What Makes A Great Halloween Show?
In honor of Halloween, we’ve been dipping into the JamBase archives for articles related to the jamband holiday. Today, we share Chad Berndtson’s 2014 feature on what elements make for a great Halloween concert. Please note the article was published ahead of Halloween 2014, so many of the references to upcoming Halloween shows were discussing concerts that were played a few days after publication on October 31, 2014.
As jamband holidays go, even New Year’s Eve can’t touch Halloween when it comes to the pins-and-needles excitement of bands that might and will do something unusual or otherwise out-of-the-box.
We asked a number of scene regulars to take us through what makes a great Halloween show as well as discuss whether the “musical costume” concept — especially covering a full album — has run its course.
What makes Halloween more than just extra fun?
Halloween shows inspire a range of emotions, but the best part, said Dark Star Orchestra’s Jeff Mattson, is “just the expectation that something is going to be different tonight, and particularly mischievous with dark undertones. That’s what makes the night exciting. It’s an event. The audience tends to be involved, as in wearing costumes and make-up.”
“If it was up to me alone, I might pick some weird, obscure album to cover, or a really dumb theme. But it seems the best ones are the ideas that get even those most jaded fans to dress up and get into it,” said moe.’s Chuck Garvey. “Funny or super creative themes that push the band and audience to different, weird places tend to be memorable.”
It is something the bands take seriously, Garvey said, noting that “it seems like a vast majority of the live music audience and the musicians who perform just love to dress up — in music and costume.”
“It’s a boutique show — a specialty show,” says Yonder Mountain String Band’s Ben Kaufmann. “It’s obvious but there’s the element of the theatrical that’s built into it. I am a big fan of getting up there and getting myself good and embarrassed on stage. Every show needs to be a special show, but I mean, you’ve only got a couple of these shows a year where you can get a little crazier than usual, throw some more moneyu into the production and the audience will go along with it.”
Yonder will play Halloween in Nashville and is planning a bunch of music taken “from certain films,” Kaufmann said.
“It’s a thing to dive into — head first,” he said. “And this year we’re psyched because I’ve finally convinced Adam [Aijala] to dress up. I swear sometimes that guy is 38 going on 140 — you have to understand what a big deal this is to get him to do it!”
“You do feel pressure to top previous years but it’s a good pressure,” said Warren Haynes, referring to Gov’t Mule’s much-beloved Mule-o-ween shows. “It’s a lot of preparation that goes into Halloween and New Year’s for us, and it’s cathartic when we get to do it.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint quite when Halloween became a “thing” for jam-loving concertgoers. Scene godparents like the Grateful Dead didn’t play Halloween shows, per se, although fans could – and still can, when it’s a Dead-related band – count on hearing “Werewolves of London.”
That wasn’t a favorite tradition with the members of the Dead, recalled longtime publicist and biographer Dennis McNally, although Jerry and Co. did honor it. “Werewolves” shows included a highly regarded Halloween night show in 1990 in London, where the Warren Zevon classic was indeed the encore.
“I remember that on the way to that show Jerry was grumbling to Vince about having to play ‘Werewolves.’ He hated being predictable,” McNally said. “But it was superb.”
Many scene-watchers naturally point to Phish’s cover of The Beatles in 1994 as a useful guidepost. Some of the Halloween-themed shows in the two decades since then now rank among the greatest and most beloved memories of its core bands. from moe.’s Simpsons extravaganza in 2002, to the various Mule-O-Weens, and epic nights from Umphrey’s, Strangefolk, String Cheese Incident and a who’s who of other bands.
But in many ways, the modern traditions go back to the White Album in Glens Falls. Greg McLoughlin, a scene regular who’s played in bands such as BuzzUniverse and Scarecrow Collection, has been at some pivotal shows in jamband Halloween history, including String Cheese Incident’s legendary Los Angeles tribute to deceased rock stars that included an appearance from the late “The Price Is Right” announcer Rod Roddy.
He was also there for Phish during that storied 1994 show and 20 years later remembers it vividly, he says.
“Phish were the ones to really make Halloween a cannot-miss event,” he recalls. “I wasn’t yet a huge Beatles fan, but I was young, in college, and getting from Scranton to upstate New York on a school night was an epic adventure in its own right. One of my best friends now was our ride to the gig — the only guy we knew who had a car — and he was not a Phish fan. He barely remembers that show, but now he has seen Phish probably 250 times.”
“Not enough great things can be said about that night,” McLoughlin continues. “It was a very small venue, tickets were only $18.50, and Phish clearly worked for months on mastering that double-album for their fans. Everything I ever loved about Phish was in clear example that magical night.”
There are the Halloween shows that everyone remembers and would point to on any comprehensive list. But a number of musicians, especially those who have been on the scene for decades, point to personally-cherished memories, too.
“One night in the 90s at the Wetlands Preserve in New York, my band, the Zen Tricksters, all dressed in punk and heavy metal regalia,” Mattson recalls. “In other words, we were dressed as the anti-hippies. We came out for the first song introduced as ‘Dead Meat on a Stick’ and launched into a thrash-metal version of ‘Shakedown Street,’ which we only kept up for a verse or two.”
Mattson said he’ll never forget the looks on peoples’ faces.
“Somehow, even on Halloween, they didn’t seem to get that it was a goof and just looked horrified,” he said. “That made it 10 times more fun.”
