Photo: Rene Huemer / Courtesy of Big Hassle Media

Phish and ‘Sci-Fi Soldier’ Rock Halloween in Las Vegas

The Phish fall 2021 tour has been one for the ages, with a run that’s had fans praising it as their best tour since their prime years in the late 1990s.

The Halloween Show

It’s still Phish performing the first set, though, which features a timely version of Ween’s “Roses Are Free” that receives a big cheer when Anastasio sings, “Carve out a pumpkin, And rely on your destiny, Get in your car, And cruise the land of the brave, And the free.” Road tripping on a Phish tour remains a favorite pastime for most fans when the routing allows, and this West Coast tour has been a prime case in point for the most part. The band dive deeper into the Halloween theme with a stellar 27-minute “Ghost” that features some excellent “hose” jamming before giving way to the cosmic funk of “Wolfman’s Brother”. 

Anticipation builds during the set break for the musical costume set, which will feature the Sci-Fi Soldiers inhabiting the bodies of the Vermont troubadours to perform the music of their prophets with a new album titled Get More Down. And so the musical costume turns out to be something of a sequel to Kasvot Vaxt, with Phish connecting past, present, and future for a metaphysical lesson on the circular nature of the time-space continuum and other deep concepts.

“I hope these people are ready to get more down… Time to save a planet,” say the distant voices of drummer Jon Fishman’s character “Paulie Roots” and keyboardist Page McConnell’s character “Pat Malone”, mirroring the last panel of the comic book as the band members appear to beam down to the stage in teleporter tubes. The quartet then materialize in the sci-fi soldier space suits depicted on the comic book’s cover for a set of high-concept performance art.

“Knuckle Bone Broth Avenue” opens the set with a funky mid-tempo groove as Phish sing an ode to the time stream they navigated to get here, with Malone adding some darkly trippy synths for a futuristic atmosphere. Anastasio’s character of “Clueless Wallob” performs the lead vocal while playing a translucent yellow BC Rich Mockingbird guitar in lieu of his trusty Languedoc, with bassist Mike Gordon’s “Half-Nelson” character harmonizing while also playing a new fluorescent yellow bass.

Phish 2021
Photo: Rene Huemer / Courtesy of Big Hassle Media

“Get More Down” features more of the darkly dissonant synths in the intro, as Wallob and Roots implore the audience to “get more down” over another funky syncopated groove. Wallob sings of “bending time itself” as he asks the audience to “put a blank space where your mind should be”, referencing Phish’s “Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan”.  He goes on to sing of how “Only we can stop it, stop the Howling”, referencing the mission to alter the timeline and save Earth’s future.

How many of the fans present can grok the lyrics is a question mark, but for those who can, it’s inspiring to hear the band sing about bending time to save the planet. Phish blend in a satirical vibe as well, with soundbite samples that drummer Fishman had been utilizing throughout both the summer and fall tours. Both songs catalyze a groovy dance party into effect, with cinematic sci-fi overtones that feel like they’re overlapping from a movie written by Philip K. Dick and directed by John Carpenter. 

“Egg in a Hole” spins the set into a darkly heavy and strange direction, including some pyro effects that recall KISS concerts from the 20th century. That seems fitting since KISS used to bill themselves as superheroes when the band was in their ’70s prime. “Thanksgiving” is another weird song to get a handle on, but it includes some intriguing references to Phish songs, including “Sleeping Monkey” and “Guyute”, as well as Kasvot Vaxt’s “Death Don’t Hurt Very Long”.

“We are sci-fi soldiers from the year 4680. We’re happy to be with you humanoids tonight. This next song is very important to us on our planet. It carries a message. We hope you’ll heed this message, it’s called ‘Clear Your Mind’,” Wallob says to introduce the next number. It’s another groovy tune propelled by Malone’s funky synths that also includes a lyrical reference back to “donuts touching turtles” and other concepts from the comic book as the band implores fans to “clear your mind!” Here the band briefly starts to get into the type of deeper groove that hints at a potential future jam vehicle as the audience does indeed get more down.

Phish 2021
Photo: Rene Huemer / Courtesy of Big Hassle Media

Phish mix things up a bit with an instrumental number in “The 9th Cube”. It generates a feel-good vibe that seems to pay homage to the potential for bending time in a more positive direction by employing one’s third eye with the nine cubes that provide windows into nine different possible realities at any given time. “The Inner Reaches of Outer” follows as a brief melodic interlude about healing “the cracks of perception”, before the they crank up the vibe with the incendiary “Don’t Doubt Me”. 

