Halloween is that time of year when we’re allowed to step outside ourselves and pretend to be someone else. As such, in 1994 Phish took on the mantle of donning a “musical costume” for the evening, performing the Beatles’ White Album during the second of a three-set show in Glens Falls, NY. There have been five further Halloween shows, in 1995, 1996, 1998, 2009, & 2010, where they performed Quadrophenia (The Who), Remain In Light (Talking Heads), Loaded (Velvet Underground), Exile On Main Street (Rolling Stones), and Waiting For Columbus (Little Feat), respectively. Each of those albums were landmarks, and each one signaled a shift in Phish’s future directions.
Anticipation for Halloween 2013 was high and the rumor mills were abuzz with everything from Michael Jackson’s Thriller to Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway being bandied about. Phish has always thrived in the throes of unpredictability but few were expecting what they had in store. This year, instead of some classic album from the past, the band surprised everyone by performing twelve songs from their upcoming album, none of which had ever been performed by Phish. Dubbed Wingsuit, they said this time they wanted to play an album from the future.
And, folks, the future is bright.
The plan was that three days after the show, they would enter the studio with the legendary Bob Ezrin producing (best-known for his work with Pink Floyd). Over the past year, Phish had been gathering in secret and writing new material. Over the course of their thirty year career, Phish spent countless hours spontaneously creating new music as a band, but they had never attempted to write songs as a group until now. These clandestine writing sessions yielded a vast wealth of material that, combined with more traditionally-sourced tracks, formed the basis for their intended new album. A few new songs had trickled into their live sets over the past year or two but much was held back. Fans had been growing frustrated with the lack of new Phish material over the last couple of years. It’s all clear now.
The first thing that hit me was how the individual members’ influences mesh within the songs. Opening with “Wingsuit”, the set starts off on a dreamy, somewhat atmospheric vibe, one that makes Ezrin a clear choice for producer. “It feels good because it feels good”, a fair enough assumption where the band is, something that is also driven home when they sing, “You’re driven to the edge so put your wingsuit on”, which is exactly what Phish did that night, in the risks they were taking, and the heights to which they soared.
From there, they move into “Fuego”, which is one of the most unique and complex songs Phish has done as of late. Several contrasting sections, a ferocious jam, and some fun lyrics make this one a clear winner. It’s also one of the heaviest songs the band has ever done. There is no doubt that it won’t be long before we see an epic second set open with a 23-minute “Fuego”. And it will be marvelous.
Next up is “The Line”, one of Phish’s best pop songs ever, and already one of my all time favorites. Written from the perspective of Darius Washington Jr, as he missed the two free throws that kept Memphis State out of the NCAA Championship in 2005, this song has gotten Phish more press than they’ve gotten in years. With its clear hooks and “oooohs” in the background, this could be a hit and one that we’ll no doubt hear for years as background to sports highlight montages.
The band strips down to an acoustic configuration for the peppy “Monica” which is the song from this album that has most stuck in my head. “Waiting All Night” finds Phish in uncharted territory, a reflective number that is another one that could almost be a hit. Some very emotive vocals from Trey Anastasio clinch this song’s success.
Next up is “Wombat”. A lot of fans like this song because it’s uber-funky and goofy as hell, but to me it’s a song that was fun to watch the first night and hopefully they won’t ever play it again. Not much substance and, really, the best part of the song was Abe Vigoda on stage, dancing in a wombat suit.
The band strips to an acoustic format again for Mike Gordon’s “Snow”. Musically akin to the alt.folk stylings of Fleet Foxes, and featuring some pretty interesting musical bits, this suffers greatly from Gordon’s falsetto vocals. He more than redeems himself with the funky “555”, one of the finest songs he’s contributed, but before that, Anastasio offers up “Devotion To A Dream”, a slightly rocking number that is sure to get the crowd dancing.
“Winterqueen” is the only song that had ever been heard before, performed once by Anastasio’s solo band in 2011, but here it is given new life, as it builds from a quiet ballad into a soaring, dynamic piece of music. Anastasio and Page McConnell lay down the sparse, acoustic folk ditty, “Amidst The Peals Of Laughter”, a song about the daily grind, with colorful references to Jack & Jill, before wrapping things up with “You Never Know”, a song about a guy who apparently stole all their money. It’s a fun number and perhaps the closest they came to sounding like early Phish. A killer way to end a killer set.
There are other songs slated for the album, which we’ve heard before. Among those is McConnell’s exquisite “Halfway To The Moon”, a pair of Gordon originals (the funky “Say Something” and the reggae grooves of “Yarmouth Road”), and Anastasio’s spaced-out “Steam”, which has been a highlight of the last few years.
The final product is due in the Spring and who knows how it will turn up. Guessing is half the fun. The rest of the fun, however, lies within these tracks, all of which are available for download at www.livephish.com.
~ Written by: Chris Anderson