James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

Review (Live Music): PHISH Halloween at Boardwalk Hall

Better late than never, and in acknowledgement of the new Phish album due next month, here’s a never-posted review of last year’s epic Halloween concert.

PHISH!

For the second time in four years, Phish, Vermont’s perpetually popular group of prog rock virtuosi, returned to Atlantic City for their typically-legendary Halloween run. Anticipation, through the roof; spirits, high. 

Few could have predicted, however, the controversy that would greet Phish-o-ween 2013—this time’s gonna be different, as a particular lyric goes, but in a good way. Wielding wicked wavelengths of courage and Phishenergy, the musical pranksters pulled a fast one on fans awaiting their ‘costume,’ which in the past has involved covering a classic album by another artist: in their 30th year, the group broke tradition by playing an album not from the past but rather the future, and in doing so, took a hell of an enormous artistic risk.

Phishbill

Outside elegant, aging Boardwalk Hall, the anticipation could be felt and smelled in the air like the salt from the briny ocean a hundred yards away. An overbuilt monstrosity of a sliver-city on the shore, this time of year there’s only a fraction of the activity that happens during the tourist season, but outside the venue, you’d have thought it the height of summer. The myriad costumes and exuberant attitudes, however, comprised an easy tell that this was much much more than the usual AC crowd of aging gamblers. (And as the conductor on the NJ Transit train from Philly had exclaimed earlier in the day, watching as a phalanx of Phans rushed to board the 1:30 from 30th Street Station, ‘Whoa—this ain’t normal!’)

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As eager phans bursting with curiosity to see the reveal of what would be this year’s special musical costume filed into the show, many were stunned, and some terribly disappointed, to find out what awaited: unlike past selections such as The Who’s Quadrophenia, the Velvet Undergrounds’ Loaded, and 2010’s Waiting for Columbus by southern rockers Little Feat, we were to be treated to a full set of brand-new music by Phish, a sneak preview of an album called Wingsuit, one that hadn’t even been recorded yet. (Update: it’s been announced that the record, due out June 24, will be called Fuego.) Suddenly, the dearth of new material from the band over the last year or two made perfect sense.

Many, however, had high hopes set on hearing one of the rumored selections, like the Allman Brothers classic Eat a Peach, or prog-rock progenitors Yes, only two of numerous possibilities that’d been bandied about on message boards like phish.net. Twas not to be. As it turned out, though, Phish made a grander and more important statement about themselves and the condition and quality of their musical conversation than any cover album could possibly have conveyed.

Phishphans

In the men’s room, two guys were talking about ‘Wingsuit’ and the song titles listed in the ‘Phishbill’ we were all handed, a parody of the Playbill programs used on Broadway, titles like ‘Wombat’ and ‘Amidst the Peals of Laughter.’

“This is a joke,” one said. “‘Wingsuit?’ C’mon.”

“Yeah,” his buddy agreed. “They’re pranking us right till the last minute!”

Maybe, I thought. But as I found a seat and read the detailed essay inside, I surmised that, for a joke, the ideas expressed sounded terribly sincere. So, I strapped myself in, and waited to take flight.

Had a really lousy seat way up high on Mike's side, but through a series of Jedi mind tricks, made my way to row 1 off the floor, a prime seat for the spectacle of creativity to come.

Had a really lousy seat way up high on Mike’s side, but employing a series of mild diversionary tactics and Jedi mind tricks, I managed to make my way to row 1 off the floor, where I’d stay for the entirety of the show—a prime seat for the spectacle of creativity to come.

Indoor Phish has a different vibe from that of the outdoor sheds of summer. The energy the band and the audience create together is more contained inside a structure. Frequencies and vibrations travel around and around, build to peaks that generate audience peaks of their own that flow back into and through the band, a glorious interchange. The stuff of grandeur and magic.

And Fall Tour 2013 had been no joke: Coming off a summer trek plagued on the east coast by extreme weather events bad enough to postpone a show and cancel another halfway through, the band fairly roared into a short, 12-show tour that began in legendary Hampton, Virginia, and proved show-by-show to demonstrate a seasoned rock act performing at a high improvisational peak.

It bears emphasis: While most groups in their 30th year might be lucky to have a shot at working the state fair circuit playing a set of their hits, in one fell swoop Phish drove home the idea that they remain a vital and creative artistic endeavor. The first sets had all been solid if typically unremarkable, but second sets found the band exploring and jamming in ways that felt like a new benchmark for the musicians and fans alike.

As it happened, Halloween’s first set would continue the trend. Unremarkable song selection, solid if unremarkable versions of the tunes, no bust-outs. Saving it up.

To wit: And then, Wingsuit took flight.

___

Phishboardwalkhall

While not appearing too tentative onstage—after all, these are seasoned pros—what became clear very quickly was the band’s gratitude at the kind reception this batch of fresh material received. From the Pink Floydish dreaminess of ‘Wingsuit’ to ‘Fuego’ and its dose of Phish quirk and improvisation, to the outlandish whiteboy rap of ‘Wombat,’ complete with dancers and a visibly thrilled Abe Vigoda in a wombat suit, more classic rock crooning in ‘Waiting All Night,’ the modern rock hit single potential (uh-oh) of ‘The Line,’ the acoustic charm of ‘Monica’ (now entitled ‘Sing Monica’), an uptempo straight-up rocker about a breakup called ‘Devotion to a Dream,’ the Mike Gordonesque ‘555,’ the set proved that Phish could show up and drop 70 compelling minutes of new songs, live and beamed out to the interwebs, without breaking a sweat.

Phish acoustic

“We can’t tell you all how much this means to us,” Anastasio said before the last couple of songs, his voice quavering with emotion. The crowd roared its approval yet again. Typically picky phans in the front row proceeded to ask for the guitar to be turned up, which Trey did, calling out the soundman.

So how could Phish top the enormity of ‘Wingsuit?’ Would it be like third sets at this marquee gigs often end up being, like the first set, somewhat perfunctory? Forget it. This is Halloween. This is Atlantic City. This is The Phish.

The icing on the cake? A ‘Godfather’ parody film, very brief, that played on large screens during the set break. ‘Can you get me onstage, Page? For old times’ sake?” Abe Vigoda asks in the parking garage of one of the casinos. “Can’t do it,” the gentle keyboardist responds. “It’s just business.”

phish godfather

As the only true nod to the morbid nature of the holiday, the nearly twenty minute ‘Ghost’ that led off an electric and smooth as butter third frame of the show set the tone for what could have stood as the best of any particular second set of the tour, particularly as the ‘Carini’ that followed, at over fifteen minutes, also featured the kind of layered and melodic bliss jamming that Phish aficionados travel far and pay dearly to experience. Add ‘Harry Hood’ and its de rigueur bliss jam to the mix, and third set Halloween 2014, capped off by a raucous if standard ‘Run Like An Antelope,’ stands as one of the strongest of the tour. Even phans disappointed with the Wingsuit set had little to complain filing out in the Atlantic City night, foggy and damp.

For the scribe, the tour ended there, a fiftieth-show personal milestone that left a wonderful impression on this twenty-year fan. Twenty years later, and quite unlike the lyrics of the recent band composition of the same name, Phish, now going into a 31st year that includes the announcement of a summer tour, release of the new album, as well as rumors of a fall West Coast run including, you guessed it, Halloween, is anything but upside down.

abe

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

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