Phish Pick Fans Up at 8 in Indio

Last night Phish tore through the first two of eight sets which the quartet's scheduled to play during their three day "Festival 8" in Indio, California. The Halloween-themed bacchanal, taking place at the astonishingly beautiful Empire Polo Grounds (also home to the Coachella music festival), is a homecoming of sorts for Phish, which invented a new rock festival model in 1996—even before disgruntled audience members rioted at Woodstock '99 over the rapacious price of water. Phish was the first contemporary band to organize multi-day rock festivals which treated attendees like guests, not numbers. This novel approach inspired Bonnaroo, where Phish performed for the first time in June.

But the last time Phish hosted one of their signature festivals, in the summer of 2004, everything went completely sideways. Torrential rains made the Vermont location inaccessible, and the police eventually told tens of thousands of fans—who'd been sitting in traffic for 24 hours—to go home. Some left their cars behind and walked miles to the site, only to be rewarded with the most shockingly awful performance of the band's career. Months earlier, frontman Trey Anastasio had announced the group's break-up, and his self-medicating at Conventry resulted in guitar work that was uncharacteristically sloppy (and emotionally raw). Drummer Jon Fishman would later call Coventry "one of the great train wrecks in live concert history."

Surprising fans, Phish reunited in March after what had appeared to be an irrevocable, if not amicable, breakup. In contrast to their hard-partying Clinton-era touring style (in the old days, the backstage bar was sardonically dubbed The Clinic, as in "Betty Ford") the band is touring sober now, and it shows. During last night's euphoric three-and-a-half hour extravaganza, Phish showed themselves once again masters of intricately-composed classics like "David Bowie" and "Punch You in the Eye." But they're also not afraid to forge forward with their new material, and songs like "Beauty Of A Broken Heart" and "Joy" reveal an emotional vulnerability seldom heard before Anastasio's recovery.

Update: I just found out the Halloween Costume! They're covering Exile on Main St in its entirety. It is also rumored that Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings (with horns) are joining them.

Tonight the band will revive a Halloween tradition of performing a "musical costume," by covering a classic rock album in its entirety (previous costumes ran the gamut from Velvet Undergound's "Loaded" to "The White Album"). In keeping with tradition, the identity of the costume is being kept secret until showtime, but for the past month the Festival 8 website has been teasing fans by inexorably "killing off" 99 different albums with axes, arrows, and knives. The remaining eight candidates, which are also the names of the eight campsites on the grounds, speak volumes about the band's eclectic tastes: David Bowie’s “Hunky Dory” or “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars,” Genesis’ “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland,” King Crimson’s “Larks' Tongues in Aspic,” Led Zeppelin's self-titled debut, MGMT’s “Oracular Spectacular,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Prince’s “Purple Rain,” Radiohead’s “Kid A,” the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main St.,” and Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks.”

And in case eight long sets of Phish aren't far-out enough, the Polo Fields have been transformed into a sprawling Burning Man-esque art happening. The centerpiece is a serpentine sculptural ramp built by Vermont-based artist Russ Bennett that rises to a peak of 22 feet, giving an excellent view of the concert field. There are also kinetic fire sculptures, performance art by Lucent Dossier, horseshoe contests, and an "archaeological dig," among other diversions.

Last night at midnight, after the last set, they screened The Shining on a giant screen, which will also broadcast the World Series. There's also a certified farmer's market featuring exclusively California-grown produce and baked goods, a "particularly bloody" Bloody Mary bar, a giant Ferris Wheel, and composting/recycling. In short, what we have here is a temporary psychedelic utopia flipping a big, defiant bird at the Great Recession. In contrast to the sober 40-something guys on stage, the 40,000 revelers here aren't exactly adhering to a straight-edge lifestyle, but, then again, they're not the ones getting paid. Phish is back at work, and earning it. Check back Sunday for more on today's Halloween madness.