Wallob launches the song with a sharp bluesy riff while Malone lays down some more trippy futuristic synths over a tight beat from Roots, as the Sci-Fi Soldiers deliver one of the evening’s most rocking moments. Phish emphasize the lines “Unhead the knee”, referencing the alien creatures from the comic book whose brains are in their knees before the “Don’t doubt me” chorus that seems to reference the wise oracle Holy Blankenstein in the comic book. They get into the groove here as the audience falls into a collective dance groove too on one of the set’s most promising songs.

“The Unwinding” provides a breather with a ballad where Wallob sings of “an illusion in the harbor”, providing a meditative release for the ego after the intense peak of “Don’t Doubt Me”. Phish tap back into some more futuristic funk with “Something Living Here” featuring some more deep thoughts before rocking out again with “The Howling”, which serves as the set’s penultimate song and conceptual climax. 

Phish lay down one of the hottest grooves of the night to get the dance party going again, with the lyrics alluding to a change in the timeline as Wallob sings that “The Howling is starting to feel good”, suggesting that the future disaster has been averted. “Holy Blankenstein that sounds cool,” Wallob remarks as the band vamps out over the triumphant groove, with the band then starting to howl themselves before they again sing, “Now it’s starting to feel good!”

” We are Sci-Fi Soldiers from the year 4680. Thank you for unbending the knee and saving the world tonight. We will now head back to our home New Miami and see our sweeties. We can’t wait to see them, and we will leave the bodies and return you to your regularly scheduled band, thank you,” Wallob says gratefully with the Earth apparently now saved. The quartet then end the set with an acapella ode to their home planet, “I Am in Miami”, before teleporting back to the future.

Phish 2021
Photo: Rene Huemer / Courtesy of Big Hassle Media

There’s a lot to unpack from the previous 90 minutes, but then there’s still a third set to come, with Phish returning. “We are the Phish from the year 1-9-8-3. We’re happy to be here”, Anastasio says before opening the set with the hard-rocking fan-favorite “Carini”. The title track of Anastasio’s 2020 album Lonely Trip serves as a breather before they get back to jamming out on “Soul Planet”, a fitting tune for an evening on which Earth was saved. A brief run-through on Kasvot Vaxt’s “Death Don’t Hurt Very Long” connects the set back to those prophets of lore, followed by a playful version of “Twist”. 

The set concludes with the climactic build of “Drift While You’re Sleeping”, a tune from Anastasio’s “Ghosts of the Forest” project that gets into some deep spiritual concepts about the afterlife. The song’s philosophical musings now seem to also tie-in to the Sci-Fi Soldier concept of using one’s third eye to navigate time and space and even affect them in a shamanic manner. Thus Phish continue to weave a rich sonic tapestry with profound spiritual ideas in their lyrics that connect their past, present, and future in a way that’s rarely been attempted in rock history.

The mood after the show is one of elation for most attendees. However, online debate in social media circles is all over the map, with some cynics expressing harsh criticism of the new material while suggesting the set was a letdown that wasn’t up to par with the band’s Halloween shows of the past. Almost all of these critics would seem to hail from “couch tour” though, having only watched the webcast. Yet, there was still practically unanimous sentiment on the overall strength of the tour. 

Two days after the Vegas run, Anastasio posts a grateful message on his social media pages that thanks the band’s crew and production team before concluding with some historic praise for the triumphant fall tour. “Last but not least I want to send my love and appreciation to my bandmates and the entire beautiful Phish community for making this the most memorable tour in ages.”

The fall 2021 tour has indeed been one for the ages, following a strong summer tour with a run that’s had fans praising it as Phish’s best tour since their prime years of the late ’90s. In this sense, Phish defy history in a largely unprecedented fashion by continuing to mature into a new golden age of creative and musical glory.

Phish 2021
Photo: Rene Huemer / Courtesy of Big Hassle Media

Obligatory Editorial Post-Mortem on the COVID-19 virus

A troubling number of fans would report contracting the virus after the Vegas shows, which was disturbing in light of how there were no such reports from the other arena shows on the tour in Sacramento, San Francisco, Eugene, and Los Angeles. The lack of ventilation at the MGM Grand Arena would seem to be the apparent culprit. Many fans noticed a developing problem with the air quality during Phish’s 2018 Vegas run when arena management altered the previous policy of allowing attendees to exit the arena into the casino during set breaks. The policy change led to more smoking in the arena, dramatically lowering the air quality. The air during the 2021 run was noticeably warm and thin with an obvious lack of circulation, clearly noticeable in comparison to the other arena shows on the tour. Hence the evidence suggests that MGM Grand Arena is in dire need of an upgrade and that all touring acts should address this ventilation issue with venue management for the safety of their fans.