Transforming a Tradition


After Trey unleashed a soaring Duane Allman-esque solo to punctuate a standout version of “Down With Disease” in Reading, Pennsylvania on October 29th, the final show before Halloween 2013, the rumor that Phish would cover The Allman Brothers’ Eat A Peach seemed to be coming to fruition. The band had been featuring, bluesy, Allmans-like peaks to their jams all tour, and this one felt like the tipping point towards their forthcoming Halloween costume. But while fans were busy scouring jams for clues as to what might transpire in Atlantic City’s cover set, the band was hatching another plan altogether.

Since coming back in 2009, Phish had delivered two scintillating Halloween sets, covering a pair of double albums from the annals of classic rock history—The Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” and Little Feat’s “Waiting for Columbus.” After skipping fall tours in 2011 and 2012, the band found itself amidst a stellar fall run in 2013 as they prepared to descend on Boardwalk Hall for their second Halloween party down the shore in New Jersey.

Keeping everyone guessing until the last moment, fans were thrown a curveball when they stepped into the venue on Friday night, receiving a Phishbill announcing that the band would perform Wingsuit—“an album from the future”—a set of twelve unheard, original songs. Phish would debut a host of new material—half of which they had written together after listening to recent jams—that they would begin to record in the days following Fall Tour. With this unprecedented move, the band broke from their well-loved Halloween tradition and jumped into the unknown with their fans.

10/31/13 (Jake Silco)

Phish had only approached such a daring feat a couple times in their career, debuting six originals at a one-off benefit show in Lowell, Massachusetts in May of 1995, and seven then six, respectively, on the first two nights of Summer ’97 in Dublin, Ireland. But of all the crazy things the band had done in their 30 years, they had never before played an entire set of new, original music, and certainly never flirted with such a feat in such a high-profile affair.

There was no greater risk that Phish could have taken on Halloween. Many Phish fans have a notorious reputation for hating on new music as Trey explained in an anecdote from Wingsuit’s Phishbill: “Every time we’ve put out a new Phish album—literally every time—a certain contingent of fans has felt that the band they know and love is coming to an end. It’s never true.” He went on to recall how he was heckled in 1990 after debuting “Reba,” one of the band’s most hallowed compositions. Needless to say, Phish didn’t expect their audience to lap up their newest offerings in Atlantic City, but they put their wingsuits on and played them anyway. And in doing so, they shocked a fan base that thought it had virtually seen it all.

Through reading their essay and interview in the Phishbill, the band’s energy for their upcoming set became palpable. They were clearly excited to get their songs “dirty and mess them up a little” before recording them, while having “the live energy of a Phish audience directly involved in the making of [their] new album.” Page added that the band was eager to make a statement that in their 3oth year they “were a vital, creative force still, and in some ways, more so than ever.”

10/31/13 (Jake Silco)

There is nothing quite like hearing new Phish music for the first time, and the Wingsuit set put the entire audience—noobs and vets alike—on the same plane, transforming everyone into first-timers. This aspect provided the most novel element of the Halloween set which became an experience in collective discovery; expectations were impossible. The audience learned the nature and dynamics of these songs in real-time with the band. Wingsuit was a collaborative exercise; an unprecedented gesture in live music in which—most often—fans come to hear the familiar. How many other bands could step on stage and captivate their audience with 90 minutes of brand new material?

With their Wingsuit performance, Phish opened the studio doors to their fans, allowing them to be a part of the creative process. The songs of the set varied in style, and many would soon become staples of the band’s live rotation in the following years, including “Wingsuit,” “Fuego,” “The Line,” “Waiting all Night,” “Wombat,” Devotion to a Dream,” “555,” and “Winterqueen.”

Phish didn’t have to take such an audacious risk. The guys could have easily memorized another album from the past and crushed it. It probably would have been easier and less stressful. But choosing the road less traveled has defined Phish’s ethos from their genesis. Throughout their career, their audience had come to expect the unexpected from the band, and Halloween 2013 was another such instance. But little did they know that Wingsuit was the first step towards a new, even greater, Halloween tradition.

2014—Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House

10/31/14 (Eric Battuello)

As Halloween 2014 approached, the door was now wide open for anything Phish wanted to do. The scene had shifted to Las Vegas for the first time since 1998 and anticipation for the tour-ending weekend was sky high. What transpired, however, far surpassed anything anyone could have possibly imagined.

Following their own lead of 2013, Phish again performed a set of totally original music, but this time they folded their old tradition of covering an album into the mix. In the middle of the afternoon of the 31st, the Phishbill leaked and fans learned that this year’s cover album would be Walt Disney’s 1964 Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House. But with the assistance of Google, everyone also quickly learned that this album contained no music—only short, spoken vignettes with accompanying sound effects. Hmm. What was going on here?

As it turned out, Phish wrote ten new instrumentals to accompany the album’s eerie narrations while incorporating Disney’s sound effects into these jams via samples triggered by Page. The result? A sublime mash-up of fantasy and psychedelia that plunged the depths of imagination. The band interpreted each scene from the album with an instrumental passage, inviting audience members to be active participants in envisioning mental movies for each musical narrative. Disney’s sketches set the scenes and Phish took over from there, leaving their audience spellbound in awe. When all was said and done, Chilling, Thrilling, as it would come to be known, was the most well-loved Halloween set the band had ever played. Never had Phish honed in on the spirit of All-Hallows Eve like they did on this night, and with a set’s worth of original music without lyrics or songs, proper, this performance was many a psychonaut’s dream.

