Like all bands that have been around for a while, Phish is haunted by its own history.
The quartet spent their first decade evading foolish and facile comparisons with the Grateful Dead, whose leader’s demise catapulted Phish to the top of the improv-rock granola circuit they’d almost single-handedly created. Risking calcification after three hard-touring decades and a temporary demise, Phish often goes out of its way to upend audience expectations, and last night’s holiday spooktacular – I mean spectretacular – at MGM’s Grand Garden Arena was their craziest Halloween stunt to date.
Covering the Beatles’ White Album, as in 1994? Yes, they are America’s Beatles. Talking Heads’ Remain in Light (1996)? Talk about oblique. The Velvets’ Loaded (1998)? Too close to home. Their own yet-unrecorded Wingsuit (2013)? Sheer orneriness.
It takes a superbly savvy band to dive into the holiday’s deepest, most nostalgically overdetermined recesses, as Phish did last night with their supremely cool yet knowingly Kansas-korny elaboration of Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House. With thick zombie makeup and a cast of undead Vegas dancers, Phish’s take on Disneyland Records’ 1964 sound-effects album was as broad and crowd-pleasing as the city itself. And to do so on the Las Vegas Strip, the heart of the heart of consumer capitalism? Magnifique! What is Las Vegas if not another supremely and equally corporatized Disneyland for adults?
Yet if you were interested in a heavily nuanced metaphor for the band itself, that was there as well. When you’re already dead, Phish suggested, anything is possible. Once the upper walls of the house collapsed to reveal their temporary stage, Phish’s white tuxedoes immediately recalled zombie Beatles returning to Apple’s rooftop (white sometimes represents death, as careful readers of the Abbey Road cover will recall). Facing one another and performing on stripped-down rigs, the band echoed its self-mythologized early “O Kee Pah” rehearsal sessions.
Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House contains no tunes, only brief introductions to simple yet sinister situations conveyed through sound effects. Tonight’s crypt keeper, Esther (the drowned protagonist of an early Trey Anastasio tune), would open a creaky (more like farty) door to deliver a karaoke version of the album’s intros. Then the band would launch into an original head and jam on it for a while before returning to the theme. The jams were mostly brief, refreshingly loose-limbed, and often evocative of the band’s many musical modes, sometimes even referencing specific songs, if not the Beatles with Billy Preston.
Synchronicity fans will appreciate how many Chilling titles – “The Dogs Attack,” “Timber,” “Shipwreck,” “The Birds” (“You fear their sharp beaks and clutching talons”), “The Martian Monsters,” and so on – echo Phish’s own musical concerns. Were they sampling themselves? This wasn’t the first time Chilling‘s material had been reanimated. N.W.A., Jedi Mind Tricks, and Ice Cube have previously plundered this vault. Samplemeister Page McConnell mutated the material further with liberal use of such chillingly evocative catch phrases as “they attack,” “your trip is short,” “the ancient Chinese,” and the sound of an extremely angry feline in “Your Pet Cat.” Political correctitude led to their deleting the naïve racism of “Chinese Water Torture,” but they kept the narrator’s delighted response to her own ching-chonging silliness: “”What am I saying? I’m not even Chinese!”
The evening’s most hauntological moment, however, arguably arrived with bassist Mike Gordon’s touching encore cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Is This What You Want” from his 1974 album New Skin for Old Ceremony. Everything about the band, the evening, and much else was distilled into the then-young master’s verses about love and art’s fading, aging ghost stories.
And is this what you wanted
to live in a house that is haunted
by the ghost of you and me?
Phish is fortunate enough to be one of those rare highly popular acts that grows older as its audience remains essentially the same age – sort of like the Cohen lines “You got old and wrinkled,/ I stayed seventeen” but in reverse. Nights like this, however, demonstrated that Phish can feast well on this fresh blood when it wants to, and come up with something so old – almost exactly as old as Anastasio himself, for what its worth – that it felt like a transfusion.
To which I can only add: Rock on, ghoul friends.