[Take the Bait is spirited deliberation and/or discourse centered around the hyperbole of Phish’s music and fandom, passionately exuded via the written words of phish.net contributors @FunkyCFunkyDo and @n00b100. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of phish.net, The Mockingbird Foundation, or any fan… still, we're fairly confident that we're right.]
The Bait: Phish’s most recent Halloween costume, Kasvot Vaxt, or KV, was the greatest “gag” of Phish’s career. Better than any NYE “gag” set, any festival secret set, and previous Halloweens.
Funky: Full disclosure, I watched this from the couch. Begrudgingly. So begrudgingly that I was actually wearing pants. Well, for most of it anyway. The emotional journey began as soon as pictures of the Phishbill started to saturate the internet. Obscure European prog rock cover, WTAF!? Is this going to be a rave? Trancey house music or an ABBA rip off?? And where the heck is Finland??? From the get go, energy and rumor were swirling like a tornado in a washing machine around what Phish has planned. And then the internet fights started, unironically, simultaneously to the Phish fan’s uncanny CIA-level sleuthing to figure out who, or what, KV was, or is. Before the music even started, let alone the Halloween set, Phish had already created something no one expected and something no one could explain. Funny, isn’t it? Trying to explain Phish… just as Phish? And now look what they’ve done!
n00b: I suppose I’ll have to disclose that I was there (one of my two shows at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in fabulous Las Vegas, NV for 2018), and am staring at my beat-up but still perfectly legible Phishbill, replete with the ad for Phish’s “Every Goddamn Note” box set, which I wish existed if only for people to start going, “Man, Phish was way better in the 1970s before they were even a band or knew each other, you don’t even know, n00bs!” I kept puzzling over what the whole thing could possibly mean, logging on to social media to see fan theories tossed around and links to the fake Discogs page and AllMusic review (only 4 stars??? Pull your head out of your ass, Steven Thomas Erlewine!!!). And what was really great was that I knew so many other folks in the arena were doing the exact same thing, trying to wrap our heads around this mystery. Some people were pretty clued in that it was gonna be another set of original music, but some were convinced Kasvot Vaxt was a real band, or that they were going to cover already-written songs and the “titles” were just a ruse (a theory also floated for 2014’s costume, IIRC), or that the titles were rewritings of Grateful Dead songs (“Death Don’t Hurt Very Long” - uhhh, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” much?) and we were *finally* getting that Dead set everyone was expecting after "Fare Thee Well" in 2015. Now, let me ask you this - does any of that sound better than what we actually got?
Funky: In a word, no. Well, actually, a live stream of the pre-show internet fights surrounding just what exactly Phish was about to play might have been just a touch better than the music itself, but not the overall idea -- ahh the perks of couch tour: where you can criticize something in real time AND before it’s even happened! The rich really do get richer. Anyways, even through the first set, despite the numerous “facts” that KV was a complete fabrication, I was thoroughly subscribed to the fabrication itself was a red herring (how meta), and that Phish would, in fact, come out and cover something. I was convinced that something was going to be "Thriller", as I made a connection between the "Thriller" album font and the Phish Fall Tour 2018 font. I was thisclose to changing my handle to @Funkystradamus. And when that black curtain dropped over the stage at the end of set 1, I just knew they were constructing a graveyard to seal the deal. I just knew that my lifelong dream of swooning over Mike performing the Thriller Dance was about to manifest for some 15,000 people NOT named Funkystradamus... ::looks longingly into the distance:: ...sigh. Still, my excitement and energy and imagination and hormones were running totally wild, from the couch! What was it like being in the building, n00b? No way it could've been better than internet fights and daydreams of "Thriller!"
n00b: Oh, gosh, I would have HATED it if it was "Thriller." Being in the building was...it was interesting, that’s for sure. I think the crowd was mainly just stunned for the first song or two - the stage getup was totally unfamiliar, Trey was playing a different guitar, there was a mini-keyboard, there was so much to process all at once. And when they started up "Turtle in the Clouds" and we realized that yes, they actually were going through with it and Kasvot Vaxt was what we were getting? Man. I think once the gag settled in and the audience started to absorb the new music, the energy started to pick up and people really got into it. By the time "Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S." came in, I’d say the vast majority of folks were all in. Me, I was locked in by the end of "Everything Is Hollow," with Page shining that miner’s light into the crowd (was Page super-excited during that set or what?), and I remember standing and applauding real hard as the curtain came down on the band at the end of "Passing Through." So that’s the arena vibe as I felt it - how about on the couch?
Funky: ::scowls at you for presumably pejorative comment about "Thriller" :: ...we’ll discuss that another day, you rogue. However, I do agree with you about the “settling in” evolution of the set. Uniquely, one advantage of couch tour is the close-up shots of the band. You can read their body language and emotions/expressions more clearly and, ahem, more lucidly (but I swear Mike usually makes eye contact with me). "Turtle in the Clouds" was goofy and very gag-ish, (also my favorite song from the set) in line with what my stereotyped view of what KV might be. But as the music went on, I started to notice the polished details of the set as a whole, and how into it the whole band was, how it wasn’t just a “gag;” they were emoting so much visible confidence and positivity in a concurrent businesslike way. Then I started to think about the whole production value of it all: new band, new songs, new music - and then the layered nuances - new stage set-up, new instruments, new monitors/PA, new clothing, new positions on stage, new light rig, new lights over the crowd, new LED stage (!!!) … Phish created a brand new, completely unique, completely non-Phish, concert experience for a mere 60-minutes of entertainment. Mind-blowing the chain of events that had to have happened to arrive at this moment, from KV’s conception in one of their brains, to talking about it, to planning and practicing it, to executing it onstage. Taking all of that into consideration, that’s when I started to wonder, “Including NYEs, festivals, and Halloweens, is this Phish’s greatest gag/production ever?”
