In the last volume of Under the Covers I wrote about stage antics being a defining part of the band’s interaction with the audience. Some things have just become synonymous with Phish. Perhaps one of the most popular and highly-regarded – both critically and emotionally – “antics” that Phish engages in is the annual musical costume. With Halloween just days away, and unfortunately no Phish show scheduled for the ghoulish date in 2011, I wanted to reflect back on what the musical costume means for Phish, its fans and its future.
While some would argue that the musical costume isn’t really a stage antic, I would point to the band’s freedom to change the way people think about live shows and clever ways of toasting their influences as their own “antics”. Halloween proves that stage antics don’t have to be ridiculous or over the top, they just have to be uniquely Phish.
Obviously, there’s several things that the musical costumes all have in common. Days, weeks and even months of intensive planning, album selection, practice and perfection are required to pull off any show but especially one featuring a full set of another band’s work. With the musical costume being the proverbial “hat tip” to a one-of-a-kind album, precision and quality playing are a must. Further, songs from every musical costume find themselves in the band’s rotation – some more than others. With Drowned, Crosseyed and Painless and Rock and Roll serving as key jam vehicles after their premiere, other favorites like Loving Cup and Time Loves a Hero were commonplace before their albums got the costume tag.
Below I present an argument for the three most influential of all the influential musical costumes and why this handful of albums stands out for very different reasons. Clearly, style and technique has been adapted as a result of every album Phish has covered in its entirety, both before, during and after Set II on Halloween night. As I mentioned before, songs from every album have made their way into rotation, albeit some more frequently than others.
The Beatles – The Beatles (The White Album)
The first musical costume. Obviously, Phish has been playing covers regularly since their first show. Costume contests started filling setlists rather regularly during the late 80’s and 90’s as well. But, when they announced they would be tackling an entire band’s album as their costume for the holiday show it was a game-changer. For The White Album, Phish started their Halloween career with a lofty choice. With 29 songs, most of which were between two and four minutes, overall The White Album is a departure from their playing style.
Back in the USSR opens the show with high energy and Dear Prudence follows with a confident sound. Blackbird stands out for fans of Page-led vocals, Helter Skelter pleases the ears of fans who enjoy bold-face rock and Cry Baby Cry fits Phish’s sound better than most songs on the album.
While Phish’s first attempt at a musical costume was a historic point for the band, during a great year of growth and energy, it may not have been the most influential or valuable Halloween show. Years of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da teases and the occasional While My Guitar Gently Weeps encores highlight the impact of the record on Phish’s playing and inspirational affect of The Beatles on the band. The Beatles changed music forever, but did this album change Phish’s music forever as well?
The Velvet Underground – Loaded
For many years, Loaded was the final musical costume completed by Phish. Due in part to the timing of two hiatuses, Big Cypress and possibly a commitment to more “serious” playing, Loaded was the temporary end of the band’s foray into an album costume. Loaded is a relatively diverse album if you look at it. High energy, quick tunes like Cool it Down, Head Held High and Lonesome Cowboy Bill contrast well against the smooth intro of Oh! Sweet Nuthin’. Sweet Jane and Who Loves the Sun have an almost pop sound that translated well in the Thomas and Mack Arena.
With apologies perhaps to Crosseyed and Painless and Loving Cup, Rock and Roll has made the case as the most common and sound-changing of all the Halloween covers. Phish 1.0 (Big Cypress), 2.0 (IT) and 3.0 (Gorge 1) have seen the song pushed to its limits. Throughout 2009-2011 specifically some may argue that the song may be reaching the point of overplay; however, the Tahoe version points to the band’s willingness to take the song into Type II jams – an important case for keeping it in rotation.
After Halloween ’98 I remember reading a review on rec.music.phish that pointed to Page’s vocals and the band’s playing on Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ as one of the most important seven minutes in the band’s future. It was, at the time, a sort of pinnacle for the band. Even in a video of the performance, the passion expressed in the vocals and playing at the end comes through clearly. From the reserved intro through the build and peak, Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ ended one era of Phish’s Halloween career with an exclamation point that was patiently developed.
