by: Christopher Rockwell
In breaking with one of Rock and Roll’s greatest traditions, Phish’s Halloween spectacular comes up short….
Bucking what was perhaps the greatest tradition in all of Rock and Roll, Phish arrived to their Halloween concert this year sans their highly anticipated musical costume ((Over the course of numerous Halloween shows since 1994, Phish has established a tradition of donning a “musical costume” in which they perform a complete cover album in-between two full sets of their own material.)). Instead, they took the opportunity to “play an album from the future,” debuting a “bunch of material from their new album” ((Quotes are courtesy of the “Phishbill” handed out to fans on the 31st of October, a playbill that they distribute each Halloween night to enlighten the audience as to what they will be playing that evening.)) which they will be heading off to the studio to record following a three-day run in Atlantic City, NJ which concluded November 2nd. It was an interesting choice to forgo a cover album this Halloween, and one that left many of their fans in shock, including yours truly.
For anyone who’s an admirer of the incredible feat of musical strength that is Phish performing a classic album on Halloween ((In 1994 Phish performed The Beatles The White Album, in 1995 The Who’s Quadrophenia, in 1996 The Talking Heads’ Remain in the Light, in 1998 The Velvet Underground’s Loaded, in 2009 The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, and in 2010 Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus.)), then you are more than likely as disillusioned and disappointed as I am with they way the show unfolded. But if, just if, you are an admirer of a particular brand of Phish live; a concert where the energy and atmosphere of the performance dissolves into a lively social affair, where the people surrounding you become disengaged, angry even, and succumb to conversation over drinks while the band – who lost the audience the moment they struck their first note – gives their new material a test run…Well, then this was the night for you!
Yes, for those of you who were in attendance this Halloween in Atlantic City and fully took in what was going on around you, as Phish played a set of songs from their forthcoming album Wingsuit ((The tentative title of the yet to be released album, to be produced by Bob Ezrin.)), you most likely noted quite immediately that this experiment was a total failure. Phish shows are about many things, but one of the most crucial is the energy in the room, built through the band’s high octane jams and the audience’s hanging on every note – constructing together an euphoria that keeps devotees coming back. This Halloween, because of Phish’s decision to bail on tradition, to abandon the album covers that their fans adore, the crowd was tuned out, generally uninterested, and even somewhat annoyed. I have yet to see an audience at a Phish show react this way – and I have certainly seen my share. The energy at the show wasn’t just low, it was grim – and it took a tremendous third set rally to lift the audience’s spirits back to somewhere near where they should have been for this momentous affair.
I am hearing from many people how bold of a decision it was to play this new set of untested material in front of a voracious mass of hardcore fans, clad in inventive Halloween costumes, ready to rock, and expecting something completely different. I have even heard it described as brave. Well, I can think of another word that also stars with a ‘b’ to describe this decision, and that is – bad. Expecting the unexpected from Phish has always been part of the fun, but this time around the ball was dropped and the band, for some unknown reason, decided to lean towards trick, rather than musical treat. It is difficult to accept this decision as brave, or bold, when a certain sect of Phish’s die-hard fan base soaks in with pleasure anything the band sends their way. In fact, these types of fans relish these opportunities, ones in which a large number of fans are disappointed, seeing this as a chance for them to display to others just how deeply they love Phish. These fans take the stance that others don’t get it, highlighting a weird sort of elitism that many fans have, one where they act like they appreciate the music more than “lesser” fans. It’s like a contest, trying to prove that they love Phish more than the next guy. In reality, its mass denial.
Phish fans are many things. They are die-hard, loyal, and in love with a band that has given them so much over the years. They are also often judgmental and unreasonable, something that is to be somewhat expected from a sect that has been listening to the same band for decades, and some over-analyzation of the music is to be supposed. But what Phish fans certainly shouldn’t be are guinea pigs. They are not a test audience or a focus group. Phish, by premiering a volley of demo tracks that were more or less incomplete and not guaranteed to even be on their album, took advantage of their fans loyalty, and used this opportunity to work out the kinks in their new material on what usually is an extraordinary evening. More band practice than a Halloween show, Phish came off as insecure in their ability to put together a new album, so much so that they had to see how their songs work in a concert setting first. The Phishbill proclaimed that the band wanted to “dirty and mess up the songs a bit before they record them.” This normally wouldn’t be such a bad thing ((Debuting 12 new songs is nothing to scoff at! It just wasn’t the evening for it.)). In fact, hearing all these newfangled tracks, some of which have great potential ((Fuego, 555, and Wombat were particularly treats!)), on any other night would have been amazing, epic even. But this was Halloween! There was a concept in place, nay a tradition, for what occurs on this evening, and that concept was far from broken – and if it isn’t broke, as they say, don’t fix it. Especially when the proposed fix falls flat and comes off as more of a selfish gesture than anything – an opportunity to gauge the audience prior to entering the studio to record.
