Phish Halloween Preview | Trying To Predict The Unpredictable

By Scott Bernstein Oct 17, 2013 8:30 am PDT

With just two weeks left until Halloween, we wanted to preview one of the most anticipated shows of the holiday –Phish at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. Scribe Ben Greenfield who tweets and has written under the name Guy Forget, has been leading a conversation about just what album the quartet will cover on Twitter and we’ve asked him to lay out some of his thoughts for the preview that follows.

Phish’s Halloween tradition of covering an album whose identity is kept secret until showtime has turned the holiday into fans’ equivalent of Christmas morning. We spend months looking forward to it. Some of us make wish lists for Santa (who, in this analogy, has traded in his flying reindeer for a tour bus). Most of us will enjoy whatever we get – though there’ll always be a few of us who end up like these kids. And as with any highly anticipated surprise, many of our minds run wild, in the weeks leading up to the big day, about what might be in store. So if you’ll indulge my Christmas comparison one last time, this article is my attempt to root through the closets to figure out what we might be getting.

My speculation is born partly out of excitement, but also in part because many people – myself included – find the cover set more enjoyable when we’re familiar with the album. Phish, after all, rewards familiarity more than any other band in history – they have a secret language, for goodness’ sake – and so a full set of unfamiliar tunes can be a bit disorienting.

So if this is your first Halloween, I have two pieces of advice for you. First, don’t get your hopes up for any particular album. I know, I know; the cloud on your PTBM ticket is clearly modeled after the cloud in one of the promo shots for Hanson’s Middle Of Nowhere. But – sorry to break it to you – the odds that you’ll actually get to MmmBop on Halloween are pretty mmmBad. (Sorry.)

My second recommendation is that if you want to be familiar with the album Phish plays, you should strategically curate your listening choices over the next couple weeks, because some albums are more likely than others. Not only will this strategizing increase the likelihood that you’ll be familiar with the actual costume Phish has selected, but chances are you’ll also fall in love with at least a new album or two along the way. Now there’s one small problem. Tens of thousands of albums exist, and Phish could literally play any one of them. So where the heck do we start?

We might begin by looking at the albums they’ve played before. It’s certainly true that they could throw a curveball and bust out, say, the full soundtrack to West Side Story, or a Kanye cover (Pheezus?). But for the six musical costumes they’ve chosen since they began their Halloween tradition in 1994, there are certain patterns that have emerged:

• Every album they’ve selected has been released between 1968 and 1980.

• They’ve covered each artist prior to the Halloween set. (Note that this is only barely true: their only pre-10/31/94 Beatles cover was a 1985 take on Piggies. It also doesn’t narrow down the choices much: the list of artists Phish has covered is quite long. Also note that the frequent assertion that Phish has played a song from each album before they played it is false: they’d never played anything from Quadrophenia before 10/31/95 or Remain in Light before ’96.)

• Each band they’ve covered has had between 4 and 6 regular members. All of these bands’ lead vocalists have been male.

• Every album has indeed been by a band – no solo artists have been covered.

• All of the albums but Waiting For Columbus have been in the top 300 on Rolling Stone’s 2012 Top 500 albums list. All but Loaded have hit the top 20 in the charts. And all six got 4.5 or 5 stars on All but WFC are in the top 700 on RateYourMusic, which compiles fan ratings.

• Each album has had between 8 and 30 songs. Quadrophenia, Exile and WFC all sit in what seems to be the sweet spot of 17-18 songs.

• This point is arguable, but all of them are essentially “rock” albums. You could call Remain In Light “new wave,” but the point is, they’ve never played an album full of funk, bluegrass, jazz or any of the other genres they’ve experimented with.

Next, we can ask ourselves what we actually know about this year’s album. Unfortunately, the answer is nothing. Sure, there have been rumors: one Atlantic City balloon on Phish’s tour page is sitting in the middle of Kansas, leading fans to speculate about a Kansas cover set, or perhaps Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (we’re not in Kansas anymore…) Two problems arise here. First, it turns out that the balloon is located on the geographic center of the contiguous United States – a.k.a. the default location in Google Maps – suggesting that a coder may have just omitted a location for that show. Second, the balloon turns out to be for the 11/1 show, not 10/31.

