By: Stu Kelly
When Phish announced a fall tour concluding with a four-night Halloween run in Las Vegas anticipation was through the roof and the community quickly came together in full speculation about what the band would do on Halloween night. The result is another chapter cemented in Phish’s legacy as they stepped up and paid tribute to a legend by covering David Bowie’s beloved concept album about a bisexual alien rock superstar, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The challenge was no easy task for the Vermont quartet and they enlisted a full string arrangement and a plethora of backing vocalists, which included Jennifer Hartswick. The strings added a subtle and classy touch on the rock anthem as they found the perfect fills to lift the band’s sound to new heights. The band made it clear in the seventh edition of their Phishbill just how important David Bowie was as an artist when they sat down with Rolling Stone’s David Fricke.
“You can’t point to anyone else in rock who was so relevant for so long,” explained Page McConnell to Fricke. Bowie had everything working for him throughout his career. He was constantly changing his sound in a way that paved his own path rather than just adapting to the changing times. His onstage persona was unparalleled as he always found creative ways to reinvent himself not only as an artist, but also as a performer. On stage he was fearless and laced with sex appeal. He was also one of the first public figures to blur the lines of gender identity in a subtle and artistic way. His career was never stagnant, if something wasn’t working, or even if it was working but he’d had enough of it, Bowie set his sights on a new creative and artistic direction. David Bowie will forever be on the same iconic tier as Prince, Michael Jackson and The Beatles as one of the greatest artists of all time as his work was invaluable.
The decision to cover David Bowie on Halloween was an easy one for Phish. During their debut performance at Wrigley Field in June, the band stepped out for their encore huddled around a series of microphones and debuted a beautiful a capella cover of David Bowie’s 1969 release “Space Oddity.” Once the lyrics came out of the PA, the entire crowd erupted with approval. This electrifying response was enough of a spark to ignite a wildfire in Trey Anastasio’s mind.
“Once we did ‘Space Oddity,’” Anastasio said to Fricke in the Phishbill, “it was a conversation we had pretty quickly. ‘Oh, Halloween is coming up. Let’s do Ziggy Stardust.”
Phish performed the album with grace and while they left very little room for improvisation, they still managed to add their own unique twist on this classic album. At times Anastasio and McConnell even abandoned their instruments for a solo microphone which they used to command the crowd and go “all out front man,” a move that we rarely see from Phish. The opening track on the album, “Five Years,” had an especially emotional pull on the fans as Phish took a five-year hiatus from 2004-2009. Other notable takes on Bowie’s repertoire included “Ziggy Stardust,” “Suffragette City,” “Lady Stardust,” “Moonage Daydream,” “It Ain’t Easy” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” which critics are already calling one of Anastasio’s finest vocal performances. Hopefully these songs continue to find room in Phish’s rotation and don’t end up in the “one and done” category like Dark Side of the Moon did, even if it wasn’t a traditional musical costume.
Phish has once again lifted the bar to a new level proving that Halloween events aren’t one to miss. A new chapter of “phishtory” has been written as the band paid a very important tribute to one of rock and roll’s greatest losses. Hopefully Phish takes this new found success and hits a stride with Bowie’s material. One thing we can be sure of, it was alright…the band was all together.