Halloween! It's the 5th most played date in Phish history, trailing just 12/28-31, and perhaps the second most sacred. We go into every show hoping for something unique that we will remember for the rest of our lives, but Halloween and New Years are the only nights where we are promised that something weird will happen.
While one of those nights revolves around midnight and whatever stunt might happen then, All Hallows Eve's focus is on an entire set. It started out straightforward enough. Phish would play an album of a band they loved. During the third one, they decided to create an ode to the release, something to explain why exactly they chose it.
But Phish evolve endlessly. They tried variants of it. We've gone from Phish covering an existing album to debuting a new one to turning a sound effects release into a series of songs to creating an entire fake band complete with back story, and playing as them. The Phishbills morphed from explaining the importance of the album to rock history to surreal flights of fancy. Would they find a way of topping that, or would we see the return of the already beloved tradition of covering a currently existing album? There are still many people would love.
Entering the venue last night, we were presented not with an essay about why an album was important or even a mockery of that. Instead we were given a comic book. Before I go on any further, I do need to talk about one thing. Sometime in the morning of 10/31, images of the Phishbill leaked. I feel like that behavior is outside the range of the guessing game. It's one thing to try to piece together clues. It's even OK to let a few people know what you've learned (although my own personal philosophy is that if I'm ever told anything, I drop out of the speculation game because I don't want to ruin the fun for anyone else) as long as it's one of many options. Giving out the information early serves no purpose other than an ego boost for the person who did it — look how connected I am! I know something that you don't! — and takes away from the excitement about going in and learning.
Fortunately, the early spoiler didn't really change much. Looking at the Phishbill didn't exactly give direction as to what was going to take place. The past weird calls gave some clues. Chilling Thrilling was an existing Disney album that a few people inside had owned. Kasvot Växt at least was an album from a band that may or may not exist based on the ever shifting status of the pre-show deep Google dives. Was this going to be an album? A play? Some mixture between the two? There was no way to know.
Despite the focus on the middle set, Phish on Halloween is a three set affair. What could get lost in the shuffle is the first set's "Ghost." Clocking in at 26 minutes with many different sections, it's a track that would be the talk of the show on a normal night. There are some tours where that would be the standout. Even if you're not interested in Sci-Fi Soldier, you need to give this a spin.
But you should be interested in Sci-Fi Soldier and their album Get More Down. It was one of the most experimental and weird things Phish have done. Unfortunately time constraints will prevent a song by song breakdown of the experience. Rather this review will be more about what it felt like being in section 9 row R of the MGM Grand Garden Arena on the night of 10/31/21.
The set started with some prerecorded music, during which some colored cylinders started descending from the ceiling. The band was projected as holograms onto them to give the illusion of them coming down from the sky. The tubes were elevated back up and the members were there in elaborate space costumes; Fishman's did indeed have donut patterns on it, in case you were worried.
When Phish played as Kasvot Växt, "Turtle in the Clouds" stood out as a song that didn't really sound like them at all. For Get More Down, that feeling lasted for a lot more than one song. "Knuckle Bone Broth Avenue" and "Get More Down" had a lot of electronic effects. "Egg in a Hole" was dark and weird, with pyrotechnics going off behind the band; it almost felt more metal (or metal adjacent) influenced than what Phish would normally play. Yes, these songs were translated through Phish — the comic explained that the soldiers would have to use the bodies of the band as some sort of conduits — but the illusion of Phish covering another artist instead of playing originals was definitely there.
While there was no clear storyline, the comic explained that the point of the set was that soldiers were trying to prevent a disaster and the only people who could do that were Phish. There were clues in Phish's lyrics that would prevent The Howling. "Thanksgiving" and "Clear Your Mind" have references to other songs as they're clues to prevent the disaster.
The one thing about this set that made it so intense in the moment is that the songs were so much more dense than the other two fake albums. The Haunted House set revolved around themes that could be departed from and then returned to. Kasvot was power pop that had very catchy singable choruses. Get More Down though had a lot of sections.
The harmonies would change from line to line. "Clear Your Mind" suddenly has a switch 8 minutes in. Moreover, the light show was so different than a normal show with the floating squares and circles — although Trey's amusingly first staggered and then had to be taken out of commission as (probably) a joke on the 12/31/19 show where Trey got stuck on a platform — and projection of a video of math symbols and graphics, that a fairly constant focus was needed. There's a temptation to try to suck in every detail of every moment because they might never happen again, and when the language used by the band is different than normal, it required more attention. "I can't keep up!" Trey sang at the end of "Don't Doubt Me" and it was starting to become an actual issue.
"The Unwinding" felt like a relief. This was the closest song of the set to being straight forward Phish. It was a pretty ballad that was much needed. We actually could clear our minds for a few minutes and try to process what had gone on before the songs to come.
Relistening this morning, it sounds more like a Phish show, but this is a case where the recording does not give the full experience. The lights and the graphics and the constant changes, the sudden fire, the setting of being well after midnight on the 4th night of a busy Vegas run, the constant fear that if you left for a second, you might miss something bizarre — I almost missed the math projection as I was trying to take notes for this review — it all led to an intense and unforgettable set. Like 10/31/94, by the end the experience was almost exhausting.
Is the music of the set enjoyable? I think so, but that would require more time to sit down with it. I can definitely see how some of these songs will have interesting places in sets. But this was a night where it really was about the moment and the sheer intensity. I'm not sure that listening now or watching the webcast will have anything near the same effect.
Eventually though, we got back to 2021. The tubes descended and returned Phish to us. We still had another set to go. Amusingly enough, "Carini" took the role of being comforting and familiar, especially as it resolved into "Lonely Trip," a song that felt like being invited into the house of a beloved friend after a long drive through weird weather. Still though, Phish wasn't done with us quite yet.
"Soul Planet" channeled the energy of Sci-Fi Soldier and let the jam get to a bizarre space before segueing into a weird version of "Death Don't Hurt Very Long." Like Phish have been doing sometimes this year, they played the song over the sound of the jam. If I think the Sci-Fi Soldier set will affect Phish's music going forward, I suspect that sort of spontaneous rearrangement of songs to fit into improv rather than the opposite, will be a cool path to explore for a bit.
The chant of Halloween is, "trick or treat," and Phish decided that both were in order. We were well into November first when the encore began. It was time for the ghosts and goblins and sci-fi soldiers to go away and the saints to come down and protect us. A sweet and then joyous "Harry Hood" ended the Vegas run, the fall tour, and — other than the New Year's Run — the year of Phish. It's been one of my favorites and I'm going to miss it. Not every jam will hit for everyone, but the one thing that seems clear is that Phish are in a creative place where every show is having unique moments that will make them stand out. I'm looking forward to December and 2022 and hoping that can continue!