Phish once again offered up a character study for Halloween 2021, inventing a comic book narrative about Sci-Fi Soldier—a “New Miami”-based band from the year 4680—and performing the group’s “album,” Get More Down, complete with futuristic robot suits, pyrotechnics, lasers, and motorized, geometrical LED elements bobbing and weaving over the stage.

The 2021 Sci-Fi Soldier Halloween “costume” set offered new creative elements alongside aesthetic and thematic echoes of 10/31/18’s Kasvot Växt set and New Year’s Eve 2019’s “Clones” gag—from the thrilling to the outlandish to the unsettling. More on that later…

Much like Thursday night (descending numbers) and Saturday night (animals), Sunday’s first of three sets began with a notable setlist theme: whether they were chilling, thrilling, spooky, or seasonal, Halloween-suitable songs filled the 80-minute frame.

A nice pass through morbid instrumental “Buried Alive” got the All Hallows show started, followed by Ween‘s lyrically playful, pumpkin-referencing “Roses Are Free” (for the first time since 12/1/19). As the last notes rang out, Trey quite literally rolled up his sleeves before strumming the riff to another on-theme song, “Ghost”.

This one started mellow and stayed that way for the first few minutes as the band patiently waited for the moment to turn it on. At certain points, it sounded like Trey wanted to move towards “Mountain Jam”—something of a theme throughout this run—but things got exciting when he teased “Drowned” and the band followed him into a jam very reminiscent of what you might hear after a pass through The Who tune.

Things eventually quieted down dramatically, as if the band was ready to finish her off, but out of the serenity came some of the most interesting and ambitious improvisation of the run. Throughout its 27 minutes, this “Ghost” had several segments and motifs, and most of the band members moved through their respective effects to create a vast sonic palette. Add this “Ghost” to the long list of must-listen jams from fall tour 2021.

A potent reading of “Wolfman’s Brother” in the fourth slot gave way to another standout piece of improv on “Kill Devil Falls”. It feels important to mention here how much the Allman Brothers Band felt represented in Trey’s playing during the set. This was never more apparent than during “KDF” as Trey Anastasio telegraphed fragments of an unmistakable ABB sound without directly quoting anything in particular.

True to its name, the back half of this “Kill Devil Falls” descended into the underworld with creaking synths and ripping guitars before moving into… “Free”? The choice sent puzzled murmurs rippling through the crowd: “how does ‘Free’ fit in with the ‘Halloween songs’ theme?”

Despite there being plenty of spooky songs still on the table, the ensuing “David Bowie” confirmed that the thematic thread had been cut short early—one of various elements of the performance that would wind up feeling somewhat under-realized. No matter—the band pushed through a rocky start to craft a particularly dialed-in “Bowie” jam that harnessed the song’s patented set-closing energy in full.

During the break, as classic electronic music played, the stage was rearranged to include four platforms, two square and two circle, one for each band member. Meanwhile, fans leafed through the Sci-Fi Soldier comic book—this year’s substitute for the typical Halloween Phishbill—to help decode what they were about to watch.

The book is packed with fun sci-fi and comic tropes, veiled environmental allegories, and attempts at universe-building within the Phish canon a la Marvel or D.C. In true Phish fashion, the narrative is strange, silly, and packed with in-jokes.

For your convenience, here’s a summary: Four “Sci-Fi Soldiers” from the distant future attempt to save the home planet of a band of ancient prophets (Kasvot Växt of Earth) from a self-inflicted apocalyptic event set to take place in 2071 (The Howling). Using the prophets’ teachings about the “nine cubes,” which allow you to freeze time and view nine possible realities, the Sci-Fi Soldiers embark on a quest to find the great oracle, Holy Blankenstein (a.k.a. Icculus, per Saturday’s “Harpua”), learn how to stop The Howling (put a blank space where Earthlings’ minds should be on 10/31/21), find human vessels to use for the task (those Phish guys “know how to play the music of the prophets”), ride the time stream to Earth, and set out as the members of Phish (Clueless Wallob as Trey Anastasio, Pat Malone as Page McConnell, Paulie Roots as Jon Fishman, and Half-Nelson as Mike Gordon) to save the planet by helping it “get more down” (read the whole thing here).

Sound confusing? It is. Even the next morning, sitting with a copy of the comic book in our hotel room, the story is almost too meta to follow. With past Phish Halloween cover albums, the “Phishbill” has given fans a sort of roadmap to the costume set, a way for people who are unfamiliar with the source material to dive in and follow along. Even with deviations from the tradition like Kasvot Växt’s í rokk (2018), the Phishbill plainly conveyed the prerequisite knowledge (this is an obscure album by an obscure band from 1981) before the set itself served as the proverbial plot twist (the band and album are fictional and Phish is actually performing new songs as an alter-ego).

