2 – Arcade Fire
After months of toying with fans in the lead-up to their new album Reflektor – including “secret” gigs as “The Reflektors” requiring costumes to be admitted – and the release of said record two days before Halloween, Arcade Fire pulled out a few more tricks and treats in Hollywood. First came the mariachi band that played as “The Reflektors” (donning papier-mâché bobbleheads) made a grand red carpet entrance into the Palladium minutes before doors opened. There was a carnival stand with free presidential-themed masks in case any body in attendance had forgotten a get-up. Frontman Win Butler had several disguises of his own, including a Lucha Libre tiger headpiece and his increasingly signature face-painted bandit and papier-mâché mask. Opening with the lengthy “Reflektor,” the setlist leaned heavily on songs from their LP, though they also made room for fan favs “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” and encores “Haiti.” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” Like the Lips the same night (and Pearl Jam on Halloween 2009), they also turned to the DEVO songbook to mix things up with “Uncontrollable Urge.” The cover had been previously performed by the band’s side project Phi Slamma Jamma, but never by Arcade Fire (or alter-ego The Reflectors) – making it the biggest surprise of the night. They also teased the Velvet Underground’s “Beginning to See the Light” in “Headlights Look Like Diamonds,” a tribute to Lou Reed. Wayne Jessup was at the show and has all the details in this great post.
3 – Phish
Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, NJ
Phish is beloved for their musical pranks, spelling out hidden messages with the first letter of each song on their setlist for example. Their most famous stunt is donning a “musical costume” – covering an entire album by another band in other words – for the second set of every show they’ve played on Halloween since 1994. It’s gotten to the point that Phishheads debate what record will be performed for months ahead and every jamband-related website runs wild with speculations leading up to Halloween. Relix for example had a whole series of articles this October making the case for Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Led Zeppelin II, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Radiohead’s OK Computer, and others to be played in full at Phish’s Halloween show. Fans travel from across the country to see what the “musical costume” will be, and many more pay to watch a webcast. With this lead up in mind it was more than a little anti-climatic when the Phishbills handed out before the show revealed Phish weren’t up for their annual “costume” trick this year – instead they would treat fans to the live debut of their own forthcoming, still unrecorded album Wingsuit.
They had some other “tricks” though. “Wingsuit,” the title-track and set opener, ended with Mike Gordon playing a power drill. They also toyed with their position on stage – clustering together with a small drum-set and upright bass for “Monica,” performing as a duo on “Amidst the Peals of Laughter” (Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell), and playing “Snow” unplugged on stage left. Keep in mind, these are all brand new songs never heard by the audience. “People often react a little strongly and crazily when they hear us play something new,”Anastasio wrote in the Phishbill. “Every time we’ve put out a new Phish album…a certain contingent of fans has felt that the band they know and love is coming to an end. It’s never true.”
On the surface the biggest trick of all was a choreographed dance lead by a dancer in a wombat costume during the funky-Jon-Fishman-rap jam “Wombat.” After the routine they brought the wombat out unmasked. . . actor Abe Vigoda! “92 years old and he dances his ass off in a wombat suit,” frontman Trey wisecracked. At the end of the set they screened a spoof featuring Abe with Mike Gordon as Godfather “Don Gordleone.”
But maybe the trick of all tricks was actually their complete defiance of fan expectations by not only not playing a “musical costume,” but not playing covers at all. Halloween or not, Phish interpret a variety of songs written by others nightly. This Halloween however they played three solid sets of all originals totaling nearly four hours. Even the third set, just six songs – by far the shortest of the three – was over an hour. Fans had to wait to the encore for the sole cover, “Quinn the Eskimo” (Bob Dylan).
You wanted Phish…you got Phish!
4 – of Montreal
Majestic Theatre, Madison, WI
of Montreal are known for their playful attire and theatrical performances. In 2008 for instance gold buddahs and silver John McCains lifted a coffin onstage with frontman Kevin Barnes inside, covered in shaving cream. These tendencies play well for a Halloween concert – or as they billed this Wisconsin show, a “Halloween Costume Ball.”
“The start of their show began with an introduction from a grandmaster in a red mask and full costume,” local site badgerherald.com reports “so salacious and over-the-top it sounded like a strip club DJ introducing the next act.” The band was dressed in skin tight white jumpsuits or tighty whities with white bras. Each member also donned an inflated condom balloon on their head and matching face paint. Kevin stood out from the rest with a blonde wig in pigtails. “Their devotion to sexual androgyny and abject love for their audience in between songs made the entire show feel like a psychedelic showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” badgerherald.com notes. “Barnes started the show with a magnificent and melodramatic speech for the audience, which led into the first song. He asked for the audience’s understanding when revealing his worst secret, effectively adding an aura of sex appeal and mystery to the rest of the performance…At times actors from offstage, wearing creepy smiling masks, would appear on stage behind the musicians. At one point they opened white umbrellas, on which [the backing screen animations were] projected.”
This a band that embraces the campy for all its humorous value, but also the mysteries and just plain strange. This applies to their music as much as their visual presentation. The setlist – full of songs mish-mashing various styles into dancey tunes – didn’t differ much their other recent shows, but it didn’t have to. “You Do Mutilate” for example, from 2010’s False Priest, with its talk of white ghosts returning, could have been written for the night. “Never seen corpses act so cruel/ The self brutality was oh-so-angular,” the lyrics go. They also debuted a new original especially for Halloween – “I Believe In Witches.”