n00b: As strictly a production? Yes, absolutely, IMO. Leaving aside the quality of the music for a second, we’re talking about something that just had to have taken so much goddamn work. You didn’t even touch upon the dedicated online campaign to fake all of us out; like, the band actually made an effort to convince us this band existed in real life! That’s what I think really puts Kasvot Vaxt over the top - you’ve surely seen the videos of the guy who made “original” versions of the Kasvot Vaxt songs and really amped up the Europop aspects of the tunes, right? Not only do I enjoy those versions, I love that the fellow that recorded them is helping to perpetuate the gag the band dreamed up and become a part of it himself. That, to me is a very meaningful thing. And then you throw in the actual performance-related aspects of the performance itself, the fact that it so very clearly gave the band a charge (I keep thinking about Trey running around the stage during "First Tube" like a kid in a candy store, so impatient was he to rip through that song and get ready to prepare to blow our dang minds), and the possibilities it provides for the fans going forward, and yeah, this is a Phish production like no other. Bait….taken?
Funky: ::smacks lips:: Yeeeeemaybe. At this point, entertaining the idea of KV being the greatest “gag” Phish has ever pulled off may have cost us our six loyal followers. I can hear them now, " The "Drive In Jam" was a musical and visual psychedelic masterpiece! My pupils and eardrums actually signaled Voyager 2.” True, on all accounts. “The "Tower Jam" from IT was unlike anything Phish, or any band, had pulled off at that time, and if you want production value, remember the aerial dancers and the fact they set up a stage on top of an air traffic control tower?!” Also true. “And then there’s Chilling Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House, "Storage Jam", "NYE Hourglass", and the beat goes on… who are these idiots writing this anyway?” Musically, I would say KV is nowhere near the "Drive-In Jam" or "Tower Jam," because, speaking personally, I see Phish for the extended, deep improvisation, which the aforementioned epitomized gratuitously. But I also see Phish for the sheer unpredictability and FUN-factor of shows (said factor which is most closely associated with pantslessness). Depending on my musical mood, KV songs rank just slightly below the tunes from CTSOTHH, and NYE gags can’t compare at all, mainly due to their abbreviated nature in length, but from a “fun and unpredictable” viewpoint (and obviously overall production value), I don’t think anything tops KV. I’m at an existential crossroads, noob! Which reasons are the right reasons that I love Phish?! (teaser: coming soon, Take the Bait: THE RIGHT WAY).
n00b: I think it’s clear, Funky - the only reasons to like Phish are the reasons that lead you to believe the 1990s is the only era of Phish that matters.
Well, anyway, from a musical standpoint I would agree that I would take the longer-form improvisations over KV, but that’s a totally different ball of wax when you talk about what actually goes into that music (such as a total lack of lyrics), and even then I think the production elements don’t quite match the effort that went into KV from top to bottom. As far as Halloween shows go, I suppose there can be quibbling over the value of the KV songs versus what they covered (for instance, I love "Play By Play," but it’s not "Love Reign O’er Me" or "Born Under Punches" or "Tumbling Dice" or whatever), but at the end of the day, no matter how difficult it might be to learn the chord changes to "Starman" or "Glass Onion," I don’t think any of those costumes come close to KV in terms of everything surrounding it, especially in the “fun and unpredictable” viewpoint you brought up.
I always think of the 90s conception of the Halloween costume as the band showing off their ballsiness as musicians in that they had the chops to cover an entire album that isn’t theirs - small wonder that after the Dark Side of the Moon costume (not on Halloween, but same difference), they didn’t play another Halloween show for a decade. But now that the band has grown and matured and doesn’t need to prove themselves from that standpoint, the idea of the musical costume is less about shock value and more about comfort, like the core audience being able to slip into a warm bath. I think that plays a bit into why the Wingsuit costume is hated so much - even leaving aside song quality, the whole conceit was basically the warm bath being interrupted rudely with a bucket of ice-cold water splashed over one’s head. But that’s why I’ll still defend the CONCEPT behind the Wingsuit set, because the band took a risk and knew portions (large portions, even) of the audience would be alienated, and don’t you want a band you love that’s entered their fourth decade to keep taking those risks? And to me, the KV set is just the Wingsuit set, only...y’know, better.
Funky: Make no mistake, 2003 is the only era of Phish that matters, but that, too, is for another Take the Bait. Conceptually, I see KV’s relation to Wingsuit and CTSOTHH, but execution and planning-wise, none compare. I also see the evolution of what I presume Phish is trying to accomplish with these “gag” sets, at first: showing off musical chops and perhaps some idolization of the music that shaped themselves; then: doing something unexpected, musically, visually; and ultimately: pushing every creative limit the four of them can push (more stage dancing please). So, when I reflect on the minutia (minutia is not meant negatively), yes there are gags with better music, gags with better fan reception, and gags with better visual candy, but when I look at the whole enchilada, everything that went into KV’s planning, preparation, and execution versus all others, I am indeed taking the bait. KV, to date, is Phish’s greatest gag of their careers. Definitely a “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” sort of thing.
n00b: And that’s where I land, as well. ::insert pun based on Kasvot Vaxt Set lyrics here::