiences usually join in on) before the tension gives way to famously inscrutable lyrics (a consensus best guess for the song’s repeated line: “Wash Uffizi drive me to Firenze”) and a jam section. During an instrumental breakdown, roadies produce trampolines for singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio and bassist Mike Gordon to jump on in tandem; the song often concludes with each member of the quartet participating in an a cappella “vocal jam” – described by fan site Phish.net as “featuring spontaneous vocal improvisation, from the merely strange to the auricularly traumatic.”

During its four-night residency at the cutting-edge Las Vegas venue, however, Phish paired most of “You Enjoy Myself” with an animated visual on the venue’s 160,000-square-foot LED screen that simulated going through a massive car wash – in a vehicle alongside the band and nearly 20,000 friends. The top of a steering wheel occupied the screen’s lower left corner; suds and water streaked the screen as Phish methodically progressed through the song’s stages. And as the car exited the wash and Anastasio, Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman finally arrived at the vocal jam – one of the strangest parts of its repertoire – footage of an enormous black dog appeared on the screen.

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With the audience positioned as if it was inside the camera itself, the canine started licking the lens. For several minutes, the crowd laughed hysterically as the moment’s absurdity deepened. It was a perspective-shifting piece of immersive art that was funny, weird, and totally unique.

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Before Phish’s Sphere shows, which took place April 18-21, Abigail Rosen Holmes, a longtime collaborator of the band and co-creative director of the run, told Billboard of one of the creative team’s guiding principles: “If you would do this for one of the other artists you work with, it’s probably not unique enough to be for Phish.” And while not every visual treatment across the band’s four showsfelt quite that unique, many did. Phish, alongside Holmes, multimedia studio Moment Factory and the rest of its team, approached its Sphere gigs with comprehensive, detail-oriented creativity. The result: a superb four-show run that continued Phish’s career-long live inventiveness – and set the bar high for each artist preparing to play the Las Vegas venue going forward.

Across four nights and eight sets of music – featuring 68 different songs, with nary a repeat – Phish cycled through a staggering range of immersive visuals that spanned trippy abstractions to real-life footage to playful illustrations. In a SiriusXM interview during the run, Anastasio called Phish’s Sphere shows “a slight step forward in the psychedelic live jam music experience,” and naturally, many of the band’s visuals were vibrantly colored splotches, squiggles, and lines that supported its music.

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But the weekend’s most memorable visuals took the medium’s possibilities a step further. On the first night, Phish speckled Sphere’s screen with a multitude of dots to score “Sand,” and iterated that visual motif to great effect during other shows, for songs like “What’s The Use?” and “Chalk Dust Torture.” For the first night’s encore, vivid video of a barn by night in a forest, aurora borealis overhead, soundtracked the rustic “Farmhouse”; on the run’s final night, the crisply composed “Divided Sky” was paired with footage of billowing clouds, cast in the orangish-purple glow of the late afternoon sun – and, to accompany a mid-song change in tone, the image switched to grayscale.

Some of the visuals were just plain fun. For “Bathtub Gin,” hundreds of miniature swimmers rotated back and forth on floaties on an ocean’s surface. “Twist” began with a wall of dark-red loops that were quickly interspersed with an alphabet soup of letters; when the song’s “Woo!” interjection arrived, characters spelling the word shot up from the bottom of the screen. During the final night’s “Ghost,” a robot-like figure peered up above the band from the screen’s bottom – and spotlights shot from its eyes into the audience.

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And while Anastasio remarked to the Washington Post prior to the Sphere shows that he was skeptical about his own image being “800 feet high on the wall,” like Bono and The Edge during U2’s concerts at the venue, several Phish visuals were framed around the band – they just eschewed straight-ahead imagery in favor of designs that obscured, warped or refracted the musicians. During “Maze,” a tower of live video of the band split into tiny geometric shapes that repeatedly dispersed and reformed. “My Friend, My Friend” began with Sphere’s screen entirely off and a slowly rotating spotlight casting the band in silhouette against it; as the song intensified, the silhouette multiplied across the screen as the venue was drenched in eerie red lighting.

In the same way the “My Friend, My Friend” visual proved that Sphere visuals can be striking even in simplicity – especially when contrasted with other, more elaborate animations and designs – a new rig conceived by the band’s esteemed designer Chris Kuroda in tandem with Moment Factory subtly added to the sensory effect. Kuroda has worked with the band since 1989, and has used his increasingly complex lighting rigs to “jam” with the band.

At Sphere, his lighting setup was scaled back – relatively speaking – to six vertical beams and four horizontal strips running behind the band onstage. The lights assumed more of a supporting role than at normal Phish shows, but still accentuated the sensory experience – and were integral parts of it on songs like “A Wave of Hope” and “2001.”

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Still, as Holmes explained, the Sphere run was designed to “use all of the opportunities of the building – the audio, the visuals – and do it while supporting Phish truly playing music the way Phish plays music.” Phish’s run was revelatory in terms of production,but those bells and whistles only enhanced the music itself – which, as is often the case on Phish runs, deepened in scope and ambition with each show.

Musically, the band was at its exploratory best during the second sets of the final two shows. Phish appropriately made “Fuego,” off the 2014 album of the same name, a centerpiece of its 4/20 show, quickly abandoning the song’s Zeppelin-y riff for soaring art-rock, contemplative ambience and, eventually, heavy funk across jam’s 29-minute runtime. Later in the set, on reliable classic “Chalk Dust Torture,” Phish demonstrated the mature efficiency it has developed over the years, compellingly cycling through more musical ideas than its 16-minute duration might suggest.