Medeski Martin & Wood’s Billy Martin said MMW didn’t go in thinking to do multi-part Halloween specific theme shows but they certainly weren’t beyond capturing the feeling.
“We were fond of playing our music but doing something extra. There was a year at the Beacon [in New York] when we had people perform hanging from ropes, they choreographed a couple of pieces like ‘Dracula’ and other things we’d do on Halloween,” he said. “They dressed up in zombie look and they danced above us on ropes. That was really cool.”
For other bands a Halloween epic became tradition quickly — and stayed that way. moe’s Chuck Garvey pointed to his band’s 2000 “Dark Side of the Moon” epic at Philadelphia’s Tower Theater as among his favorites, but notes that the moe. Halloween tradition goes back years more still.
“Many years ago, we played at Jack Straw’s in Charlotte [NC]. The band dressed in drag and some also went as horror movie victims,” he says. “The night is total blur except for the start of the first set — Black Sabbath amidst a cloud of smoke onstage. At the end of the night, I recall wrapping cables, wearing nothing but shoes and a tutu. Not sure if it was the end-all-be-all of Halloween shows, but the whole thing was surreal and definitely left a lasting, funny impression.”
A number of musicians and fans interviewed by JamBase pointed to The String Cheese Incident as one band that has consistently nailed Halloween. SCI’s Jason Hann admits that for the band it’s important to keep the bar high.
“Last year’s Hulaween in Suwannee had so many highlights,” Hann says. “It became an amazing new property for us to explore hosting, the art and lit up areas around the lake (similar to Electric Forest beginnings), the great variety of music to check out. And we had such a fun Hulaween set, adding vocalists Rhonda Thomas and Toni White, and the Antibalas horn section that we were able to dive into a Fela song (‘Zombie’) with the additional singers and horn section was definitely a plus to doing something we might not have otherwise tried. We were also hooked up with killer costumes and every part of what was going on seemed to stack on top of each other to add to the experience. By the time we hit the stage we found ourselves nodding to each other like ‘this is how ya do things’ so we are ready to make a bunch more memories this Hulaween.
Preparations start early
Gov’t Mule, which will cover Neil Young on Halloween in Ohio with special guest Jackie Greene, starts preparing for its Mule-o-Ween sets a few months in advance, said Haynes. Much of that preparation is sorting out a setlist and a flow for the show.
“It really comes down to what we think fans would want to hear, which includes some degree of more popular songs, but also enough maybe obscure material that a real, hardcore fan would ask for,” Haynes said. “A lot of that is listening on our part, and deciding what, if we were in the audience as fans, we would really want to hear.”
Some songs — such as the Rolling Stones’ “Ventilator Blues” or Pink Floyd’s “One of These Days” or several Doors cuts that were played during last year’s Mule-o-ween shows — enter occasional rotation in Mule shows following their debuts, others are one-and-dones. But according to Haynes, the band is much more focused on how the tunes will come across during the night of the show and the preparations that have gone in than whether the songs themselves will stick around.
Jackie Greene will be joining Mule for the Young Mule show this Friday, playing a similar role to his 2008 appearance during the Stones-themed Mule-o-ween. Mule has been rehearsing Neil Young tunes during sound checks during the last few months, while Greene has also been boning up on Neil tunes. Mule and Greene will rehearse together for about two days ahead of the Halloween show, Haynes said.
“He’s someone we’ve called on before, someone with a lot of experience and background playing Neil Young music, and also someone who can play a bunch of instruments and sing a few lead vocals, which he will,” Haynes said, adding that fans should expect some acoustic guitar segments during the show.
Is it time to retire the musical costume?
Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell struck a chord this summer during an interview with NPR, hinting that a new Halloween tradition might be in order and that, of the cover sets, the thought was that “everybody kind of got a little of sick of it, so the last couple of years it started to feel like a trap we had built.”
Many musicians do agree the pressure to top previous efforts or find a fresh angle for Halloween sometimes overshadows the raw enjoyment factor.
“I tend to think that the ‘recreating a classic album’ concept seems to have run its course,” said DSO’s Mattson. “If bands want to do that, I think it could be cooler to hear them reinterpret all the music in their own style rather than doing the note-for-note thing. But having said that, I appreciate anybody trying to make the night special.”
If fans spend too much time overthinking what a Halloween “should” be, some argue, they’re missing the point.
“I think any time you can have another reason for a band to stretch out of what they normally do is another reason to go see and appreciate the musicians that you enjoy listening to,” SCI’s Hann said. “Some fans that are strapped for cash might aim towards a specially-themed show to travel and catch that show knowing that it will be something special in addition to any other concert that they might attend. From the musician’s perspective, it’s a chance to challenge ourselves and pull off material that we enjoy listening to and see how that might influence our musical exploration down the road.”
“A lot of bands build on traditions started by others,” McLoughlin offered. “But everything a musician does has to come from the heart, whether it is writing a great three-chord song, or reinterpreting a Frank Zappa album with a surprise 4 a.m. set at a festival. It’s all spontaneous and beautiful.”
Adds moe.’s Garvey, “[The costume idea] is probably overdone to a certain degree, but as long as new ideas and fun nights of music are left to be had, we are all going to show up — ready to get down to business.”