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March 23, 2019

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Review: A prime Phish captures spirit of Halloween at MGM Grand

Phish on Halloween at MGM Grand

L.E. Baskow

Trey Anastasio of Phish sings during the band’s concert at MGM Grand Garden Arena on Halloween night on Friday, Oct. 31, 2014.

Phish on Halloween at MGM Grand

Trey Anastasio of Phish sings during the band’s concert at MGM Grand Garden Arena on Halloween night on Friday, Oct. 31, 2014. Launch slideshow »
Click to enlarge photo

Mike Gordon of Phish performs during the band’s concert at MGM Grand Garden Arena on Halloween night on Friday, Oct. 31, 2014.

Click to enlarge photo

Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon of Phish play during the band’s concert at MGM Grand Garden Arena on Halloween night on Friday, Oct. 31, 2014.

It’s Halloween night, and Phish is playing Las Vegas for the first time in a decade. What could possibly go wrong?

However you answer that question depends on what type of expectations you set for the musical acts in your life.

If you’re good at managing expectations, you looked at Phish’s Halloween performance in 2013 as an indication of what was in store this year. Last year, the band performed an entire album of new material — then called “Wingsuit,” eventually released as “Fuego” — as the second of three sets at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall.

The performance was a departure from the band’s previous Halloween shows, where they would don a “musical costume,” performing a classic album like The Who’s “Quadrophenia” or Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light” in its entirety. A calculating fan would’ve figured that, given Phish’s outside-the-box move a year ago, this year’s costume would be just as unexpected.

But why be calculating when you can imagine the boys busting out “Thriller” or “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” right?

Even the craftiest Las Vegas oddsmaker couldn’t have predicted Friday night’s costume: a musical interpretation of “Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House,” an obscure album of Halloween sound effects released by Disneyland Records in 1964.

The concept was nothing if not ambitious: a set of 10 instrumentals performed from inside a haunted house, whose sides eventually collapsed to reveal the band members suspended on a platform in white-on-white suits and face paint, playing to one another in a circle while zombie dancers roamed the stage and audience. In between songs, a narrator named Esther emerged from a crypt to thread a loosely tied story of cats, dogs, a shipwreck and martians.

Did Phish succeed in capturing the spirit of Halloween? Absolutely. Did they succeed in gauging the audience’s mood? Yes and no.

Two pieces, “Your Pet Cat” and “The Birds,” were particularly well-received, balancing tension-and-release dynamics with effective vocal samples cued up by keyboardist Page McConnell. But too often, the music tended toward a Halloween version of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra — great background music for a Halloween party but not something you’d want as your main focus for an hour.

Phish fans will likely be split on “The Haunted House.” The MGM Grand crowd was the first (and perhaps only) audience to experience this music, and if these pieces do not become a regular part of the repertoire, it will go down as one of the most essential Phish shows of all time. But from a purely musical perspective, is there any desire to return to this music on a day other than Oct. 31? Has this music been boxed in by its timeliness and therefore aced itself out of Phish’s everyday sets?

Perhaps these are all questions to be answered at a later date. What cannot be denied, however, is the jolt the new material gave to the band. As the third set began, Phish seemed freer than ever, trotting out one crowd-pleaser after another, delving deeper into jams and pulling out new musical ideas. Aside from a few questionable transitions — guitarist Trey Anastasio cut short a high-upside jam coming out of “Golden Age” to go into “Tweezer,” and drummer Jon Fishman seemed way too eager to segue a smoking jam out of “Tweezer” into “Heavy Things” — this was prime Phish.

The highlight of the set (and maybe the five-hour show) was an extended take on “Sand” that found Anastasio deep in the zone, mouth agape, shredding licks while McConnell got funky on the clavinet. The transition out of “Sand” into “Tweezer Reprise,” too, was sheer ecstasy. Confetti sprayed. Glow sticks flew. Bassist Mike Gordon dropped one bomb after another. Phish was back in Las Vegas.

And what did they send us home with a full 70 minutes into All Saints Day? Another instrumental, of course. Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein,” with McConnell out front on keytar, was proof positive that we had awoken a monster. Beware, for Phish is fearless, and therefore powerful.

Friday night’s first set: “Buried Alive,” “Ghost,” “Scent of a Mule,” “Sample in a Jar,” “Reba,” “46 Days,” “Big Black Furry Creature From Mars,” “Lawn Boy,” “Saw It Again,” “Tube” and “Wolfman’s Brother.”

Friday night’s second set: “The Haunted House,” “The Very Long Fuse,” “The Dogs,” “Timber,” “Your Pet Cat,” “Shipwreck,” “The Unsafe Bridge,” “The Chinese Water Torture,” “The Birds” and “Martian Monster.”

Friday night’s third set: “Punch You in the Eye,” “Golden Age” (TV on the Radio cover), “Tweezer,” “Heavy Things,” “Guyute,” “Sand” and “Tweezer Reprise.” Encore: “Is This What You Wanted” (Leonard Cohen cover) and “Frankenstein” (Edgar Winter Group cover).

Jack Houston is the editor of Las Vegas Magazine, a sister publication of the Las Vegas Sun.

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