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, taking place on the night of October 31, where 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, also in costume.
Bands dressing up in costumes when playing shows on or around Halloween is as much of a tradition as toilet-papering trees. Any bar or party you go to with a band will feature that band wearing a costume. It’s become standard operating procedure.
Phish have never been ones for standard operating procedure, and the band’s Halloween shows are no exception. They dress up, but they don musical costumes, not physical ones. Instead of dressing up, Phish becomes another band entirely; playing a classic album in its entirety 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. Trey Anastasio and company are taking this year’s holiday off, but we decided to look back at their Halloween history, anyway.
Before heading out on their fall tour, Phish announced that they would be taking votes from fans, asking them what album they should 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, but 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,” which 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.
Playing the Rosemont Horizon in Rosemont, Illinois, Phish once again 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. Quadrophenia had come in second.
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.”
No double albums for Phish’s ’96 show in Atlanta, as the band went with the classic Talking Heads album Remain in Light instead. The sound of Remain in Light jived more with Phish’s sound than The White Album and Quadrophenia, and was an album closer to the heart of the band’s fans. A percussionist was added to help with the album’s wild, afrobeat rhythms, and Phish was once again joined by a horn section to play the songs, all of which had never 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.
The band pulled into 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. Instead, the band wore Loaded by the Velvet Underground. Phish lore has somewhat forgotten the Loaded set, mainly because of the legendary third set, which featured only three songs, including a version of “Wolfman’s Brother” that “passes through a cloud of fearful noise before emerging into an exhausted groove.” You know, whatever that might mean.
Phish rolled through Loaded solo, minus any extra musicians. They had played “Sweet Jane” and “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” before. “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.
In between the ’98 show and 2009, Phish went on hiatus, came back, briefly broke up, then came back again, making their shows in 2009 all that more special for fans, who again assumed the controls for that year’s Halloween show. It 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.
Once again, the band brought some ringers with them, enlisting a horn section and backup singers – but not just any backup singers. Joining Phish was Sharon Jones, of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, and Saundra Williams, who was a backup singer for Jones and is currently in her own soul band, Saun and Starr. Phish had played some of the songs from Exile on Main Street before, most notably “Loving Cup,” as well as “Sweet Virginia.”
I don’t know how well-known Little Feat’s catalog is, but either way, Phish fans were treated to Little Feat’s Waiting on Columbus at the 2010 show in Atlantic City. Phish 3.0 (as they were referred to by Phish fans) had returned in peak form, and it’s apparent at this show, easily the most polished Halloween show the band has done.
“Times Loves a Hero” had been played before, but the rest of the album was uncharted territory, 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.
Since 2010, Phish has played two more Halloween shows, approaching them differently than in the past, seemingly abandoning the arduous task of covering a legendary album from start to finish. In 2013, again playing in Atlantic City, the band trotted out a musical costume “from the future,” the costume being their next studio album Fuego (then called Wingsuit).
Never one to shortchange an audience, though, Phish did bring out legendary actor Abe Vigoda at various points throughout the show.
In 2014, playing in Las Vegas, the show’s second set was comprised of original Phish tunes, the majority of which were instrumental, and accompanied by sound effects and narration from Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House, a Disneyland album from 1964, as well as an elaborate stage set and dancing zombies.
With Phish off this Halloween, fans instead are being pointed west toward Las Vegas, with Trey Anastasio’s solo band playing two shows at Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas. On social media, fans are simultaneously lamenting the absence of a Halloween show, with whispers circulating that the Halloween shows as they know them are done.
You never know with Phish, though. Halloween 2016 is a long time from now, plenty of time for them to change their minds. But hey, if they don’t, we’ll always have YouTube. Because, you know, it’s more reliable than our memories.