10/31/14 II Las Vegas, NV (Eric Battuello)

The production of Chilling, Thrilling was as ambitious as the music. A massive haunted house crumbled after the second “song,” revealing an elevated square stage on which the band performed in white tuxedos and full makeup above a troupe of dancing zombies amidst an elaborate graveyard. Positioned across from each other to enhance focused communication, the band went all out in creating a ghoulish spectacle unmatched in any previous Halloween set.

And then there was the music, itself. These instrumentals were not thrown together haphazardly, but meticulously developed with each boasting a cohesive theme to go along with Disney’s scenes while leaving plenty of room for improvisation. A few of the pieces—“Martian Monster,” “Your Pet Cat,” and “The Dogs”—soon become hallmarks of the band’s live rotation, while two others—“The Very Long Fuse” and “The Birds”—were played less frequently. Though the pieces have not developed into the jam vehicles that many fans envisioned at the time, they are always choice reminders of this special night in Vegas.

The power of hearing new Phish music in real-time without expectations or reference points that underlined Wingsuit once again infused the experience of Chilling, Thrilling, but this time the band wrapped an entire concept and production around the music, bringing these pieces to life in a way that did not take place in Atlantic City. There was much more scaffolding for the audience this time around as the band took them on a musical adventure not unlike a Disney ride from childhood. All the audience had to do was pull down the safety bar and let go.

2018—I Rokk

10/31/18 (Keith Griner via Live for Live Music)

After a 2016 detour in David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, in which Phish honored the late icon, 2018 seemed primed for a return to the band’s newly minted Halloween tradition. And this time, they flipped the idea on its head once again. Not only did Phish play a full set of original music, they fabricated an obscure Scandinavian band, Kasvot Vaxt, and set out to cover their long-lost album of lore, I Rokk. Though it was clear from the get-go that this was another in the long line of the band’s elaborate gags, one still heard stories of fans who bought into the tongue-in-cheek ploy hook, line and sinker, truly believing that Kasvot Vaxt existed.

The Kasvot Vaxt set featured not just short instrumentals, but a totally new “album” of ten, fully fleshed out Phish songs, complete with hilarious, pastiche lyrics and improvisational passages. This Halloween performance was a comedy show and a psychedelic rock concert mashed into one—a quintessentially Phishy maneuver. In I Rokk, Phish combined the strongest elements of Wingsuit—a brand new set of developed songs, and Chilling, Thrilling—a full-blown, conceptual production—into their most ambitious Halloween set ever played.

Jaws hung to the floor throughout the arena in laughter and disbelief as the band rolled out one incredible song after another while donning Nordic-white outfits on an illuminated, white stage. Everyone in attendance knew they were witnessing something incredibly special as this set transpired—one of those indelible moments in Phish folklore. These songs had obvious staying power from moment one, and it was clear that Phish wrote them with the intention of keeping them around far beyond this Halloween spectacle. “Turtle in the Clouds,” We Are Come to Outlive Our Brains,” “The Final Hurrah, “Say it to me S.A.N.T.O.S,” and “Death Don’t Hurt Very Long” have all become central in the Phish catalog and crowd favorites since Halloween night, while “Passing Through” and “Cool Amber and Mercury” have also proven to be worthy additions to any set. And unlike any previous Halloween set, Phish has since performed every song from I Rokk in their live shows.

10/31/18 (Jake Silco via Phish)

The band collaboratively wrote the Kasvot Vaxt songs and they represent Phish song-crafting at its finest, replete with catchy melodies, infectious motifs, deep pockets, and their trademark sense of absurdist humor in instantly memorable lyrics such as “I’m the glue in your magnet,” “This is what space smells like, “Faceplant into rock,” and “Cluuueless Wallob.” This set of songs injected the Phish repertoire with the most clever, innovative and fresh-sounding material in a long time, and much like Chilling, Thrilling—but even more enthusiastically—everyone in the community was on board. The Kasvot Vaxt performance became an instant sensation among fans, while the band responded by creating all sorts of merch to commemorate the special night. Phish and their fans collectively reveled in I Rokk‘s afterglow as everyone’s energy bubbled over throughout the months off and right into the New Year’s Run, where the band excitedly opened the 28th with “We Are Come to Outlive Our Brains.”

It short, I Rokk was one of the absolute peak performances of Phish’s illustrious career. This set built upon what they had learned through Wingsuit and Chilling, Thrilling and could not have transpired without the stepping stones of those previous performances. Traditions take time to develop, and Phish took a bold step in 2013, breaking from their time-honored rite of a cover album and forging forth with a new idea of how a Halloween set could be crafted. Challenging themselves to reinvent Halloween rather than resting on a well-proven formula, Phish veered off the path of least resistance to create a new tradition that has been even more invigorating for the band and more spectacular for their community. Over the span of three performances, Phish has built a new Halloween ritual that stands out in their prolific musical legacy and has set a new standard of greatness for the band that always seems to have a new trick or treat up its sleeve.

10/31/18 (Jake Silco via Phish)

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