Phish at Boardwalk Hall
Photo by Artie Raslich
Halloween, along with New Year’s Eve, is one of the two big Phish holidays.What makes All Hallow’s Eve so special is that Phish put on a costume. For the second set of their show, they take on the mantle of another band.That – appropriately enough for the holiday - adds an element of risk to the night. Even if you ignore the whole ghouls aspect of the day, trick or treaters never knew what exactly they would get.Some people just went for the popular Hersheys or Milky Ways.Others would want to develop our palette and hand out weird things like Mary Janes. Each knock was a new mystery.Sometimes you got a religious tract or a toothbrush, others you might get a full sized candy bar. While it’s a bit churlish to complain about a free gift, let’s be honest here.Kids always warned about which house gave the candy corn. (Disclaimer: I always liked candy corn.)
So sure, everyone knew that the middle set was a present, an extra gift from the band to the fans, but that doesn’t stop any of us from having strong feelings about what they should play and how they should play it. We’re Phish fans after all.Going into the home stretch before the show, the rumor mill focused heavily on four albums. The Allman Brothers’ Eat A Peach and The Band’s Rock of Ages were favorites among those who claimed to have some sort of inside source who leaked a clue or two.Traffic’s On the Road and Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road were popular in the group that liked to look for clues in covers Phish had played or the style of the posters from the tour.Both approaches have given clues in the past. Would it be one of these or would Phish do the impossible and successfully keep a secret in the Internet age?
As we got closer and closer to show time, the rumors got more bizarre. Peter Gabriel was backstage and they would play The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Derek Trucks would join in on Eat a Peach. Radiohead! ZZ Top! Almost every band that existed was mentioned. But when the Phishbill came out it wasn’t any of them. The band that would be played would be Phish.Some brand new songs would be debuted for the album.
Before we could get to the cover set, we had the first set to play.Perhaps out of the desire to play their new material, this was largely forgettable. With no covers, no rare songs, no long jams or memorable moments, the set, while solid – Page’s solo in “Heavy Things,” for example, was a promising start – never really got beyond exceedingly standard Phish. That happens, but when it’s a big show, there’s extra disappointment.
Fortunately we had two sets to go, one of which would feature a lot of new material. That’s been the complaint about the past few years. The band feels sometimes like they might be stuck in a bit of a rut, playing the same old songs over and over again.Few new songs have come out since Joy was released. An entire new album would definitely be a good thing.
According to the Phishbill, the genesis of many of these songs came directly from listening to jams. Phish’s strength lately has been creating some amazing space, funk, and build jams spontaneously in the moment. Improvisation is their core skill. What if they could use the incredible sounds they make in the moment and use them to create something more permanent?
There are interesting contrasts in this material, soaring leads and dark space alternate with harmonies. It’s a different sound for the band; the songs sound like Phish but a different version of the band.There’s definitely a pinch of alt rock influence dropped into mix. That’s especially true for “Snow.”It sounds like Phish trying to cover The Fleet Foxes.This is Phish for the 21st century. There are different instrumentations used – “Monica” was acoustic with Mike on a stand up bass and Jon and Page on stripped down kits. “Snow” also has Trey on an acoustic.“Amidst the Peals of Laughter” is Trey and Page only. This is a Phish that is trying new and interesting things.
New and interesting is intriguing, but is it good? The first few songs were especially popular. “Fuego” actually caused a spontaneous “Fuego” chant to start up after it ended. The acoustic but high energy “Monica,” the fun “Wombat,” in which a 92 year old Abe Vigoda (who is name checked in the song) came out to dance dressed in a wombat outfit all seem to be keepers that will be in rotation for a while. Perhaps the best song was the Mike led “555.” Even this first version showed where it would stretch out and become a monster. The jam is built into the structure of the song. Phish shows are a constant battle between the structure of the song and the chaos of jams; at its best, the Wingsuit material harnesses that battle, infusing the jams with some design and structure and giving the songs some of the energy of improvisation.
If there’s one problem with debuting an album in this way, it’s that it can be hard work maintaining the focus to digest the songs. There could be a chance that the crowd would be too burnt out from that to be able to enjoy the third set. How do you prevent that?You bring it!The “Ghost” had a jam that was both beautiful and extremely high energy. It came to a stop, there was a pause, and then the “Carini” that followed started off where the “Ghost” went and took it further.
This concert seemed to tell a narrative. The first set acted out the problem.Without new material or new styles of playing, the entire Phish experience could get stale.The second set pointed the way to a new path. It wasn’t just that there were novel songs, but the entire method of creating the material was different.Just as Hegel predicted, whenever there is thesis and antithesis, we can wind up with synthesis. The final set pointed to what could be the final result of Wingsuit. The energy from that creative process can infuse older material with newfound energy.
When I got back to my room and could see the reaction – cell reception is extremely spotty inside the hall – I was initially surprised to see just how negative some fans reacted. Upon reflection though, it does make sense. It’s the difference between being a fan and being in the band. They were perhaps a little too close to their excitement over their new material to see how it would come across. If you think you have a cool surprise, the goal is to try to keep the secret. So you let false rumors spread, maybe even spreading one or two of them yourself, to help hide the real plan. The problem though is that people can have so much fun speculating about what will be played that expectations can reach ridiculous standards. People were arguing for dream albums with dream guests, and starting to expect that as a given.If you love the cover album tradition (and a lot of people really do love it) and don’t know that it is gone for the year, disappointment makes sense.
From the fan perspective, if the departure is that radical, it’s perhaps best to drop a few more blatant hints. Then again past Halloweens have had the 1991 show where Phish playing a weird repetitive game (“Wait”) that infuriated the audience to the point where they started chanting “Fuck you!” back at them and the infamous 1998 “Ghost” where Trey walked off stage, aborting the entire third set just as the jam was starting. It’s Halloween and weird things happen. Sometimes you get the candy, sometimes you get the rock.
Still though, even if you were not thrilled in the moment, one thing that separates Halloween shows from other ones is that they’re as much about how they affect the other shows Phish play as the joy in the moment. Regardless of if you thought the variant cover was amazing or a cheat, there’s no denying after tonight’s show that the band has a new direction to explore. The lasting effects from this material will long surpass any frustration with the change in tradition.In terms of its lasting power, 2013 has the potential to have seen the most influential Halloween set since Remain in Light.