The Sci-Fi Soldier comic is both a creative twist on the format and a beautifully drawn work of art, but it made for a suboptimal guide to a live set of new music, its conceptual density and science-fiction conceit generating more questions than answers. In fact, fans could probably glean more insight about the story from Saturday night’s “Harpua” than from the comic itself. While all its talk of “Holy Blankenstein” and “turtles touching donuts” being the “very stuff of the universe” sounded an awful lot like gibberish that night, the “Harpua” narration sounds more like a sincere explanation today. Most of us thought the Jimmy nonsense was meant to throw us off the scent of the real album. In actuality, the band was giving us every genuine “dot,” knowing full well that we didn’t have the information needed to connect them. A tip of the hat to these magnificent trolls…

The set began with the disembodied voices of the time-travelers. As Jon Fishman/Paulie Roots exclaimed, “I hope these people are ready to get more down.”

“Time to save a planet,” added McConnell/Pat Malone. “Prepare for dematerialization,” added Gordon/Half-Nelson. “Entering arena in 3… 2… 1…” concluded the voice of Anastasio/Clueless Wallob.

With that, four colored tubes descended from the ceiling over the stage and four futuristic beings beamed down—blue (Page), green (Trey), red (Fish), and yellow (Mike), left-to-right, the same colors and configuration as the Clone gag at NYE 2019 (everything’s overlapping). When the tubes rose back to the rafters, the Sci-Fi body-snatched members of Phish had appeared on the four platforms donning shiny, futuristic, Daft Punk-like helmets and spacesuits (not exact replicas of the outfits in the comic but rather updated approximations, per usual with live-action comic book adaptations). Also of note were the unique instruments played by the costumed band, from Trey’s clear green acrylic guitar to Mike’s neon bass.

Once situated on their respective LED circle/square platforms—with mirrored versions hanging behind them on motorized pulleys that overlapped in various patterns—the band members launched into Get More Down.

The twelve-song set of mostly heavy, repetitive, electro-funk vamps employed many of the new sounds added to Phish’s arsenal this year—from Page and Trey’s new synth sounds to Fishman’s drum pad vocal samples—as well as a bevy of flashy production elements, from flamethrowers to pink pyrotechnics to thick webs of lasers to a video cube. Per the comic’s narrative, the songs served as the futuristic foursome’s clip show-style retelling of their sci-fi odyssey to Earth on 10/31/21 for this very performance.

“Knuckle Bone Broth Avenue”, the funky opener, featured a distinctly “Turtle In The Clouds”-like Trey/Mike choreography segment. The heavy synths continued on the title track, “Get More Down”, based amusingly around organically-sung imitations of Fishman’s common “laughing” drum pad sample.

The feedback grew louder and spurts of fire (!) blasted from behind each band member as they moved into simultaneously silly and sinister set highlight “Egg In A Hole” and the bizarre, bass-heavy, Phish-quoting “Thanksgiving” (“It’s a shame about the blood”).

“We are Sci-Fi Soldier from the year 4680,” said Trey/Clueless. “We’re happy to be here with you humanoids tonight. This next song is very important to us on our planet, we hope you’ll hear the message.” That led the way to “Clear Your Mind”, another Phish quote-filled song that seems likely to make its way into the repertoire moving forward.

New production elements continued to shuffle in as the set went on. “The 9th Cube” brought a string of equations and a flurry of turtles and donuts to a cube-shaped screen above Fishman/Roots, while “The Inner Reaches of Outer” featured strings of pink pyrotechnic sparks shooting behind the stage.

Next came the dark and ominous “Don’t Doubt Me” with its priceless line, “he does handstands in grand fashion, but he’s a genuine asshole”—but something here was off. The hanging LED square above Trey had started to swing awkwardly, and before long it was pulled from the swirling “shape pool” and parked in the rafters for the remainder of the show.

Yes, you read that right. On Halloween 2021, when Phish directly referenced the platform mishap from NYE 2019 (“They’ve been cloned before,” the Sci-Fi Soldier comic reads, “but something went wrong… Unfortunate platform”), Trey’s green square malfunctioned again.

phish, phish halloween, phish clone, phish sci-fi soldier

[Screengrab via Sci-Fi Soldier comic]

Since he wasn’t riding said square this time around, the malfunction’s only real effect on the performance was the missed opportunity for lighting symmetry on the final few songs—but its effect on the crowd was unavoidable. Here we were, back for the first special holiday show since the big MSG mishap, and a mechanical issue seemed to once again threaten the band’s safety. It’s hard to get lost in a futuristic sci-fi concept album comprised of songs you don’t know when you’re worried about a lighting rig falling on the guitarist in real life.

The set’s final few songs felt like a blur, any reactions to “The Unwinding”, “Something Living Here”, “The Howling”, and “I Am In Miami” clouded by a general air of anxiety over the production/safety issue. The arena seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as the colored tubes once again descended to beam the Sci-Fi Soldiers back up, just as they had arrived.

Sci-Fi Soldier – “I Am In Miami” – 10/31/21

[Video: Richard Wolf]

“We are the Phish from the year 1983, happy to be here,” Trey said as he, Mike, Fish, and Page finally retook the stage for set three as their usual, present-day selves.

