Halloween has become so much more than the Day of the Dead. True, long ago, we Americans killed that notion upon adoption of the holiday, but still it has transformed into a nation-wide event, a hot-button news topic, a huge marketing campaign, and a chance for everyone to be someone different. Not only are little kids and cautious parents dressing up but musicians are no exception to this tradition and certainly weren’t in this past Halloween.
Some bands go the more traditional route, wearing matching outfits or a group costume. Bluegrass band Poor Man’s Whiskey, for example, dressed as the Wizard of Oz crew while performing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and they chose to extend this prank throughout the year. Some bands like to do particularly shocking and special covers, like Widespread Panic’s versions of “Werewolves of London,” by Warren Zevon or “L.A. Woman” by The Doors. Others take on their favorite musicians stage persona, like at Death by Audio where the Permanent Wave ladies organized a Halloween cover show featuring “Springsteen,” “Salt-N-Pepa,” and “Blondie.”
While all these jokesters come close, the ultimate Halloween band is Phish. While they’ve performed on the holiday only a handful of times, Phish is fairly well known for donning a different musical costume every year they play on Halloween night. Since the tradition began in 1994, Phish has played six 3-set shows on 10/31, and one surprise show on November 2nd, 1998, with the second set featuring an entire album from another artist, usually one very influential on the band itself. These shows have become very special to fans and are typically indicative of new songs joining the Phish rotation.
For the first year of this skillful joke, Phish opened the selection up to fan votes, not provoking much participation, but ending up with The Beatles’ White Album by a landslide. In a classic ‘trick or treat’move, the sound technician played “Speak to Me,” making the audience think the Pink Floyd album was coming up. In an instant, he switched to a recording of Ed Sullivan introducing The Beatles and the band jumped right into “Back in the USSR”. For another treat (or trick?), drummer Jon Fishman did in fact undress when “Revolution 9” called for it. This show also included a costume contest during the encore in which fans were called on stage and a winner was selected by the band.
In the historic spirit of pleasing their fans, Phish tried again in 1995 to conduct a voting system for their Halloween cover, but the top choice was in fact not a real option for the band, as they discovered after learning about half of it. Found to be too effects heavy and moderately offensive, Frank Zappa’s Joe Garagehad to be replaced with the runner-up, The Who’s Quadrophenia. In an effort to truly embody The Who, after their “My Generation” encore (not on the album, but a cover-worthy song nonetheless), they smashed their instruments and threw their stuff around before storming offstage. Second set also included a highly respected, 40-minute “You Enjoy Myself” that some say has yet to be matched.
They took on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light with drummer Karl Perazzo from Santana’s band and a full horn section, as they did for Quadrophenia, in 1996. Two years later, they chose The Velvet Underground’sLoaded to perform on their second night in Las Vegas, where they revealed the fan-favorite and jammed out “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Two days later they were off to Utah and found to their dismay, a fairly empty venue. In smiting those who didn’t make the trek out there, the band performed rarities like “Tube”, “Drowned” fromQuardophenia, “Driver”, and “Bittersweet Motel”, the ladder two with acoustic guitar, and in the middle of the legendary “Harpua”, Phish started playing Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety. They also encored the show with a cover of Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit”. For an unknown reason, this hugely circulated show was never released on a Live Phish volume like the rest of their cover sets.
It seemed that the tradition had ended when the band ended all together, but hope was not lost when, in 2008, they announced their reunion and again a year later when they announced their Halloween festival, Festival 8. In anticipation for the extravaganza, Phish.com hosted a creepy countdown of album cover possibilities, with one album axed or stabbed every day until October 31st. When the blood match was settled, The Rolling Stones’ double album Exile on Main Street reigned supreme. In its company (and potentials for the future) included David Bowie’s Hunky Dory and The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Electric Ladyland. Fortunately, nothing was lost in their selection as they brought on a fantastic horn section accompanied by the stunning vocalist Sharon Jones to assist them in bringing Exile to the stage. All the special guests joined the band for a “Suzy Greenberg” closer that blew every other “Suzy” out of the water.
2010 brought Phish performing Little Feat’s live album Waiting for Columbus and my very first Phishbill. In the tradition of Broadway playbills, Phish publishes a ‘Phishbill’ that gets handed out upon entrance to the show and explains the relationship between the band and the album. It also features jokes from the band to the fan that some people take very seriously (i.e. changing the title “The Divided Sky” to just “Divided Sky” due to lack of the word “the” in the lyrics).
Halloween 2011 was a Phish-less event, only making the previous six that much more special. For an in-depth look at the Phish Halloween tradition, The Barn has put together comprehensive graphs detailing each show and the songs featured throughout its tenure. These profound events are what make Halloween particularly special for Phish fans, and to be transformed by their power, you may just have to listen for yourself.
Originally published on BreakThru Radio, 11/4/2011