Phish Sphere 2024: No more questions

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Phish fans finally got their chance to luxuriate in the massive embrace of Sphere Las Vegas during the band’s four-night run last month. After U2 concluded their breathtaking and groundbreaking 40-night residency to christen the venue, from September to March, Phish stepped in with their own take on this brand new orb to make their art — giving both fanbases an opportunity to spar. But why spar?

U2’s vast empire of global followers stood in stark contrast to Phish’s tight-knit tribe. How many people are we? How many Phish fans are there, really? No one actually knows.

U2’s devoted fans and Phish’s legion of jam junkies were thrust into each other’s orbit in an amusing and rare crossover, sparking a contest to see which fanbase could outdo the other in being the most annoying.

I attended 10 of U2’s 40 shows and all of Phish’s performances at Sphere, and I was constantly grilled about the venue by my Phish-loving friends. Hence, the jesting subtitle of this piece. Now, Phish fans know Sphere’s splendor firsthand. And U2 fans who’ve never even heard of Phish can stop questioning the band’s legitimacy and move on with their lives. The majority of them do not give much of a shit.

U2’s meticulously orchestrated performances (this doesn’t mean everything they do is orchestrated, quite the contrary, mostly — look it up) captivated audiences worldwide, while Phish’s improvisational escapades left their smaller yet fiercely loyal army of fans entranced. Phish’s insular following over the past nearly 41 years consists of die-hards who will traverse great distances to catch a run of shows.

While their numbers may be smaller than expected, they have sustained the band for over four decades. It’s like the world’s friendliest multi-level marketing scheme, with the most pleasant and guilt-free return on investment.

Both U2 and Phish capitalized on Sphere’s advanced technological haven, showcasing extraordinary visuals and auditory wonders. While U2 set an impressive standard (as usual), Phish elevated it even further, crafting whirlwinds of video, animations, motion graphics, glorious outdoor, ocean, and space scenes, sound, light, and a 160-foot-high dog (still trying to find out this adorable pup’s name) that left even their most insufferably outspoken fans agog.

There were tightly timed pieces, where programming for graphics and video needed to be in sync with a profoundly planned production — and then more manipulative pieces, which could react to the jams in “Pillow Jets,” “Split Open And Melt,” “Tweezer,” “Fuego,” “Chalk Dust Torture,” “2001,” “A Wave Of Hope,” and dozens more.

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📺 “Lifeboy” from night one (April 18, 2024) \\ WATCH
📺 “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing,” “Prince Caspian,” and “You Enjoy Myself” from night two (April 19, 2024) \\ WATCH
📺 “I Am Hydrogen,” “Chalk Dust Torture,” and “Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.” from night three (April 20, 2024) \\ WATCH
📺 “2001” from night four (April 21, 2024) \\ WATCH

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Phish harnessed Sphere’s surround sound sorcery, providing fans with an immersive and unforgettable experience. With hundreds of thousands of speakers nestled behind the colossal screen, they took us on an elaborate auditory expressive and revealing journey — one we have never heard from this band. From Page McConnell’s organ reverberating on our right to his piano resonating above (he’s coming from all directions!). And Trey Anastasio’s supply of guitar effects expressing spatially and all around us, with one delay in the corner, and perhaps another in the ceiling. And his guitar’s reverb changing directions at will.

Mike Gordon’s bass mastery was a revelation, cutting through the mix with precision and clarity. Phish fans, who have loyally followed him through countless performances, could finally revel in the complexities of his playing like never before. Sphere benefitted Mike the most.

A contrast to U2’s use of audio, as both band’s approached Sphere from different origins, yet drew from similar influences. They both love Brian Eno, Trey loves U2, but does Bono know Phish?

As Trey mentioned in a recent interview, U2’s use of mono sound at Sphere was well-suited to their style. It was as if you were sitting in your living room with The Edge’s guitar coming through crystal clear, Bono’s whispers in their ballads audible even from the furthest reaches of the venue, and Adam Clayton’s bass rumbling beneath you (thanks to the use of vibrating haptics, which Gordon also utilized fabulously), and reaching your soul.

Phish’s approach also worked for them. They achieved their goal of providing a listening experience unlike any other, with their sound enveloping us in unexpected ways throughout the nights.

Despite the extraordinary and lauded performances, the Phish and U2 fan communities clashed on social media. Always a boon for human devolution!

Phish loyalists questioned U2’s musical authenticity, while U2 devotees dismissed Phish’s jam-infused cacophony. The debates often intensified, but in the end, both bands showcased their distinct talents at Sphere, even if their fanbases occasionally locked scowls online (but in person: all smiles!). Some of the discussions I had with lurking basement dwellers made me question society as a whole, our education system, and more. Not that I wasn’t already doing that. I love both bands so much!

Neither Phish nor U2 own this space — other exceptional artists will use Sphere as their canvas and continue to push the boundaries of live performance. But the bar has been set extremely high.

With Dead & Company’s 24-night residency approaching, Sphere remains a boundless round room for artists across genres. The moment ends, for now, and I can’t wait to see who plays next.

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Addendum: This comment is from a reader in response to this piece first going live. I find it to be a perfect statement.

“Musically and in terms of approach and presentation, these bands couldn’t be more different. What connects them is their love and appreciation for their loyal fans. They have both nurtured that love for many decades. That’s authenticity.”