Phish craft feel-good Halloween creep show

He made his guitar shriek like a B-movie scream queen with bloodied cutlery pointed in her direction.

Shortly thereafter, he’d purposefully conjure a sound suggestive of the angry screech of a cat with its tail in the maw of something with several rows of teeth.

Halloween came to loud, visceral life Friday night at the fingers of Trey Anastasio and his fellow free-range musos in Phish, who soundtracked the occasion with a soundtrack.

The band began a three-night stand at the MGM Grand Garden with a command performance that spanned three sets and five hours, including a pair of 30-minute intermissions.

The venue has seldom felt so stuffy, hot and energized, a delirium of costumed revelers who worked themselves into a sweaty fever pitch while dressed as Ricky Bobby, Bono, Amy Winehouse and just about every character from “The Big Lebowski.”

Amid all this feel-good chaos, the arena’s aisles ceased to be aisles, flush with dancers who turned just about every open space into a gridlock of humanity, a traffic jam of flesh.

Along with their New Year’s Eve performances, Phish’s Halloween gigs are what their fanatically devoted fan base looks forward to the most. Before the show, there was a sense of desperation in the air outside the venue as those without tickets to the sold-out concert prowled for any extras with the intense focus of a castaway foraging for food.

Phish’s Halloween spectacles are beloved for a reason: Most years, the band dons what they call a “musical costume” and covers an album in its entirety during their second set.

On Friday, though, they took a different approach, creating something new out of something old by constructing a score built around a 1964 Disney sound effects novelty, “Chilling, Thrilling Sounds Of The Haunted House,” a recording that groans and shivers with creaking doors, feral tabbies, ominous gusts of wind and a grim-voiced narrative that places listeners in various scenes of peril, from enduring Chinese water torture to becoming lost in space.

With their faces slathered in costume make-up to give them the appearance of the undead, Phish crafted alternately jazzy and ominous soundscapes surrounded by a cast of dancing zombies lurching across a stage designed to look like a graveyard, complete with tombstones and gargoyles perched upon a wrought iron gate.

The 10-song suite was a thing of fluid beauty as much as creepiness, though, introduced by keyboardist Page McConnell playing synth lines evocative of a 1980s John Carpenter film score and then accelerating into a manic blitz with darting guitar accents and Mike Gordon’s assertive bass playing. The set climaxed with “The Birds,” a full-bodied funk jam with brick-heavy guitar riffs countered by equally dense bass patterns.

Some of the show’s best moments came with this kind of interplay between Anastasio and Gordon, like during the buoyant bluegrass-y bounce of “Scent of a Mule,” played early during the band’s first set.

With drummer Jon Fishman keeping the song light on its feet with his nimble, finessed style of playing and McConnell laying down spry piano lines, Anastasio and Gordon dueled spectacularly at song’s end, eventually brandishing their instruments like broadswords and clashing fretboards.

At times, the show proceeded as a giddy free-for-all, such as on a frenetic “Big Black Furry Creatures From Mars,” a breath-stealing riot of sound purposefully drawn-and-quartered by all four players sprinting off in opposite directions.

Mostly, though, when Phish improvised, the group did so with the confines of structured arrangements.

Despite their jam band bonafides, this is not a quartet of impulsive noodlers: they play with a sense of purpose and even some of their wildest instrumental flights of fancy are orchestrated.

Anastasio, in particular, is a studious, albeit highly expressive, technician who picks his spots carefully when soloing — his lead on “Reba” conveyed as much emotion as any of the words he sang.

And so when this bunch does decide to get loose, it registers as a grand, spectacular release.

This was the case during the latter half of the band’s second set, which began and ended with “Tweezer” and visited a constellation of points in between, delving into the steel-belted groove of “Heavy Things,” the slippery, syncopated funk of “Guyute” and an electrifying, nearly-20-minute reading of “Sand,” a song with all the peaks and valleys of a mountain range.

Finally, the band returned to “Tweezer” and the crowd lost it — what little “it” they had left by this point.

The show would then conclude with a pair of covers, a low-key take on Leonard Cohen’s “Is This What You Wanted?” and a suitably over-blown version of Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein” with McConnell rocking a keytar.

It was another cover tune played earlier in the show, a stirring, resonant rendition of TV on the Radio’s “Golden Age,” that better encapsulated the evening, though.

“All light beings / Come on now make haste,” Anastasio sang as his guitar rang out like a fire siren. “Clap your hands / If you think you’re in the right place.”

Hands were clapped; the light was blinding.

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow on Twitter @JasonBracelin.

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