Halloween's a holiday that Phish built their reputation for unpredictability on - since 1994, when a show by the band's fallen on October 31st, they've celebrated by donning a "musical costume" covering a band's classic album in its entirety, and keeping its identity secret until the day of the show.
That first year, it was The White Album; since then, they've tackled classics from the Talking Heads (Remain in Light), the Who (Quadrophenia) and the Velvet Underground (Loaded)
But yesterday, at Festival 8, their three-day fest at the Coachella field in Indio, the stakes were even higher: not only has the band not played on Halloween in over a decade, but, through an elaborate animation on their website, they build anticipation by whittling down a list of nearly 100 albums to eight possibilities, which ranged from the esoteric (Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway) to hipster-popular (MGMT's Oracular Spectacular) to the absolutely ridiculous (Larks Tounges in Aspic, King Crimson's dense, technical masterpiece of pretension).
So when their choice for this year, the Rolling Stones' eclectic, 1972 Exile in Main Street was made clear via a ridiculously in-joke filled "Phishbill" (which included faux ads for a David Bowie/UB40 double-bill in Florida for New Years, and Time Turns Elastic Waistband Sweat Pants), it wasn't so much a shock as the safest pick from the shortlist. What they did with it, however, was a different story altogether.
From the first seconds - the slow burn of "Rocks Off" - it was clear that Phish had taken the task of tackling the record seriously, adding a three-piece horn section and two backup singers (including Dap-Kings soul survivor Sharon Jones) to do the album's dirty work. What was most impressive, however, wasn't the replication of songs like "Sweet Virginia," it was the reworked arrangements that honored the originals while showcasing both the band's primary members and their just-for-tonight counterparts. "Loving Cup," long a Phish live staple, became an energetic, frenetic celebration with Jones and guitarist Trey Anastasio yelping vocal lines together, while "Shine A Light" reached gospel-style crescendos effortlessly, the desert's palm trees providing a cinematic backdrop to the far-reaching instrumentals.
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Unsurprisingly, though, the day's real highlight came at the end of the next set, when the band invited the backup musicians back for their own song, "Suzy Greenberg." Like many experiments Phish has tried over the years, it became clear through the singers ridiculous vocal acrobatics and the horn section's insistence on pushing the energy that so much focus was put into getting "Exile" right that the band actually forgot to let loose.
Instead, here was what fans who made the trek were actually looking for: a celebratory freak-fest with no actual boundaries, only musicians on a stage exploring the limits of how far they could take an idea before it beautifully implodes.