Overrated, Underrated or Properly Rated: Phish Halloween Costumes
On Thursday, Phish will take the stage at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, NJ, preparing to write yet another chapter in their storied Halloween history. The forthcoming unknown album will be the eighth performed by Phish on (or near) Halloween night. Vermont’s finest are still as sharp as ever, challenging themselves on a nightly basis within the confines of their originals, with new covers and new sounds alike. One attending the Atlantic City run should probably expect The Phish to once again flip the script with their album selection, and to execute it with admirable precision.
Here we are, nearly twenty years removed from the first Halloween costume. So, how did we get here? From The White Album to Waiting For Columbus, Phish crafted seven individual, unique experiences. As we sit here in 2013, some performances have had time to age, others haven’t. Regardless, let’s see where each stands in the present day with a careful breakdown followed by a verdict: Overrated, Underrated, or Properly Rated.
1994: The White Album
There are many reasons why Phish’s first Halloween costume, The Beatles’ White Album, is worth a listen nearly twenty years removed from that lovely night in Glens Falls, NY. First, Phish stayed true to the musical costume theme and almost became The Beatles with the Ed Sullivan intro that eventually led into “Back in the U.S.S.R.” to begin the set. The band wrestled with the identity crisis throughout, and by the end they practically sounded like The Beatles. One of the underrated aspects of this performance is how well-casted the vocalists were. Page on “Dear Prudence” and “Blackbird,” Mike on “I’m So Tired,” and the harmonizing on most other tunes were spot on.
This album choice, while a classic record, was simply that–classic. You can’t stray too far from the landscape of The White Album because that would be disrespectful. This album, and set, was what it was. If they announced a random one-off where they’d be playing The White Album, it would fill an arena and people would enjoy it, but at the end of the day it wouldn’t rank as anyone’s ultimate Phish fantasy coming to life.
Verdict: PROPERLY RATED
The lights go down for the second set, Halloween night, the closing lines of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” give way to the opening to “Thriller,” Phish takes the stage and goes into…..”I Am The Sea”? Unless you recently hopped off The Who tour to go see Phish, the prospects of the band covering Thriller had to feel bittersweet when they went into Quadrophenia. It certainly helps that this classic Who album is one of the greatest rock operas ever made, though. The 1995 Halloween set was important for Phish in a lot of ways. Quadrophenia turned them into composers and arrangers, and not just cover artists. They added a horn section, additional vocalists, and carefully maneuvered their way through this 80+ minute rock anthem.
Quadrophenia challenged the depth of Phish’s skills more than we can properly appreciate at the moment. We’ve seen them achieve the impossible time after time in the years since, but this 1995 Halloween set was a milestone achievement. Maybe my attachment to this performance stems from the fact that one of my first introductions to Phish was this clip of Trey playing “5:15,” but I’ll vouch for this costume any day. I didn’t know what “5:15” was, I didn’t know Trey or Phish, but I knew that guy playing the guitar was a bad you-know-what.
1996: Remain in Light
Ah, the hallowed Remain in Light set. Forever will this resonate with Phish fans as the band took on a jamband darling, the Talking Heads. So long to the rock operas and the classic rock albums, it was time for a REAL band. Trey was finally going to turn into the David Byrne we always wanted him to become, right? Well, sort of.
The reality is that this set plays out much like a typical Atlanta Braves season (the city where the show was held)–it starts with an unreachable high and ultimately fizzles out. “Born Under Punches” through “Once in a Lifetime” is stellar. Creative, jammy, loose and just all-around good music. But as well as that holds up on tape, the back half couldn’t hold up any worse. Yes, I’m looking at you, “Houses in Motion” and “Seen And Not Seen.” Thanks for “Crosseyed and Painless,” but this one can stay with those who were there. They know how to properly appreciate it.
Las Vegas, NV’s 1998 Halloween run is home to a three song set (albeit possibly unintentionally) and a host of other highlights. The one forgotten? How about the actual album set? Loaded is one of those shows that seemingly falls by the wayside because of everything else that surrounds it. Time has done this set, more than any others, the most amount of good. Tunes like “Rock and Roll,” “Cool It Down,” “Lonesome Cowboy Bill,” “Oh! Sweet Nuthin'” and “Head Held High” all make (more or less) regular appearances during the course of a tour.
Not only was this a great performance, but Phish clearly enjoyed it, as they’ve kept these songs around in the 15 years since.
1998: Dark Side of the Moon
Spoiler Alert: This set is overrated. While not a Halloween show, it has to be included because not only was it a big deal in and among itself, it also overshadowed the brilliance of the Loaded set. The lone redeeming quality of Phish’s performance on 11/2/98 is that it once again taught people to never skip a show on tour. So much of Phish’s model is built upon the fact that with every show comes the element of the unknown, and this show helped solidify that reputation.
Musically? At times Phish sounds a bit like a cheesy bar cover band noodling their way through a Dark Side medley. Compare the inventiveness of a set like Loaded to an impromptu DSOTM set within the confines of “Harpua.” Surely a memorable moment if you were there, because something like that will (may) never happen again, but time hasn’t done this particular set any favors.
2009: Exile on Main St.
When Phish exited the stage in Las Vegas after performing Loaded, they probably didn’t know it’d be their last for eleven years. In that time, they went on hiatus, came back, broke up and reunited all over again. When Phish rerturned for (hopefully) the last time, fans were unsure of what exactly they were getting. Sure, the Hampton shows were fun and the summer was cool. It was just nice to see them back on stage at that point. But when they got on stage in Indio, CA at their own festival and played Exile on Main St., everyone was sure Phish was really back.
Much like The White Album, this album is really well done. The band clearly put a lot of work into it, bringing on Sharon Jones and an additional horn section to beef up The Stones’ classic. And they delivered an excellent performance. There are few who don’t recognize that. And if you didn’t enjoy the set, at least you got that rockin’ “Suzy Greenberg.”
Verdict: PROPERLY RATED
2010: Waiting for Columbus
Last but certainly not least, comes Atlantic City’s first Halloween album, 2010’s Waiting for Columbus. 2010 saw a more focused, driven Phish than 2009, giving hope to what would be known as the 3.0 era. Flanked by additional vocalists, Giovanni Hidalgo on percussion, horns and more, Phish knocked this Little Feat classic out of the park. From “Fat Man in the Bathtub” to the hysterical a cappella “Don’t Bogart That Joint,” the execution was representative of clearer-minded Phish.
All in all an enjoyable evening that evidently warranted a return. You can kick on “Spanish Moon,” “Time Loves a Hero” or “Rocket in My Pocket” and feel good about 3.0 Phish.
Verdict: PROPERLY RATED