Phish Halloween: Before The Musical Costumes
For many, one of the most thrilling parts of being a Phish fan is getting to experience the “special events.” While every show can be a special, spiritual event regardless if it is a midsummer show on a Tuesday in Georgia or a Saturday night on New Year’s Eve at Madison Square Garden, there’s no denying the extra electricity, expectations and buzz around festivals, tour openers, multi-night runs at legendary venues in Phish history like Red Rocks or The Gorge, New Year’s runs and other such events. Included in these, of course, and often one of the highlights of the year and the most celebrated and cherished memories of the year come from Halloween shows.
Phish has immensely benefited musically from the albums they have covered over the years since they kicked off the “musical costume” tradition in Glens Falls, New York in 1994 with the Beatles’ White Album. Voted on by fans and faithfully nailed that historic night, the tradition has been repeated eight times over the last 22 years with many songs becoming setlist staples and important parts of the repertoire. Of course, on Halloween ’13 Phish threw a curve-ball and covered Wingsuit which of course ultimately became their own album, Fuego. It is impossible to understate the importance and history of these musical costume shows including Boardwalk Hall’s “cover” in 2013.
Yet, in some regards, despite the pomp and circumstance, musical history, and the the trinkets (like gold-colored chocolate coins given out before the White Album and the Playbills in subsequent years), surrounding the “musical costume” years, I have even more cherished memories of the three previous Halloween shows that I attended in 1989, 1990 and 1991.
The great thing about catching Phish shows in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was that there was usually very little expectations going into a show. Not that people didn’t expect great shows but there was a sense that anything could happen and nobody cared what was played or predicted anything. Not that every night was a crazy, psychedelic-fueled extravaganza where crazy things happened…but some were. Not that there weren’t “standard” shows of two sets without an opener at a traditional venue (bar or club at that time), but most weren’t.
This was an era of craziness. There were a bunch of shows at fraternity houses, private houses, farms and other make-shift venues. There were unannounced opening bands who showed up and wacky shit just happened. There could be ten people at a show or 200. Yeah, the repertoire was obviously much more limited but not a single soul contemplated what would be played or even bothered to remember what had been performed the previous night. The relatively small group of Phish fans at the time were much more Hell bent on proselytizing to the uninitiated masses of the gospel “Phish” than spend time predicting or anticipating what might be played that night.
Halloween has a cool vibe of course by default and I guess it is not entirely truthful to say that there weren’t any heightened expectations for the Halloween show of 1989 at Goddard, but in many ways it was just another night. I blew off classes that day and drove five hours or so to get to Burlington. I arrived in plenty of time to meet up with friends, hang out downtown and just relax. Like any show, tickets were of zero concern as you’d either pay $5 at the door and get your hand stamped without any physical ticket, get a “ticket” at the door (often easily duplicatable pieces of card-stock) or simply just walk in. And to boot: it was Burlington where access to a Phish show was NEVER an issue. As a matter of fact, I recall in May 1991 when Phish was getting more popular and some shows had pretty full capacity when the last Front shows were announced. Being the most played venue, and having seen a bunch of great shows there – I knew I had to get up there to see the last show on May 12th. It was a long drive for me at the time and I couldn’t get there until near show time and I was worried about a sellout. I was chatting with Chris Kuroda after a show in Somerville, the week before the this last Front show and asked him if he’d help get me in if they sold out. He let out a ferocious laugh and said, “Dude, relax, it’s just fucking Burlington”.
So just like the Front closing show a couple of years later – indeed, it was just “fucking Burlington” and we walked up to the Halloween 1989 show mere minutes before it was supposed to start and walked right in. It was a great little world – seemingly everyone connected by one or two degrees of separation. There’s fantastic videos from the night on YouTube including one of the longest “David Bowie’s” to date, a shirtless Trey during “Bathtub Gin” and the stellar “Reba.” The incredible music, the spartan but effective lighting, and extraordinary energy in the room really produced a night that comes far too infrequently when seeing concerts. There was a palpable sense that this was lightning in a bottle but that Phish was going to be able to produce it again. The anarchy of Trey running around with strap-on breasts, devil’s horns (to be worn again following year as well) and latex pants added to the idiocy of the night. Phish themes of audience interaction, inside jokes and tomfoolery may not have started this night – but the distribution of the mac and cheese boxes to become maracas certainly was one of the best examples in the early years of this behavior.
Yeah, I didn’t have a Playbill walking out. They hadn’t debuted 15 new songs from a historic album (but did debut “Kung”), and I didn’t have a camera or cell phone to snap any pictures. Despite that, the memories of that show 25 years ago, are as vivid of the last Halloween show that I saw in 2010 and just as memorable and special as any of the other album shows to me.
The next two years in 1990 and 1991 also featured Phish performing Halloween shows with the only “costume” being Trey wearing devil’s horns and Fishman in his Zeroman outfit. Both took place at Armstrong Hall at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Similarly to the 1989 Halloween show, these were walk-up and attend type of affairs as Phish was still beginning to establish a foothold outside their native Northeast. I can’t recall the ticket prices, but I think I paid $10 each year. While the several-hundred seat theater seemed relatively full both years, they certainly were not sell-outs with plenty of people just happening by and walking up. As was typical of the era, a “Minkin” backdrop adorned the stage and the light show consisted of about a dozen lights with simple colored gel changers. A small table with a candle and signup sheets for the “Phish Update” (before the switch to the “Doniac Schvice”) sat in the lobby and nary a merchandise table in site.
A costume contest took place both years with a decent percentage of the college aged attendees happily participating. 1990’s ticket even had the wording that costumes were “required.” One of the years, I can’t remember which, the winner was gifted with free admission for a year to any Phish show. Hand painted murals adorned the walls both years with motifs such as a psychedelic Cat In The Hat. Painted by the students and likely not seen by the band until the day of the show, these murals gave a definite feel of a small-town show. 1990 was the first time Phish had played Halloween outside of Vermont, but given the appreciative reception of the crowd, the great music and the extraordinary vibe, it seemed very preordained that Halloween would continue to play a special role in the band’s history. Interestingly enough, the online release of this show in 1999 was the band’s first official online release and has even been said that it is the first full length, concert release released online by any band. Memorable indeed.
I’m lucky to have a bunch of Halloween shows that I’ve been able to attend: both musical costumes and traditional shows. So while some fret over the possible demise of the album cover, I’m not worried. Halloween is more than that and I welcome whatever happens to come in the years to come.
[Originally Published: October 30, 2014, Modified October 31, 2017]
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