This piece originally appeared on UPROXX but has since been updated.
You can trace the origins of Halloween back 2,000 years to the Celts, who roamed areas that are now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France. They celebrated a festival called Samhain. which took place on the night of October 31. People would gather, light bonfires, and pay homage to the dead. These ancient festivals featured costumes (made of animal skins) people wore with the intention of driving away evil spirits, and banquet tables covered in various kinds of food, all meant to keep the spirits happy.
And while there is no direct evidence of it, you can assume these festivals featured a local band whose members wore costumes, which were also made of animal skins.
Bands dressing up in costumes when playing shows on or around Halloween is as much of a tradition in late October as toilet-papering trees, putting fake tombstones in your front yard, and pretending to like horror movies. Any bar or party you go to around Halloween that has a band playing will feature that band wearing a costume. It’s become standard operating procedure. The real pros go with themes but when it comes to Halloween, it’s really all about just dressing up. It’s literally the least a person can do.
Phish has never been one for the standard operating procedure, and the band’s Halloween shows are no exception. They dress up on Halloween, but any costumes they physically wear aren’t the point. On Halloween, Phish don musical costumes. Instead of dressing up as a gang of ninjas or flock of seagulls, Phish becomes another band entirely. The band plays a classic album from start to finish during the second set of their annual Halloween show. It’s become part of the lore surrounding the group, as fans spend months speculating about which album Phish will play at that year’s show. Said speculation regarding the 2021 Halloween show has been underway on social media since the Las Vegas show was announced earlier this year. Given the random choices the band has made since getting back into the swing of things over a decade ago, going with everything from a soon-to-be-released album to a completely made-up album, it becomes a little tricky when it comes to making predictions.
So predictions aside, in anticipation of this year’s show, I decided to look back at their Halloween history.
1994: The White Album
Before heading out on their 1994 fall tour, Phish announced that they would be taking votes from fans. What album should they play on Halloween during their show at the Glen Falls Civic Center in Glen Falls, New York? Votes were received via regular old snail mail, meaning fan voting didn’t produce the attention and numbers it does today. The band received about 50 votes, (which is adorable given their popularity now and thinking about what kind of response they’d get today if they did something comparable.)
The White Album by the Beatles was the clear winner.
The second set kicked off around 9:30 p.m. with Ed Sullivan’s famous “Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles” introduction piped in over the PA. From there, Phish ran through all 28 songs on The White Album, all songs they had never played before, with the exception of “Piggies,” a song they had played 10 years earlier. The show, which even featured a third set of Phish originals, didn’t end until almost 3:30 a.m. with the Ringo Starr-sung closer from The White Album, “Good Night,” playing over the PA.
For any other band, you could be forgiven for thinking they may have set an impossibly high standard for themselves and were subsequently setting themselves up for failure.
Phish is not any other band, bub.
Another year, another classic double album.
In 1995, Phish was slated to play Rosemont Horizon in Rosemont, Illinois. Once again, the band solicited votes from fans. Joe’s Garage by Frank Zappa ended up getting the most votes, but the band elected to play The Who’s Quadrophenia instead. Joe’s Garage’s extensive overdubs and dicey lyrics took the album off the table. Plus, a lot of the songs on the album were songs Zappa had asked never to be performed live again. The band’s love and respect for Zappa trumped democratic norms.
Quadrophenia had come in second and was named the winner.
Joe’s Garage wasn’t the only album on fans’ minds that night, though. The set break music (“Wanna Be Starting Something” and “Thriller”) had people thinking the band was going to play Michael Jackson. But no, sir. No Zappa, no MJ. Fans would have to “settle” for The Who. Phish added horns and additional vocalists, and capped off the set by going full Keith Moon on a replica The Who drum set that drummer Jon Fishman used during an acoustic version of “My Generation.”
It’s all about commitment to the bit y’all.
1996: Remain in Light
No double albums for Phish’s 1996 Halloween show. The dudes must have been getting soft.
At their ’96 show in Atlanta, Phish went with the classic Talking Heads album Remain in Light. The album’s sound jived more with Phish’s, much more so than The White Album and Quadrophenia. It was also an album closer to the heart of the band’s fans. Talking Heads were something of a spiritual north star for Phish.
