It’s All Hallows Eve in Las Vegas, and Phish are back in town at the MGM Grand Arena to close out their 2021 fall tour with their fourth Halloween run at the venue since 2014. The jam-rock troubadours from Vermont have delivered mind-bending Halloween spectacles on each occasion by donning a musical costume. A tradition launched in 1994, Phish became renowned for playing classic rock albums in their entirety with legendary performances covering the likes of the Beatles, the Who, Talking Heads, Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones, and Little Feat.
The quartet has been mixing up the formula in the past decade, though with two of the past three Halloween performances at MGM featuring the debut of new material, presented in a theatrical format (sandwiched around a magnificent rendering of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars album in 2016.) The 2014 show featured the band as zombies dressed in sharp white suits while performing infectious tunes based around samples from the 1964 Disneyland Records album Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House. It was released the same year that Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio arrived here on the third stone from the sun.
The 2018 show saw the quartet acting as an ostensibly obscure Nordic band from the early ’80s named Kasvot Vaxt, with a “Phishbill” backstory that seemed like it could have come from an episode of Lost or The X-Files. The Kasvot Vaxt band members purportedly “all met as either scientists or subjects while living briefly at a remote research bunker in Greenland in the late ’70s” that was referred to as a “Subterranean Arctic Neuro-Technology Orientation Station”. The Kasvot Vaxt album I Rokk turned out to be original music though, and was another psychedelic spectacle, with nine lighted cubes hanging and moving in the air across the arena. The funk-filled set wasn’t received with quite as much widespread praise as the Haunted House set, but most of the songs went on to become well-liked additions to the repertoire, and so fans have largely learned to trust Phish’s muse.
There’s plenty of goodwill tonight as Phish have been dropping bombs across the West Coast throughout the 16-day tour. Tonight’s show will cap what’s been a stellar run at MGM so far, after scintillating performances the previous three nights. The 28 October show began with a blast as the band opened with the fan-favorite cosmic dance party of “2001” for the first time since 1999, then doubled down by busting out Prince’s “1999” for just the third time ever. Thus began a “numberline” show that counted down from there with an entire show of songs named after numbers, including an electrifying bust out of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9”.
The band came back on 29 October with a Friday night rager that lacked a particular theme but which was one of the jammiest shows of the tour with extended workouts on fan favorites like “Tweezer”, “Reba”, and “Sand”. Phish then went down a thematic wormhole again on 30 October with a show in which every song was named after an animal. That included a cover of the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” to close the first set and the rare chase song “Harpua”, a quirky tune featuring a bulldog named Harpua that features prominently in Phish mythology.
It was here in “Harpua” that Anastasio took the song’s built-in storytelling opportunity to weave a mind-bending tale about numerology, the animal kingdom, quantum physics, and “messages from beyond”. Anastasio related how the song’s protagonist Jimmy and his pet cat Poster Nutbag experienced a contact from the spiritual avatar Icculus, in which revelations about the donut/torus shape in nature and the hexagon on the back of a turtle’s shell leads to the realization of “donuts touching turtles, turtles touching donuts, it’s the very stuff the universe is made of… It was there all along, it was in everything…” Anastasio also revealed that Icculus has an alternate name of Holy Blankenstein (which would become relevant 24 hours later.)
It might have been Anastasio’s most elaborate “Harpua” tale since his mindblowing story from 30 December 1997 at Madison Square Garden, where he related how he’d been telepathically contacted by the robot character from the Lost in Space TV show when he was ten years old in a chain of events that changed his life with visions of his future in music. Here the virtuoso guitarist suggested that all this information about “the very stuff of the universe” was hinting at what the Halloween album would be.
And so it is here on Sunday evening in Sin City as the highly-anticipated Halloween show is set to conclude a sensational fall tour that launched in Sacramento on 15 October, before moving on to multi-night runs in San Francisco and Eugene. That was followed by a trio of barnburner performances on consecutive nights in Phoenix, San Diego, and Los Angeles, as well as a rare return to the beautiful Santa Barbara Bowl. Fans have been practically unanimous with glee due to what has felt like an unprecedented level of “type 2” jamming, i.e. next level improvisation where Phish leave the structure of a song to go in a new sonic direction.
Such jamming had, for the most part, been previously confined to certain songs known as go-to jam vehicles. But being forced off the road in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have inspired Phish to step up their game, with the tour seeing numerous songs taken for type 2 jams on a nightly basis, some for apparently the first time in band history (such as the “Martian Monster” jam in Phoenix, the “NICU” jam in San Diego, and the “Your Pet Cat” jam in Vegas.)
“Get ready because we’re gonna bring it,” Anastasio told fans on SiriusXM’s Phish Radio channel shortly before the band’s summer tour, which indeed featured large doses of epic jamming. That included a 47-minute “Soul Planet” at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California on 31 August (that was the third-longest jam in the group’s storied 38-year career), followed the next night at Shoreline by an otherworldly 33-minute “Tweezer” that had fans in ecstatic union.
The Shoreline shows were from an alternate timeline after Phish had been forced to relocate the shows from South Lake Tahoe due to the horrific wildfires that were burning out of control. It seemed like Phish were out to deliver a pair of extra special performances for everyone who had to travel further to be there due to the climate change crisis. It also felt like the group were aiming to use the metaphysical power of their considerable skills in the tone sciences to raise the vibration of the Earth, much as space jazz legend Sun Ra used to describe his mission in live music (one of Phish’s many well-documented influences.)
The Sci-Fi Soldier comic book
This theme of using music for metaphysical transformation becomes prevalent here on Halloween night upon entering the arena, when attendees are handed a comic book titled “Sci-Fi Soldier” that explains the concept of the band’s new album. The retro superhero art style from artist Johnny Dombrowski and the ten-cent price tag on the cover harkens back to the classic Marvel Comics of the 1960s, with the caption on page one reading, “Join our Sci-Fi Soldiers as they catapult into action to stop… The Howling!”
The comic book’s far-out storyline ties in with the previous night’s “Harpua” as it tells the tale of four “sci-fi soldiers” from the year 4680. They travel back in time from their home planet of “New Miami” to Earth here on 31 October 2021 to thwart a planetary cataclysm that will destroy the Earth from “forces of the humans’ own making” some 50 years from now. The soldiers refer to prophets who spoke of the nine cubes in their album I Rokk, clearly connecting the storyline back to Kasvot Vaxt, who apparently “journeyed far into the universe using their third eyes” to share their teachings.
A series of revelations point to Halloween 2021 as “an inflection point when the past and future are precisely divided”, with the soldiers receiving guidance from the oracle known as Holy Blankenstein (aka Icculus in Phish’s Gamehendge mythology.) This guidance suggests the soldiers have an opportunity to inhabit the bodies of Phish “since they know how to play the music of the prophets” who are no longer around. Blankenstein tells the soldiers they can alter the past since “Everything is overlapping. It’s a future to the past thing,” he says, shortly after appearing to transform into a turtle himself (hinting at deeper concepts about turtles in both Native American and Hindu mythologies.)
Thus the soldiers embark on a strategy to “split the humans’ lobes with music” to clear their minds to change the way people think and inspire the audience to “get more down” with a more conscious spiritual viewpoint that will alter the timeline away from the disaster of “The Howling”. The sci-fi soldiers accomplish this by navigating the time stream known as “Knuckle Bone Broth Avenue”, which takes them “through the very stuff of the universe — donuts touching turtles — until they approach a rift” that delivers them to Earth. That connects the story to Anastasio’s “Harpua” tale from the previous night. Thus the stage is set for the time-traveling heroes known as Sci-Fi Soldiers, making a compelling storyline for the occasion.