Phish October 31, MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Improv act Phish gets handily dismissed for a number of reasons: its long and exploratory jams, its whimsical and largely unsentimental lyrics, its embrace of the musical fringe and rejection of the pop status quo, its easy-to-stereotype fanbase—and humankind’s general tendency to deride anything it doesn’t spend more than 10 minutes trying to understand. Phish’s expert ability to turn the skeleton of a song into a new musical journey on the spot and provide the possibility of surprise anytime during a live set highlights a spontaneity depressingly absent in modern rock and pop.
That said, I doubt anyone last night walking into the sold-out MGM Grand Garden Arena had expected the Vermont quartet to offer an original body of music inspired by a 1964 Disney kiddie record comprised of spooky sound effects and narration. But that’s what happened when Phish unveiled its “musical costume”—its irregular tradition of covering another artist’s entire album during its in-demand Halloween night concerts—10 feet atop its stage in a haunted-house facade, the second of three hour-plus sets Friday night.
So many previous costumes had indicated obvious band influences of both the canonical and cult-favorite varieties—it covered Velvet Underground’s Loaded at the Thomas & Mack in 1998; in 2009, its go at the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street was considered a safe choice—but never had Phish taken the spirit of the holiday and infused it into its Halloween show. That changed last night, when its mostly inspired take on an old childhood staple, Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House, merged its imaginative, genre-melding musical capacity with the traditional sights and sounds of All Hallows’ Eve.
What began as a mysterious, under-sampled and largely uncompelling experiment—especially during the first two songs, when the band (costumed in white suits and zombie face makeup) performed shrouded by the haunted house—eventually evolved into a fully realized work with a few of the night’s standout numbers. Three songs in, a dance-worthy jam called “The Dogs” hinted at the concept’s promise, and a rollicking piano number with Chilling, Thrilling’s unnerving cat yowls (“Your Pet Cat”) delivered on it, sending the crowd into delirium. The spaghetti western-evoking “The Unsafe Bridge” saw Phish entering Ennio Morricone territory. On “Chinese Water Torture,” keyboardist Page McConnell deftly tinkled out piano effects that approximated the song title’s agonizing falling drops. “The Birds” brought back the boogie, with its Hitchcockian sound and vocal samples—“They attack!” is destined for Phish meme glory—beckoning as many cheers as the number’s recurring four-note melody. And the climactic concluding track, “Martian Monster”—with its own potentially viral slogan (the album’s “Your trip is short” sample)—had each member excelling at his instrument and some ghouled-up characters coming back out for a dance routine.
They would all end the set with a bow, which ended well before the audience’s standing ovation. If that’s any indication—to say nothing of Phish “phan” enthusiasm online, where the set (and rest of the concert) was streamed for free when the band’s for-purchase webcast option went awry—this musical costume will go down as one of the most memorable.
Phish—which performed most of the show in front of cemetery gates and ominously lit trees, and its second set in between tombstones with chuckle-inducing names like “Bono’s Humility”—even extended the holiday theme to its first and third sets, opening with its own “Buried Alive” and “Ghost” and encoring with versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Is This What You Wanted?” (chorus: “And is this what you wanted/To live in a house that is haunted/By the ghost of you and me?") and The Edgar Winter Group’s oft-covered “Frankenstein,” the latter highlighted by some of lighting man Chris Kuroda’s best work all night and McConnell performing with a keytar. McConnell earlier evoked Wendy Carlos (who did soundtrack work on A Clockwork Orange and The Shining) during “Scent of a Mule,” with bassist Mike Gordon also dreaming up creepy '80s horror noises with what seemed to be his effects pedals.
If the night belonged to any one Phish member, it was McConnell. Standing behind a formidable mission control that included a piano and several synthesizers, he injected a wide variety of sounds and tones that added texture and depth during verses and choruses and leads from other band members, and transported onlookers when the spotlight was on him. He (and his clavinet keyboard) especially contributed to the night’s heavy infusion of funk, complimenting Gordon’s versatile—and frequently melodic—grooves, especially during the particularly punchy first set (see “Big Black Furry Creature From Mars” and “Wolfman’s Brother,” both also Halloween-appropriate inclusions).
Frontman Trey Anastasio rose to the occasion as well with several inspired and well-executed guitar solos, evidenced during “Reba,” where he assumed his signature face-up/mouth-agape position, lost in a moment he otherwise musically commandeered, and leaving no fret untouched during a wonderfully shifty “Guyute.” Both McConnell and Anastasio shone during an epic version of “Sand,” the former playing exquisite organ arpeggios and the latter picking out a spacewalk of a solo ahead of the song’s umpteen transitions and a surprise reprise of “Tweezer,” a highlight during the third set’s uninterrupted, four-song opening that also featured a jubilant cover of TV on the Radio’s “Golden Age.”
As for the colorful capacity throng, which filled the seat-less GA floor and the seats behind the stage, about two-thirds of its members dressed up in costumes for the occasion. Some of the most notable getups included: a Neil Young (complete with guitar, harmonica holder and sideburns), a dude with a fence around the lower half of his head in homage to Home Improvement neighbor Wilson, Beaker the Muppet, someone adorn in a Twister-mat robe (with the spinner worn like a graduation cap), a David Byrne wearing his oversized Stop Making Sense suit and the CD cover for Remain in Light (a former Phish musical costume), several folks adorned in electroluminescent-wire bodysuits glowing in the darkened arena and, from The Big Lebowski, a few spot-on Walters and way too many half-hearted Dudes. It was a night to remember musically and visually.