We learned from Phish lead guitarist and frontman Trey Anastasio the night after Halloween that it was likely the song Halfway to the Moon could be included on Wingsuit. I would be willing to wager that the fan-favorite Steam has a shot at the album also, and possibly a handful of other songs they have in the tuck. This fact, that songs not performed during Halloween’s second set will make the album, is puzzling however, and proves that what occurred was a farce, and drives home the point that what they played on Halloween night isn’t an album at all. Rather, it was a series of songs that they are working on, potential tracks for an upcoming album. These songs, also, weren’t written for this evening’s performance as some may suggest. These Wingsuit tracks were arranged prior to September, and sometime between then and Halloween the band decided to use these tracks for Halloween’s second set, in place of learning and performing an iconic album to the delight of their fans. I have heard critics describe this as lazy, and it is hard to argue that point. Especially in light of the fact that they have performed Halloween costume sets while working on albums in the past – and pulled both of with finesse.
Towards the end of the second set, and well into the third, Trey began to express his deep gratitude for the fans support, and for the evening as a whole. This sentiment was echoed again the following night’s performance. And, the more he harped on how thankful he was, the more his heartfelt appreciation began to sound like something else entirely. It began to sound like he was simply saying: “I’m sorry.” To state what occurred in the most simple of terms, and why so many fans are rightfully disappointed, it seemed as if Phish showed up to the Halloween party without their (musical) costume. Nobody wants to be that guy, and ultimately that guy isn’t that fun to be around. Actually it is worse than that, as they showed up to Halloween dressed as themselves. And dressing as yourself will always come off as both lazy and uninspired. Prior to a particularly uninteresting song entitled You Never Know, the final song performed during the Wingsuit set, Trey discussed what the song The Line, performed earlier in the set, was all about. He let the crowd know it was about Darius Washington Jr., a college basketball player who missed a couple of free throws during the Conference USA championship game (Trey said it was in the Final Four against Michigan State, but he is wrong.). He then went on to say, “we love him and we can relate.” And to their credit on this very evening they certainly could relate. But Phish didn’t simply miss two free throws to end the game; they showed up to the game unprepared and got run out the gym. Following that confession Trey said “I better stop talking before I get myself in trouble!” They knew. The entire venue stunk of failure.
The thing with being let down is that it is a function of expectation, and thus it is somewhat your fault in that you build up expectations to the point where they cannot be met. But in this case, the band is just as responsible. Never did they let it be known they would be breaking from tradition. Actually, quite the opposite. They allowed rumors about albums to spread wildly, even spreading some themselves during webcasts of their Fall concerts leading up to the Halloween spectacular, dropping hints that they could potentially play Huey Lewis’s album Sports. Thus, hordes of costume fans arrived with album expectations in place, walking eagerly towards boxes overstuffed with Phishbills (furthering the hope of an album), and it was then, as the Phishbill was opened, that dreams of Phish doing what they do better than any other band, were shattered.
Maybe there is a bright side to all of this. After all, there usually is. Maybe, just maybe, if I ever decide to attend another Phish Halloween celebration I will walk in with a whole new attitude about what album they are going to play. I will walk in with an open mind about whatever choice they make and devour with zest whatever it may be. I mean I already have a brand new appreciation for Waiting For Columbus ((Performed to mixed results in 2010 at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, NJ)), and every album I heard rumored for this year ((Eat a Peach, Sports, Rock of Ages, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, On the Road, A Night at the Opera, etc.)), in hindsight, would have been equally awesome. Because, whatever musical costume they decide to don is better than the alternative many had to bear this Halloween 2013, the day that Phish, who take risks so very often – usually to astounding results – took a risk that was more about themselves than anything. A day when 13,000 costumed fans stood together in mass confusion for multiple hours, wondering why the band didn’t simply stick to the mission at hand.