The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street
The first musical costume in 11 years. 11. Years. At the first Phish festival in five years. The band’s return to the stage in early 2009 was a rush of emotions for everyone, the band especially. Phish was back and on their own terms. After announcing Festival 8 over the summer and teasing fans for weeks about where it was going to be held and what the musical costume was going to be, the band tore open the set with Rocks Off > Rip This Joint and didn’t look back. Sharon Jones and Saundra Williams brought a soulful tone to the rock and roll classic. The Dap Kings filled the peaks and valleys of greats like All Down the Line while Sweet Virginia and Happy gave Fish a chance to sing.
In my opinion, other than the high-energy and fan favoritism surrounding Loving Cup, the set was highlighted by the melodic Torn & Frayed. A bit of a dark horse on Exile’s track listing, Torn & Frayed has a distinctive vocal sound matched with some of the better soloing from Trey the entire Festival 8 weekend. The song has remained in sporadic rotation since Festival 8 but its original cover, I would say, remains the best. With a simple Type I jam of three or four minutes, Torn and Frayed was well-played and brought the distinctive Phish sound to the Rolling Stones.
Along the same lines, we find ourselves at Shine a Light. The most regular non-Loving Cup Exile tune, Shine a Light is synonymous with the Rolling Stones and for much of 2010, Phish encores. At Festival 8, perhaps no song benefited as much from Sharon and Saundra’s backing vocals and subtle horns. Shine a Light shares the sing-a-long with Loving Cup and is an upbeat encore choice. But, like Loving Cup, did it get overplayed following Festival 8?
The Exile set was one of the cleaner played in 2009 and part of crucial year in Phish’s history.
The case for the most important cover album in the Phish musical costume catalog is not easy. With its musical diversity, key jam vehicle and one of the most touching slow songs, it is my contention that Loaded is the victor. While The White Album and Exile on Main Street hold a vital place in Phish’s history, and the rest of the musical costumes have added to the cover catalog and adapted the band’s sound, Loaded did those very things at a crucial time for the band. At the time, many fans were disappointed by the selection but I contend that if Dark Side of the Moon had been played on Halloween and not in Utah several days later, the long-term impact would have been different. Its dark horse status in 1998 only adds to its memory today.
The lack of guests for the Loaded set is another important point in my argument for it being the most important Halloween set for Phish as the band remained a quartet. Any special guests could have drawn away from the sound Phish created for this set. Guests aren’t needed for Loaded covers, but the band’s decision to select an album that left them play as we all know them is important to note.
At Big Cypress, during a 7.5 hour set, Rock and Roll filled more than 30 minutes of the night, marking the longest version to date and the second longest jam of the night. After 11 minutes of high energy jamming, an After Midnight tease and 5 minutes of an organ-led funky section the song goes ambient. An effort to build back to the original energy comes through in the last minute or two by dies down again. This is a great example of the style for many jams in 1999 and notably before the end of that set.
On August 5, 2011 Rock and Roll returned to 20-minute and Type II territory in a big way at the grandness that is the Gorge. If not for two huge DWD’s over the summer and a handful of other jams, this Rock and Roll finds itself at the top of the “Best of 2011” (so far) discussion. While the song is now commonplace, it has passed the test of time and still has the potential to stretch its legs. Versions in 3.0 have remained consistently in the 12-14 minute range save for the Gorge show. Meanwhile, Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ has returned to setlists in 3.0 periodically and Cool It Down has been played twice in this era. The carryover of Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ and extended Rock and Roll jams have been exciting parts of Phish 3.0.
Personally, in speaking about Loaded, I look forward to the return of Sweet Jane and an upbeat first set Head Held High or Who Loves the Sun. One can hope.