To help with the album’s wild, afrobeat rhythms a percussionist was added and Phish was once again joined by a horn section. Unlike with the past two years, where a song or two from the album in question had been played before, 1996’s selection was all new territory. None of the songs from Remain in Light had been performed by the band before.
The band would later credit the ’96 Halloween show for having a profound influence on their sound going forward and looking back it makes sense, especially with the show coming at something of a pivotal moment for the band sound-wise, where they started incorporating funk and grooves more. One of the tracks from the album “Crosseyed and Painless” would become a staple for the band that still finds its way into setlists over twenty years later. Although some moron on this Internet of ours left it off a ranking of the best Phish covers and was rightly eviscerated for it.
Man, what a loser.
Phish pulled into sunny Las Vegas to play the Thomas & Mack Center amidst rumors that that year’s musical costume would be Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. I mean, that’d be pretty sweet, huh? Looks good on paper and I ran the numbers and it adds up.
Plot twist! Instead, the band wore Loaded by the Velvet Underground. A cool album of course but not necessarily Dark Side of the Moon cool. Phish lore has somewhat forgotten the Loaded set, mainly because of the legendary third set, which featured only three songs consisting of “Wolfman’s Brother”>”Piper” and “Ghost.”
A three-song set laughs at your five-song set, friends.
Phish rolled through Loaded solo, minus any extra musicians. They had played “Sweet Jane” and “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” before and “Rock and Roll” would end up living in their toolbox for years to come. As for that Dark Side of the Moon performance that was rumored, fans would have to only wait until the next show on the tour. Phish ended up playing it at the Salt Lake City show on November 2, an unofficial entrant into their Halloween show catalog.
As of the writing of this piece though, so far no members of Phish have made any kind of comment regarding the theory that you can play Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz. We will continue to monitor that situation and harbor our own opinions.
2009: Exile on Main Street
In between the 1998 show and 2009, Phish went on hiatus, came back, briefly broke up, then came back again. It was something of an emotional rollercoaster for everyone involved. As a result, it made their shows in 2009 all that more special for fans.
When it came time to start looking ahead to Halloween, once again it was the fans who assumed the controls for that year’s show which would take place during Phish’s multi-day Festival 8 in Indio, California. Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones beat out Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, and 96 other classic albums, all of which were displayed on screens prior to the band beginning the set.
One hundred albums? Talk about splitting the vote, huh?
Once again, the band brought some ringers with them. They enlisted a horn section and backup singers. But hold on, they weren’t just any backup singers. Joining Phish was the late Sharon Jones of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, and Saundra Williams, who was a backup singer for Jones and would go on to co-front her own soul band, Saun and Starr. Like 2009 as a whole for the band, the show started off a little bumpy before the band found its footing. Phish had played some of the songs from Exile on Main Street before most notably “Loving Cup,” as well as “Sweet Virginia,” with “Loving Cup” continuing to live its best life long after Festival 8 wrapped up.
2010: Waiting on Columbus
I personally don’t know how well-known Little Feat’s catalog is. I know that for me when I think of Little Feat, I think of a running joke I had with a captain I used to work with on the boats in Maine where the gist of the joke was asking people if they liked Little Feat. No clue where it started from or where things went after that. All I know is that all these years later, the band Little Feat and a joke about Little Feat go hand in hand.
All that aside though, Phish fans were treated to Little Feat’s Waiting on Columbus in the lovely seaside hamlet of Atlantic City on Halloween in 2010. By this point, the emotional ups and downs of the past few years were a thing of the past and Phish 3.0 had returned in peak form. It’s apparent at this show, which musically is easily the most polished Halloween show the band has done.
Phish had played “Times Loves a Hero” before, but the rest of the album was uncharted territory and was tackled with the help of percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo and a five-piece horn section. Phish played “Don’t Bogart That Joint” a cappella, while their version of “Spanish Moon” was a highlight. Well, a musical highlight. If you’ve ever been to Atlantic City before, then you know the real highlight is leaving town with your dignity still intact.
After taking a few years off, Phish returned to lovely Atlantic City for a Halloween run because you know what they say about Atlantic City- you probably forgot something, so we’ll see you again.
For their 2013 Halloween show, Phish trotted out a musical costume “from the future,” the costume being their next studio album Fuego (then called Wingsuit). Cheating? Eh, maybe. Kind of a cop-out? Sorta. And what is a wingsuit anyway? Nevermind. I just Googled it and it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like.