As is the case at many a three-set holiday show, the third and final frame was mostly an afterthought. An opening “Carini” and a mid-set “Soul Planet” (featuring quotes of “Knuckle Bone Broth Avenue” and “Don’t Doubt Me”) offered some shimmers of promise, but the set came and went without much fanfare before a pretty “Harry Hood” brought the show, run, and tour home in the encore slot.

This has been a truly incredible tour. Packed with high-level improv, unusual setlist selections, bust-outs, fake-outs, themes, and more, it holds up next to any stretch of shows the band has played in the post-reunion era. The run leading up to the Halloween show presented some of the most thoroughly thought-out, thematically cohesive Phish shows in recent memory (i.e. they had to meticulously plan Thursday’s “numbers” setlist to make it add up to exactly 4680 in order to tie it into the Halloween theme).

Maybe that’s why the 10/31/21 show felt like it missed the mark in many ways. From the inexplicably abandoned first-set “Halloween” theme to the complicated Sci-Fi comic book storyline, the repetitive nature of the songwriting to the hyped but never-utilized Jimmy Instagram page, the troubling production malfunction to the unavoidable comparisons to Kasvot Växt—which employed a similar concept but executed it more effectively—squeezing too many elements into a cool-on-paper but difficult-to-execute stunt largely led to a lack of cohesion that detracted from Sci-Fi Soldier’s live impact.

Of course, that was just in the moment. The new songs are already starting to grow on me as I write this, and that process will surely continue. This is characteristic 2021 Phish darkness in the form of a new set of songs, an undoubtedly exciting prospect for fans that promises to pay dividends down the road.

Maybe we’re just stuck in the present, while the band has its sights set on the future. I wouldn’t even be surprised if this winds up being a cult favorite for Phish fans years from now—the Halloween set that was, in so many ways, ahead of its time.

Listen to a full audio recording of the Phish Sci-Fi Soldier 2021 Halloween show via LivePhish. Scroll down to check out a gallery of photos from the show courtesy of photographer Peter Wallace. For more photos of the Sci-Fi Soldier set, click here.

Next up for Phish is the band’s annual New Year’s Eve run at Madison Square Garden in December and early January. For more information, head here.

Click below to revisit Live For Live Music‘s full coverage of Phish fall tour 2021 including photos, videos, and concert recaps.

Phish Fall Tour 2021 Recaps

10/15/21 Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, CA – Recap
10/16/21 Chase Center, San Francisco, CA – Recap
10/17/21 Chase Center, San Francisco, CA – Recap
10/19/21 Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, OR – Recap
10/20/21 Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, OR – Recap
10/22/21 Ak-Chin Pavilion, Phoenix, AZ – Recap
10/23/21 NICU Amphitheatre, Chula Vista, CA – Recap
10/24/21 The Forum, Inglewood, CA – Recap
10/26/21 Santa Barbara Bowl, Santa Barbara, CA – Recap
10/28 MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, NV – Recap
10/29 MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, NV – Recap
10/30 MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, NV – Recap
10/31 MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, NV

Setlist [via phish.net]: Phish | MGM Grand Garden Arena | Las Vegas, NV | 10/31/21

Set One: Buried Alive, Roses Are Free > Ghost, Wolfman’s Brother, Kill Devil Falls > Free, David Bowie

Set Two: Knuckle Bone Broth Avenue[1], Get More Down[1], Egg in a Hole[1], Thanksgiving[1], Clear Your Mind[1] > The 9th Cube[1], The Inner Reaches of Outer[1], Don’t Doubt Me[1], The Unwinding[1], Something Living Here[1], The Howling[1], I Am in Miami[1]

Set Three: Carini > Lonely Trip, Soul Planet > Death Don’t Hurt Very Long > Twist, Drift While You’re Sleeping

Encore: Harry Hood

[1] Debut

For the second set, the band’s “musical costume” was all debuted originals, performed as the invented band Sci-Fi Soldier (a 14-page comic book distributed upon entry detailed the group’s adventure to save the planet). For that set, the band performed in elaborate costumes (helmets and all), with alternate instruments, each playing within a flashing/glowing shape (two circles and two squares), after descending (in the form of holograms) from the ceiling in cylinders of colored light. Knuckle Bone Broth Avenue included extended choreography by Trey and Mike. During Get More Down, matching upright geometric shapes danced around behind the band, reducing to the two circles overlapped by Egg in a Hole, which featured pyrotechnics. Before Clear Your Mind, Trey introduced the band as from the year 4680 (the total of the October 28, 2021 songs as noted during that night’s encore-ending Grind). During The 9th Cube, there were projections of donuts and turtles on a cube above the band. Fireworks rained down on the stage during The Inner Reaches of Outer. For I Am in Miami, Trey switched to an acoustic guitar and the band stood together at stage front with the four-mic a cappella setup. After the set, the band departed as holograms back up the colored tubes. The start of Harry Hood included alternate lyrics (Holy Blankenstein). Soul Planet contained Knuckle Bone Broth Avenue and Don’t Doubt Me quotes.