5 – Gov’t Mule featuring Robby Krieger
The Fox Theater, Oakland
Though Phish didn’t don a “musical costume” this year, Gov’t Mule took on The Doors… with one of two surviving members of the original band. Like the jam band kings, Mule is known for taking on iconic artists, especially on New Year’s Eve and Halloween (last year they featured a Hendrix set for instance). Warren Haynes is about as far away from Jim Morrison as a blues-rock frontman can be, which only underlined the uniqueness of their soulful interpretations. It helped that Doors guitarist Robby Krieger joined them for both “Mule-O-Weens,” October 30 in Los Angeles and Halloween in Oakland. Starting with a set of their own materiel, Krieger sat in for the entire second set and encore – “Break On Through, “Five To One,” “Peace Frog,” “People Are Strange,” “Wild Child,” “Hello, I Love You,” “Been Down So Long,” “The Changeling,” “Cars Hiss By My Window,” “Light My Fire,” “Love Me Two Times,” “The End,” “Riders On The Storm,” “L.A. Woman” and encores “Roadhouse Blues” (with RatDog guitarist Mark Karan) and “When the Music’s Over.” Mule played inspired, faithful versions of these songs – their dark moodiness perfect for Halloween…
6 – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Barrowlands, Glasgow, Scotland
Touring Europe in support of this year’s acclaimed Push The Sky Away, The Bad Seeds didn’t devise a special show just for Halloween. But people unfamiliar with his catalog could’ve have been mistaken he did. As with the music of The Doors, Nick Cave’s songbook suits Halloween, but moreover it’s the drama he performs it with. “It’s a show full of dark highlights,” David Hepburn reports. “Half way through Jubilee Street… Cave slams his microphone to the ground and stalks the front row while sidekick Warren Ellis hurls the first of many broken violin bows across the stage. The rest of the Bad Seeds howl in unison as the crowd go wild. It’s only the second song and already it feels like the most triumphant of encores. Fan favourites ‘Tupelo’ and ‘Red Right Hand’ follow, providing a raucous counterbalance to some of the more delicate new songs… Every song is a mini-drama which the singer fully immerses himself in, regularly serenading individual members of the audience with his tales of love, death, gods and mermaids. At times he seems more preacher than rock star – returning to his worshippers time and time again, holding hands and basking in the adulation.”
Thankfully decent video footage of this show has surfaced online for those of us on this side of the pond:
7 – Phil Lesh and Friends
Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, NY
No group in rock history has done more to establish Halloween as a special concert night than the Grateful Dead. In recent years the band’s members have kept the tradition alive in annual Halloween shows by their spin-offs, perhaps most of all Phil Lesh and Friends. Kicking off a four night run at Capitol Theatre (about an hour northeast of of New York City, near the Connecticut border), their October 31st sets were filled with the roots music that served as the Dead’s roots (Cannon’s Jug Stompers’ “Big Railroad Blues,” Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues,” “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” “Who Do You Love/ Not Fade Away”) as well as Dead and Jerry Garcia originals (“Brown-Eyed Women,” “Deal,” The Wheel,” “Scarlet Begonias,” The Other One,” “Fire on the Mountain”). The highlight however was an extended jam on Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.”
Phil and Friends also treated fans this Halloween with a tribute to The Band, covering “Caledonia Mission,” “The Weight,” “We Can Talk,” “Long Black Veil,” and “Chest Fever”. There were tricks too. At the start of the second set the friends played with Phil substituted by costumed Terrapin.
8 – Thee Oh Sees
Krankies Coffee, Winston-Salem
Thee Oh Sees play fun, uninhibited, raucous rock n roll every night. So why should Halloween be any different?
Essentially a jam band for punks, Thee Oh Sees were well matched with openers OBN III’s and The Blind Shake, the two bands they are touring with through mid-November, as well as local group Whatever Brains. But it was Thee Oh Sees who owned the show. “They whipped a packed Krankies into frenzy,” local site indyweek.com reports. “Second guitarist Petey Dammit stoked the engines with sharp fills and unstoppable bass lines as Mike Shoun hit snares and toms with the efficiency of pistons. But Thee Oh Sees were elevated most by their frontman: John Dwyer’s crazed guitar melodies, delivered on a flashy clear-body SG, accented and instigated the group’s unstoppable pulse, flitting from krautrock vigor to psych-surf flare, while his buds held the middle ground. His presence—along with precise harmonies from keyboardist Brigid Dawson—allowed them to tear through variations of the same infectious rhythm. The possibilities seemed infinite. At Thee Oh Sees’ feet, a mosh pit erupted, overflowing with smiles and back slaps… Beers were thrown, but nobody seemed to get upset.”
9 – Meat Puppets
The Orpheum Theater, Flagstaff , AZ
Still touring in support of Rat Farm, their fourteenth studio album released last April, Meat Puppets got in the Halloween spirit with a local show hosting a costume contest. The band too dressed for the occasion…
…as Zombie Mormon Missionaries. . .
10 – Polyphonic Spree
Lakewood Theater, Dallas
We’re giving Polyphonic Spree the benefit of the doubt with this inclusion – a concert that hasn’t actually happened yet. On October 31, 2012 the Spree bridged their spring “YOU + ME” tour and their December “Holiday Extravaganza” dates with a one off at London’s HMV Forum performing the Rocky Horror Picture Show (shown above). It was a glowing success that lead to them playing the comedy-horror musical at festivals this summer – Bonnaroo, Isle Of Wight, Splendour in the Grass – sparking massive sing-alongs. This Halloween they’ll perform it again, along with a costume contest and film screening – though the actual date was pushed back to the third day of Hallowmas to accomadate a full, late-night Saturday crowd: