Freshwater Phish is a recurring column on The Young Folks about the band Phish, their music and cultural impact.
The second edition of Freshwater Phish was supposed to be on a very different than this one. The original plan was to cover the band’s best known concerts as well as introductory shows for new fans. Eventually, the column would cover Phish’s Halloween traditions, but even with such a show looming the horizon, I figured we could wait a few weeks before we got around to talking about it.
That changed last week, when Phish did something so unusual, unexpected and fantastic for Halloween 2018 that it made national entertainment news. 2018 has been a great year for Phish, marred only by the cancelation of their Curveball festival, and the positive reaction to Halloween added to that.
Every time the band plays on Halloween, they perform a three set concert with the second set seeing them perform an album in its entirety. Normally, that record is by another artist – for instance, Remain in Light by Talking Heads – but Phish has been making very experimental choices over the past few years that have skewed away from that.
This year’s Halloween show was perhaps the band’s biggest diversion from the norm yet for Phish. Instead of performing someone else’s album, the band performed í rokk by Kasvot Växt, an 1980s prog rock band from Scandinavia that are so obscure that…they don’t actually exist. Phish created a fake band with an elaborate fake backstory and performed their non-existent album live.
In this second installment of Freshwater Phish, we’ll discuss how the band got to this point, and along the way we’ll also examine past Halloween shows to explain why October 31 is such an anticipated date for Phish fans.
The Phish Halloween tradition
Phish played their first Halloween show in 1986, but most of the early October 31 concerts usually only featured the band and/or their audience in costume.
1994 was the year where everything changed as far as Halloween shows go. That June, the band played a concert where the first set was a complete performance of their Gamehendge song suite, and the second featured their newly released Hoist album played in its entirety. The “GameHoist” show, as it is called, ushered in the idea of the band sticking to a specific set to songs to be performed in order.
Later that year, the band announced that they would be performing an album in its entirety as their “musical costume” that year, and asked their fans to select the album they would play. Although there was a strong showing for Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, the band ultimately played all four sides of The Beatles’ The White Album during the second set of what was then the longest concert they had performed up to that point.
The whole show is available on Live Phish Vol. 13; While it was soon bested by other ’90s Halloween shows, it is nonetheless essential listening like most of the 20 Live Phish volumes (There’s also a great version of “Reba” in the first set that is not to be missed).
Phish played three more Halloween shows in the 1990s, all of which featured musical costume performances and all are available on compact disc and streaming as part of the Live Phish series. In 1995, they performed The Who’s Quadrophenia. In 1996, the featured album was Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, which is considered to be the band’s best Halloween show and extremely influential on the funky musical style the band would explore in the late 1990s. No Halloween show was held in 1997, and 1998 featured the last Halloween musical costume for over a decade, for which Phish played the Velvet Underground’s Loaded in its entirety. Two days after the Loaded show, the band surprised fans at an undersold concert in Utah with a performance of The Dark Side of the Moon, in its entirety, in the middle of “Harpua”. The band had learned the entire Pink Floyd album between the Loaded show and their arrival in Utah, and the tape of that concert quickly circulated among fans who chose to skip that out-of-the-way stop and had missed the long-teased performance. The Dark Side concert can be seen as something of a farewell to the first era of Phish musical costumes.
After the new millennium, the Halloween tradition seemed like it was a thing of the past, owing in part to Phish’s sporadic activity for the first half of the 2000s. The band went on hiatus for two years starting in August 2000 and wouldn’t return to the stage until December 2002. 2003 also had no Halloween show, and the band broke up for good in the summer of 2004.
When the band reunited in 2009, Halloween returned to its place of importance in Phish lore and was even combined with another tradition that year. In 2009, Halloween would fall on the second day of the band’s three-day Festival 8 festival in California. Phish had released a list of albums that they were considering for the show on their website a few weeks beforehand; The list was ultimately narrowed down until only Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones was left. The band had been performing the Exile song “Loving Cup” in concert for years, and the version that night proved to be one of the performance’s highlights.
After Exile, Phish started experimenting with their Halloween show selecting and often picked records that weren’t obvious choices. The 2010 Halloween concert featured a performance of Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus live album, a landmark record considered to be the cult favorite Southern rock band’s best release. In 2013, Phish completely defied expectations by performing a set of all new original material they were planning to include on their upcoming album Wingsuit (later titled Fuego). While that show had a mixed reception both for its contents and choice (although not for the cameo appearance by Abe Vigoda during the song “Wombat”, that ruled), it was nonetheless extremely important to future Halloween selections,.
In 2014, Phish made their most unusual Halloween move to date when they announced they would be performing the Walt Disney Records album The Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House for their “musical costume.” Fans had no idea what to expect; Astute audiophiles noted that the record was a collection of sound effects and spoken narration and there wasn’t really any music on the whole disc.
What fans got in 2014 was one of Phish’s greatest Halloween shows to date: The band performed ten all-new instrumentals based on the contents of the Chilling, Thrilling album. The set featured an elaborate stage production complete with a “haunted house” structure that collapsed to reveal the band, dressed in white tuxedos, performing in a cemetery courtyard. The songs themselves incorporated the sound effects and narration into quintessentially Phish-y prog and funk songs that stand as some of the best new material that the band have released since their reunion. The 2014 Halloween show has become one of Phish’s best-loved post-reunion (or “3.0”) concerts, and the songs based on “Martian Monster”, “The Dogs” and “Your Pet Cat” remain in their setlist rotation to this day.
Some fans who did not like the Wingsuit set begrudgingly admit that it was an important stepping stone to the much gutsier and complex Chilling Thrilling set. After all, the 2014 show was also an album’s worth of brand new Phish material never before heard by an audience before, as opposed to another cover of a classic rock album.
After Chilling, Thrilling, the band’s next Halloween concert in 2016 was a much simpler affair. Some fans had guessed that the group was planning to play something by David Bowie, following the music legend’s death that January. Sure enough, on Halloween 2016, the band played a perfectly solid cover of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It was a classic, fun, laid back Phish Halloween concert, and the band did justice to those songs. Although the selection seemed like a safe one after the novel Chilling Thrilling and Wingsuit sets that preceded it, it would have been extremely unlikely for the band not to pay tribute to one of their greatest musical influences in that fashion in the year of his death.
There was no Halloween show in 2017, although unexpected covers were all over Phish’s 13-night Baker’s Dozen run at Madison Square Garden that summer (For instance, they opened up the first concert with a performance of Danish dance-pop duo Junior Senior’s 2003 single “Shake Your Coconuts”). When the band announced they would be playing a fall tour in 2018 that included a Halloween concert to start off a four-night tour-ending run in Las Vegas, fans began to speculate what they could possibly be playing this time around.
One of the most popular guesses was it would be something by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, most likely Electric Ladyland. Others heard a rumor the band would play a lesser known album from 1981, with guesses ranging from Discipline by King Crimson to Ten Out of 10 by 10cc.
The Phish.net forum and the Phish Reddit began to speculate that the 1981 album may well be Mark of the Mole by the avant-garde collective The Residents, of whom the band were avid fans. The Residents had toured the album with a strange, quirky and intricate stage show, and given what Phish had done with Chilling Thrilling a few years before, recreating the Mole show wasn’t out of the question. The day before Halloween, Residents co-founder Hardy Fox died of brain cancer, and fans on the Phish Reddit took notice, wondering whether a memorial could be incorporated into the set.
Ultimately though, no one was expecting what the band would wind up doing on October 31.
In the age of spoilers and leaks, it’s quite remarkable that no one knew what Phish was planning until just before the Halloween concert began. Every year the band does one of these musical costumes, they announce their choice through Phishbill, a concert program that is a parody of the Playbill magazines omnipresent on Broadway. This year, this is what greeted concertgoers at the MGM Grand Arena.
— Scott Marks (@bizarchive) November 1, 2018
Collectively, every Phish fan had the same question on their minds: “Who the hell are Kasvot Växt?”.
More information began to surface. Supposedly, Kasvot Växt were a 1980s progressive rock band from Scandinavia who released one super-obscure private press album that was supposedly used in medical experiments. The band then completely fell off the face of the Earth and the album became an impossibly hard-to-find collector’s item. According an essay inside the Phishbill, the album was popular with music nerds were in the know about rare albums and the members of Phish claimed the album was one of their favorites.
Fans who Googled the band’s name came up with three links: An overview of the album on the website for beloved indie radio station WFMU, a biography on Allmusic written by prolific music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, and a supposed interview with one of the members on the indie blog Perfect Sound Forever. At first glance none of these seemed out of place: Digging up super obscure and rare music has been one of WFMU’s specialties for decades, and Allmusic seems to have a biography on every artist who ever recorded music (well, except for Bryan Adams, but that’s another story). However, nothing really seemed to add up: No one else seemed to know anything about it, the album was completely unavailable online and sleuthy fans noticed that the WFMU post, despite supposedly being a decade old, was nowhere to be found on Internet Archive. Kasvot Växt and i rokk had been translated in the Phishbill as meaning “faceplant, into rock”…but didn’t really line up with any actual Scandinavian language or phrase. Something was up.
The scavenger hunt that fans were led on didn’t actually answer the question of what Phish had planned and what they would be playing in the second set. Would they come out and play another album? Or were they really going to go all out on this Kasvot Växt thing? Phish played the entire first set of the Halloween with those questions on their mind. At the end of that set, a curtain was raised over the stage. Something was about to go down, and no one knew what it would be except for Phish and their crew.
When the band returned to the stage after their set break, this was the first song they played.
This was when everyone realized that the band was actually going to play this Kasvot Växt thing, whatever it was, all the way through. At this point, the consensus was that the album didn’t actually exist and the band had invented a fake group, Spinal Tap-style, to “cover” for Halloween.
The reason for the dramatic curtain rise from the set before was also apparent from the new stage set up. Fans noticed straight away that drummer Jon Fishman’s kit was now on the other side of bassist Mike Gordon, and Page McConnell’s keyboards were decked out with shaggy white fur. The band themselves were decked out all in white, playing white instruments. For this first number, guitarist Trey Anastasio started off playing on a Moog synthesizer (!) before working the stage as a lead vocalist without any instrument. Midway through the song, he picked up a guitar – not his regular custom Languedoc, but a Fender Stratocaster (specifically the signature model for Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien) …. and began dancing a series of synchronized steps with Gordon. It was funky, it was weird, and it was very Phish.
“Turtle in the Clouds” is a harbinger for most of the i rokk set, which stuck to a synth, funky take on progressive rock. The 1980s was not a good time to be a progressive rock band, with most of the big names like Yes, Genesis and King Crimson leaving the genre behind for AOR, pop and post-punk, respectively. Yet, the genre did still exist thanks to the efforts bands like Marillion. The Kasvot Växt set recalls this time by capturing how artists in the genre experimented with other genres during the decade. For instance, 10cc experimented with reggae (to mixed results), while King Crimson combined prog virtuosity with post-punk on a trio of studio albums. This proggy fusion has popped up in Phish’s catalog before (compare “NICU” to 10cc’s “Les Nouveaux Riches”).
In that regard, influences for songs like “Turtle in the Clouds”, “Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.” and “Passing Through” seemed to come from German bands like Can, Popul Vuh and especially Kraftwerk whose pioneering, synthesizer-driven sound punctuated with “motorik” beaks paved the way for almost all of the electropop that came after them.
Other tracks like “Stray Dog” and “We Have Come to Outlive Our Brains” seemed a lot more like Phish songs in their construction. However, that could have been another part of the puzzle. After all, the story the band were selling was that they were covering what they wanted us to believe was a real album, and of course the “cover” is going to sound like Phish.
The music was accompanied by a visual display by the band’s longtime lighting director and unofficial fifth member Chris Kuroda…just not with his regular lighting rig. Instead, his work was mostly focused on a series of squares (which despite the lyrics of “We Have Come to Outlive Our Brains”, there were more than nine of them, and they weren’t cubes), resulting in subtle but dazzling effects happening over the audience’s head.
Phish fans had an extremely positive reaction to the Kasvot Växt set. Like most Halloween shows, the other two sets were overshadowed by the musical costume, but there’s plenty to love in the complete show (The version of “Theme from the Bottom” in the first set is really good, as is the “Run Like the Antelope” that ended the third set). If you’re interested in hearing the whole thing, it is available on the band’s LivePhish streaming service, and it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that they’ll release it separately somewhere down the line.
Fans are eager to see what Phish does with the Kasvot Växt material in the future. Throughout the four-date Las Vegas run, the band teased the “faceplant into rock” phrase in several songs, but did not play any of the i rokk tunes again in full. Many are wondering which songs will turn out like “Martian Monster” and “Your Pet Cat” from Chilling, Thrilling, and stick around in the setlist rotation for years to come. The Vegas run (all four shows of which were awesome) ended the band’s 2018 fall tour (which was also a really great all around), and the band won’t return to the stage until their four show New Year’s Eve run at Madison Square Garden in December. What does the future hold for Kasvot Växt? seems we’ll have to wait until then.