Over the course of six Halloween shows since 1994, Phish have established a tradition of donning a surprise "musical costume" in which they perform a complete cover album between two full sets of their own material. At last night's Halloween show in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the band broke from tradition to perform a set of music from an album that hasn't even been recorded yet – Phish's own upcoming album.
Slated for release next year and tentatively entitled Wingsuit, Phish's new album will draw largely from the new original material they debuted during their Halloween set. The fact that the album doesn't even have a definite name or release date, and that Phish's Halloween "costume" was a set of music that nobody in the audience had heard before, speaks volumes about the musicians' confidence in themselves during their 30th anniversary year.
It took balls to defy the expectations of fans who had flown in from all over the country expecting to see Phish cover one of the musicians' favorite bands or childhood albums. Speculation right up until showtime had focused on the Allman Brothers' 1972 album Eat a Peach or the Band's album from the same year, Rock of Ages, as this year's choice cover album. Earlier rumors had pointed to Elton John's 1973 LP Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or even Huey Lewis and the News' Sports. All of which would have been stellar selections. But Phish, a band that thrives on taking risks, took a very calculated risk by showing off songs that aren't even completed yet. And, this time, the risk paid off – and if many of the new songs sounded more like demos, that was the point.
In the "Phishbill" that was handed out to fans on the way into Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall, the band explained their reasons for performing their own yet-to-be-recorded album: "Music is a spiritual language," they wrote in a statement. "Your energy is obviously embedded in everything we've ever done, but what's happening tonight is more of a tangible thing. The songs always change so much as soon as we play them together with all of you. Playing these songs tonight is a way that we can get them dirty and mess them up a little before we record them. And the live energy of a Phish audience will be directly involved in the making of our new album, as we all celebrate 30 years together."
Knowing, historically, how new material is often met with skepticism by some fans, until they become familiar with the new sounds, guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell repeatedly thanked the audience for their indulgence.
According to the Phishbill, the process behind the making of this album entailed an inspired and somewhat secretive period during which the band reconvened in their old practice barn in Vermont, playing music just for the sake of playing music. It was an experience that reminded them why they love playing music together, and that they can still do it just for their own enjoyment. In hindsight, that explains so much about why Phish have been able to recapture the kind of mind-reading improvisational antics that earned them the title the King of the Jam Bands in the first place. It was obvious onstage just how much fun they're having again playing music together. And that translated into a highly entertaining – and inspired – concert experience.
The Wingsuit set was packed with all the punches you would expect from Phish – cow funk, prog rock, arena rock, roots rock – and elements that span the history of & roll at large, including classic-style Phish crescendo jams ("Fuego") to bluegrass and blues influenced burners. There were acoustic ditties ("Monica," "Snow") and intricately composed rockers ("Winterqueen," "Devotion to a Dream"), and a new Mike Gordon tune, "555," that offered fragments of Americana and classic rock. Most of the songs have potential to become live standards. But the night's most bizarre, one-of-a-kind moment came during a dabble with a uniquely Vermont-sounding take on rap-rock on the stop-start funk tune "Wombat," during which actor Abe Vigoda came on stage disguised in a wombat costume. He busted into hip-hop dance moves (yes, really) alongside a dance troupe that was announced afterward as the "Vigoda Dancers."
After Wingsuit, Phish returned to the stage for a third set of music that relied on their tried and true classics, including "Ghost," "Harry Hood" and "Run Like an Antelope." With all their nervous energy now gone, they used their "hits" to experiment once again with music that has never been played before, going off the deep end with the kind of highly experimental whole-band jamming that has been so characteristic of the band's 2013 revival. Anastasio, who often leads jams with his cinematic sense of guitar shredding, dug into chunky rhythmic playing instead, letting the other members take turns steering the ship. In some of the jams, such as the set's creative centerpiece – "Carini" – you could hear traces of the Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, the Who, Little Feat, the Rolling Stones and even the Beatles – all the bands Phish had covered at previous Halloween shows. That was no coincidence.
And as for those disappointed few who would have rather seen Phish play other people's music, well, there's always next time. Keep in mind that Phish once performed Pink Floyd's entire Dark Side of the Moon, without warning or practice, during the show that immediately followed a Halloween performance of the Velvet Underground's Loaded. So you never know what could happen at the two remaining shows on Phish's fall tour, this weekend in Atlantic City.
As for the new material debuted on Halloween, the band will start recording sessions with producer Bob Ezrin beginning next week.