I would imagine that for those in the audience, the decision to “cover themselves” instead of a famous album was probably a little bit of a bummer, but then again, what trip to Atlantic City doesn’t include some kind of a bummer? If anything, it’s kind of fitting. But even still, for someone to roll up expecting Phish to faithfully cover some legendary album and be super stoked about it and instead, get them playing a slate of new songs (which let’s be honest, no one is ever all that thrilled about, regardless of who is doing it,) could be viewed as kind of a raw deal.
And I even think Fuego is a pretty sweet album.
Never one to shortchange an audience, though, Phish did bring out legendary actor Abe Vigoda at various points throughout the show. The new songs might have received mixed reviews but you best be sure Vigoda didn’t. That’s a veteran move by Phish. Smart.
2014: Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House
Ladies and gentlemen, theatrical Phish.
In 2014, Phish got weird with it. I guess that’s what can happen in Vegas. I’ve never been but I’ve seen both Swingers and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas several times, so I feel like I have an idea what’s up.
After 2013’s experiment with covering themselves, I’m assuming fans didn’t know what to expect heading into 2014. Were they even still covering albums anymore? The answer ended up being a resounding, yeah, kind of. For the show’s second set, the stage featured a graveyard, dancing zombies, and a giant haunted house. Inside the house, it would be revealed was where Phish was set up, themselves dressed up as something of a classy zombie version of themselves.
That year’s album was Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House, a Disneyland album from 1964 that is one part scary stories and one part sound effects that go with the stories. There isn’t much of a musically narrative throughline there but Phish choose to be inspired by the album as opposed to straight-up covering it, creating jams that used the stories and effects as jumping-off points.
A little bit of an exploiting a loophole kind of thing going on, but the judges have conferred and decided to allow it.
2016: The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
David Bowie passed away in January of 2016 and throughout that year, Phish played numerous tributes to him, which made sense given how much he had influenced the band over the years. I mean, they have a song named after him. That’s high praise. So when Halloween started to appear on fans’ radar, there was a lot of speculation and chatter that a Bowie album would be played. It would be a welcome return to form as the band had deviated from their tradition during the past two Halloween shows.
Thankfully the band went with a Bowie classic and not something like Buddha of Suburbia. Instead, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars got the nod. Big sigh of relief there, huh?
After tackling Halloween shows on their own for two years, the band again went to the bench and brought in some back-up, adding backup singers and a string section to fully glam the shit out of one of the best glam rock albums ever. The show was something of a twofer as it was a nice way to end a year of Bowie tributes and also a welcome return to the tradition of the band going with a classic album as a musical costume.
But alas, what would the future hold? Would the next Halloween have more in common with say, the Wingsuit Halloween or the Ziggy Stardust Halloween?
2018: í rokk
Two years later word started to spread that Phish would go back to the early 80s for their Halloween costume that year. Early 1980s? So many wonderful possibilities. Would it be something from Elvis Costello or the Police or Kraftwerk or Rush? Again, so many wonderful possibilities. Who would it be???
Who the hell were these guys; this prog-rock band from *checks notes* Scandanavia?
Research was done. Facts were uncovered. Questions…not really answered. Some started wondering if Phish might be pulling one over on them.
True story, kids! Phish was Kasvot Växt and Kasvot Växt was Phish. Cue: Chazz Palminteri realizing Kevin Spacey’s character from The Usual Suspects was lying to him the whole time and, sorry, spoiler alert. Kevin Spacey’s character is the bad guy, not the crippled guy. You must have heard about this by now. It was a big deal.
But anyway, Phish is nothing if not always slavishly devoted to the gag and went full Scandanavian prog-rock for the show, debuting ten original tracks written and performed in the mold of Kasvot Växt.
And of course, the songs were dope. From that point on, songs like “Turtle in the Clouds,” “Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.” and others would become regulars at Phish shows. Leave it to Phish to write songs as a joke that would become so good that they would keep playing them long after the joke was over. Those devilish, clever bastards.
Do they return to the origins of their Halloween shows and play a classic rock album? Do they debut new material? Do they new material that’s “old” material from someone else? I guess we’ll find out.