So the best we can do is make some educated guesses. I’ve compiled a list of 78 likely albums, starting with the 99-album list the band compiled before Festival 8, continuing with the list of past Phish covers, then throwing in a handful that I’ve seen mentioned online, and finishing with a few that my very smart gut told me was possible.

Next, I put the bands in three tiers of likelihood, using several criteria:

1. The factors listed above. All of the albums I’ve deemed Most Likely were released between ’68 and ’80 (with a slight grace period for Hendrix’s 1967 albums), and all have been covered by Phish (Cream was grandfathered in even though they’ve only been covered in soundchecks). For these purposes, I’ve assumed that the band vs. solo act thing is coincidence, hence a few solo artists in the Most Likely category

2. Genre. I’m operating under the assumption that Phish is far less likely to play an album full of hard rock, heavy metal, or anything that might be labeled “prog” than classic rock. Hence, bands like AC/DC, Zappa, and Black Sabbath were bumped down, even though Phish has enjoyed covering them in the past – or, in Genesis’s case, even though they’ve flirted with covering them on Halloween.

3. Singability. No offense to the boys, but hitting the high notes isn’t their forte. This helps explain the downgrading of Prince, Jane’s Addiction and Queen, among others.

4. Timeliness. On the other hand, some attributes of this particular Halloween show bumped up a couple albums. Thriller made the list in spite of the singability factor, largely because of its relevance to Phish’s first gig, whose 30th anniversary is close to this year’s Halloween show. Bruce Springsteen might not have made the top tier if the show weren’t in New Jersey, but it is. (Some have even speculated that Bruce would sit in, partially inspired by this story.)

The list is below. It’s not scientific: it’s quite possible they’d never dream of playing a full set of ZZ Top, which I’ve put in the top tier. And of course, it’s completely possible that the actual album Phish has selected is not on the list at all. If this ends up happening, please be aware that I’m planning to come to the show in my guy-with-egg-on-his-face costume, so any attempts to throw actual eggs at me when you get the Phishbill will just be redundant. But of course, let me know what I’ve omitted, or feel free to throw all the digital eggs at me that you want to, in the comments below.

Most Likely
The Band -Music from Big Pink / The Band / Rock of Ages / Basement Tapes
Bruce Springsteen -Born To Run / The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle
Cream -Disraeli Gears
David Bowie -Hunky Dory / Ziggy Stardust
Derek & The Dominoes – Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs
Elton John -Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Jimi Hendrix -Are You Experienced / Electric Ladyland / Axis: Bold As Love
Lynyrd Skynyrd -Pronounced ‘Leh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd / Second Helping
The Police – Any studio album
Santana – Abraxas
ZZ Top -Tres Hombres

Second Tier
AC/DC – Back in Black
Allman Brothers Band – Eat a Peach
Black Sabbath – Paranoid
Blind Faith -Blind Faith
Boston – Boston
The Clash -London Calling
Dire Straits – S/T / Making Movies / Brothers in Arms
The Doors -The Doors / LA Woman
Frank Zappa -Apostrophe / Joe’s Garage / Hot Rats
Genesis -Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
Huey Lewis & The News – Sports
King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King / Larks’ Tongues in Aspic / Discipline
Neil Young -Everybody Knows / Tonight’s The Night / On The Beach
Peter Frampton -Frampton Comes Alive
Queen -Night At the Opera
R.E.M. -Murmur
Steely Dan -Aja / Pretzel Logic / Royal Scam / Can’t Buy a Thrill
Stevie Wonder – Innervisions / Songs in the Key of Life
Traffic -Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys

Long Shots
CSNY – Deja Vu
Jane’s Addiction – Ritual de lo Habitual / Nothing’s Shocking
J.J. Cale – Naturally
Led Zeppelin -Physical Graffiti / Houses of the Holy
Metallica -Master of Puppets
Michael Jackson -Thriller
Modern Lovers -S/T
Nirvana -Nevermind / In Utero
Paul Simon – Graceland
Pavement – Crooked Rain Crooked Rain
Prince -Purple Rain / 1999
Radiohead – Kid A / The Bends / OK Computer
Rage Against The Machine -S/T
Rush – Moving Pictures
T. Rex – Electric Warrior
Television -Marquee Moon
Van Halen -S/T
Van Morrison -Astral Weeks
Ween -Chocolate and Cheese
Yes – The Yes Album

Written By: Ben Greenfield

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