The final night was even better. Sequenced in the same second-set two slot as “Fuego” the previous night, “Down With Disease,” a beloved Phish jam vehicle that has cracked 20 minutes more than 40 times since its 1995 debut, received a record-long rendition, clocking in at 34 minutes. Colorful ridges shapeshifted behind Phish as Anastasio and McConnell’s instruments panned across Sphere’s speakers. (Sphere Immersive Sound allows for the targeted movement of audio; used throughout Phish’s shows, some panning instances were additive, others disorienting.) As the jam unfolded, the quartet increasingly locked in, masterfully riding through peaks and grooves; after arriving in a krautrock-esque pocket, the band perfectly timed its return to the melodic reprise that ends the song. Inspired playing on “2001,” “Light” and “Piper” followed.

Periodic issues with panning and mix – which were more common at the start of the run, as Phish’s team learned Sphere’s acoustic intricacies – notwithstanding, Sphere’s audio significantly elevated even the slightest of songs. The high-end audio helped Gordon’s propulsive bass lines shine throughout the run, especially on songs like “Sand” and “Tube”; each member of the band was distinguishable at nearly every point during the shows – far from a given at many of the arenas and amphitheaters Phish regularly frequents.

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And for all the focus on visual surprises – and how Phish would navigate a show where, inherently, their jamming inclinations and setlist were more tethered to a plan than usual – the band still offered up plenty of unexpected selections. After forgoing the interstitial “I Am Hydrogen” (and replacing it with “Lifeboy”) that typically sits between “Mike’s Song” and “Weekapaug Groove” on Thursday, the band played it Saturday – the first time that’s happened without its usual bookends since 1987 and, freed from its normal structure, a worthy lead-in to that show’s late highlight, “Chalk Dust Torture.”

Meanwhile, Phish played four unreleased songs that debuted in 2023 – which will ostensibly appear on their upcoming album Evolve, due this July – along with “Evolve” and four other songs from Anastasio’s pandemic-era solo albums which, like “Evolve,” may be reworked for Phish’s new set. The band’s treatment of this material was striking: “Pillow Jets” was visually paired with a trip through a forest where multicolored bursts shot up trees like fireworks; chatter for the rest of the run was that it was the single best animation the band played in front of. “Mercy” served a critical tonal link on Friday between “Axilla (Part II)” and “Bathtub Gin,” and “Hey Stranger” and “Oblivion” both received sterling readings on Sunday that lived up to the opportunity cost of other classics that went unplayed. (Conspicuously, at Sphere, Phish steered clear of the tracks comprising Gamehendge, the fantasy song cycle it revisited in full this past New Year’s Eve, save for “Divided Sky.”)

The new music wasn’t limited to Phish’s Sphere performances proper. In the venue’s lobby – adorned with suspended red donuts in keeping with the band’s iconography – gentle guitar music played, composed of loops and layers that Anastasio recorded specially for the occasion. In a sentiment shared by many Phish fans, one X user posted, “Can’t wait for Trey to release ‘Music For Lobbies.'”

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That thoughtful ethos – carefully considering every aspect of the run to deliver a quality experience for dedicated fans –extended to the overarching creative vision of the shows. In the wee hours of the morning of April 18, Sphere posted a video with Phish tagged and the message “It’s only a matter of time…” Ahead of the Sphere run, Holmes had hinted the shows would have loose themes, and as the concerts took place, a matter-based nightly theme – progressing from solid to liquid to gas to plasma – became evident.

The most cohesive and effective was liquid, on the run’s second night. The band played several liquid-related songs across its two sets as visuals took fans from the water’s surface (on “Mercy” and “Bathtub Gin”) to the deep sea (on “Theme From The Bottom,” where unnerving schools of humans –not fish – darted across the screen).

The sequence was not only effective for the visuals, but for the playing… which despite setlist constraints, still breathed. When Phish’s crew hoisted two large jellyfish mobiles during “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing,” it felt monumental: Phish had married visuals on the screen, physical adornments, and outstanding jamming, and harnessed Sphere’s potential in the process.

The band had to sacrifice a degree of spontaneity to hit its marks, which surely frustrated some fans – but the magical payoff was worth it. Besides, the other night’s themes were less pronounced; while Phish seemed a little boxed-in by its setlist choices – and opening night jitters – during the run’s first show, it rarely felt musically constrained as its Sphere run progressed.

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At times, the shows felt like Phish’s own miniature Eras Tour – an ambitious, career-spanning concert experience that recontextualized, and pushed forward, old material while capably integrating newer songs. Phish didn’t dwell on the past, but tastefully nodded to it with the visuals for two songs that date back to the mid-’90s.

For its Friday encore of the tear-jerker “Wading In The Velvet Sea” (this was liquid night, after all), Phish programmed a slew of photos from throughout its history, which by the song’s climax coalesced into a sprawling collage. On Saturday, longtime Phish artist Jim Pollock’s etched illustrations for the first 20 volumes of the LivePhish series (released from 2001 to 2003) were brought to life as concentric rotating bronze bands that stretched to Sphere’s apex –amid so much artistic innovation, a savvy way of nodding to the creative whose visual style is most strongly associated with the band.

And the run’s bookends tied it all together. As tentative fans settled into the seats at the new-to-most venue on Thursday, Phish launched into “Everything’s Right” as geometric beams sprouted from the floor and ceiling behind them. For the closing song of its Sunday encore, the beams – now slightly rounded and colorized –reappeared for “Slave To The Traffic Light.” Gordon’s loping bass line assumed a victory-lap quality: Phish had mastered Sphere in its own distinct way.

How Phish Mastered Sphere With Its Weird, Wonderful Four-Show Residency (2024)
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