Phish is a band that I adore. They are an incredible musical unit that pushes the boundaries of modern rock, weaving between genres and styles while delivering a product that is 100% unique. Not every show is a “perfect” show, but for the most part, the band’s exciting live output beats expectations around every turn, constantly delivering new improvisation and pushing the boundaries of what a rock band can be.
However, while Phish have continued to impress their large and dedicated fanbase for the majority of their 33-year career, they have operated almost entirely outside of the mainstream. They haven’t spent much time on a major label, they’ve spent way more energy on their live performances then their recorded output, they have insisted on being weird and unique, and they have not let the music industry influence their career choices. It’s been an ambitious DIY effort that have certainly made them feel like outsiders, no matter how influential they may have been to the industry around them. And their fans revel in it.
With this outsider attitude in mind, nothing in rock ‘n’ roll compares to Phish’s Halloween tradition of re-creating a beloved classic rock album. As the band spends the majority of their time focusing on improvisation and avoiding the obvious, these tribute sets complete the circle for the band, delivering the most unique and amazing concert experience that, in my humble opinion, cements their legacy as one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
Starting in 1994, Phish have performed nine “musical costumes” on Halloween. While two of them–2013’s Wingsuit set and 2014’s The Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House–were made up of original music, the other seven have focused on classic albums from the 1960s and 1970s, the peak era of rock ‘n’ roll. Starting with The Beatles‘ self-titled record known as “The White Album” in 1994, the band performed Quadrophenia by The Who in 1995, Remain In Light by The Talking Heads in 1996, Loaded by The Velvet Underground in 1998 (and a bonus The Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd just two nights later), Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones in 2009, Waiting For Columbus by Little Feat in 2010, and The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars by David Bowie in 2016. It’s an impressive list of albums for sure, but what made these shows special was the level of hard work and dedication that went into making it a special experience.
Phish didn’t just learn the songs. They became those bands. They learned about the band members and what motivated them to write those songs and why they made the musical choices they made. There’s a reason why they call it a “musical costume” and not a “cover.” This dedication plays a huge role in many people’s love of the band.
I was 15 years old when I discovered Phish. It was 2002, and the band were currently in the middle of their hiatus. When I learned about the Halloween musical costumes (only four had been performed at that point), it blew my young mind away. When I got my hands on copies of the LivePhish albums that had been released of the already-existing costume sets, it sealed my absolute love for the band. Sure, I had been exposed to live recordings, particularly A Live One and Hampton Comes Alive, but nothing prepared me for the sheer perfection of their performances as The Beatles and The Who, two of my absolute favorite bands. Their Remain in Light set turned me on to the Talking Heads, and I remain a huge fan to this day, all thanks to Phish.
When Phish broke up in 2004, I had only been to two shows (three if you count their surreal performance on the marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater) and thought my dream of seeing a Halloween musical costume had simply faded away. I listened to Phish a lot over the next five years, and when they announced their 2009 comeback shows in Hampton, VA, I made sure to be there, and then I made sure to be at as many shows as I could after that magical weekend. When they announced their 2009 Halloween music festival, Festival 8, it was not even a question that I would go.
My experience at Festival 8 was excellent all around, but the memory that of course sticks out the most was the band’s incredible musical costume of Exile On Main Street. Augmented by Sharon Jones on vocals and a few horns from The Dap Kings, the band turned in a powerhouse performance that still rocks me to my core. What impressed me most wasn’t even the music, but the emotional vocal performances by all four members of the band. Phish aren’t known for their vocals by any means, but on this night I witnessed them sing in a way I didn’t know they could. Songs like “Shine a Light” and “Torn and Frayed” stand out as absolute highlights, seeming to fit into Phish’s narrative of success, addiction, death, and re-birth with perfection.
I have now been to five Halloween shows; something that, to this day, I cannot believe. While two of them contained the aforementioned Wingsuit and Chilling, Thrilling sets, three of them have contained note-perfect musical costumes that have left me with my jaw on the ground. Sure, I love seeing the band deliver night after night of exciting improvisation, but there is something completely magical about watching them re-create a beloved classic rock album. Each record they cover seems to have a different thematic purpose. Some of the albums are self-serving, like Waiting For Columbus, some of them are meant to introduce fans to music they love, like Remain In Light, and some of them are pure fan service, as we saw in Las Vegas for Ziggy Stardust. The reason seems not to matter, as each and every time, Phish has delivered a landmark set of music that informed them as a musical unit and has influenced them moving forward.
The world of music seems to notice too. At this year’s Ziggy Stardust set in Las Vegas, I sat directly next to Ed O’Brien from Radiohead, and shockingly watched him and his children play with glow sticks and get lost in the flow of a Phish show, all because they wanted to see the band’s musical David Bowie costume. I also watched John Mayer absolutely rage the front rail while wearing a unicorn onesie, as he came specifically to see Phish’s epic Halloween set. With a six-piece string section and three backup vocalists augmenting the band’s sound, we all witnessed a surreal performance of one of the best albums of all time. They were there because Phish’s Halloween musical costumes have become can’t-miss shows in the live music scene. The secret is out, and that’s fine with me.
Phish’s career may be defined by improvisation and experimentation, but the musical costumes, in my opinion, complete their circle. By performing a set of music that is handled with such precision, such dedication, and such a clear love for the music, the band takes a time out from their own egos and connects their off-center history to that of the mainstream of classic rock. For one night, Phish allows themselves to be part of the larger spectrum of rock music, and by doing so, they connect their fans to the greater spectrum of rock ‘n’ roll fans.
For one night only on Halloween, Phish isn’t a jam band. They are the ultimate champions of rock ‘n’ roll.
[Photos by Dave DeCrescente Photography]