A Look Back at Halloween 2001 with Oysterhead
As Halloween looms, here is Jeff Waful’s review of Oysterhead’s two nights in Denver on October 30 and October 31, 2001
Oysterhead, The Fillmore, Denver, CO – 10/30 & 10/31
Although the magical mountains of Colorado house an abundance of breath-taking scenery, witnessing Trey Anastasio perform in Jon Fishman’s signature “zero” dress on Halloween night will be the image that sticks in my mind for years to come. Oysterhead’s two-night stand at The Fillmore in Denver may not have offered the extra special Halloween surprise that fans were anticipating, but the power trio truly exceeded musical expectations. The setlists barely varied from one night to the next, as has been the case for this tour, but the group is clearly gelling and growing into something greater than the sum of its parts. Seeing the same songs two nights in a row really didn’t matter. The playing was ferocious, the improvisation was fresh and the emotion was intensely honest.
“This is way better than the New Orleans show,” Les Claypool quipped from the stage during Tuesday’s rousing rendition of “Mr. Oysterhead.” “We’re maturing. We’re getting better.” Indeed. Where the New Orleans concert debut of Oysterhead (5-4-00) consisted mostly of sloppy song forms, weak vocals and several high-energy miscues, the Denver shows demonstrated a well-oiled machine that seemed to be clicking on all cylinders. All three members (including drummer Stewart Copeland) were beaming with excitement throughout the two-night stand.
From a musical standpoint, the highlight of Tuesday’s show was clearly “Polka Dot Rose,” in which the band settled into a rare funk groove that eventually meandered its way back into the chorus. The tune also represented some of the best improvisation of the evening, showcasing Copeland’s astute listening skills and Claypool’s modest patience, while Anastasio gracefully led the trio into a brief 70s porno-esque theme. At one point, the band locked up on some spontaneous hits that lighting director Chris Kuroda accented flawlessly.
In the pure-energy department, “Pseudo Suicide,” is hands-down, the showstopper of the tour. Trey looks like a kid in a candy store, simply tearing this song to shreds during a double-time section that leads into a hard rock clinic. Anastasio displayed his old school “machine-gun” rapid-fire style of soloing, while also incorporating a new, darker, heavy side to his playing. The tune also features some of Kuroda’s best work. Not that it comes as any surprise, but Chris has once again done his homework for this tour and knows every nuance of the band’s repertoire. His red-yellow-white strobes matched “Pseudo Suicide’s” mood and tempo perfectly.
Phish fans can take solace in the fact that Trey seems to be truly inspired on stage with Oysterhead. He is playing with a new-found fire, which was exactly the point of the hiatus. Jon Fishman is an amazing drummer, but he is at his best when he is caressing his high-hat and massaging the music. Stewart Copeland, on the other hand, excels at beating the shit out of his kit and unleashing pure adrenaline on his band mates.
Overall, Tuesday’s performance was thoroughly entertaining and provided several awe-inspiring moments of raw power. Halloween, however was surreal. It was, after all a full moon, in Colorado, at The Fillmore. Not only is the sound in the room pristine, but the staff is extremely friendly and genuinely wants its patrons to have an enjoyable experience. Fans are greeted by smiling security guards and free apples as they enter the building. On two occasions, venue employees were seen hugging friends as they passed by. There was a very relaxed, positive vibe to the room. Every venue should be so hospitable.
When the housed lights dimmed and the band emerged on Halloween night, there was a rush of energy that filled the air. Stewart and Les appeared first, to thunderous applause. Then Trey emerged in the dress and thousands of people immediately burst into laughter. It was electrifying. Amidst a dimly lit stage, the band opened with a long, spacey jam that led into “Little Faces.” The show definitely has a different feel to it, right from the opening notes. Throughout the first couple songs, people were still buzzing about Anastasio’s attire. “Oz is Ever Floating,” came third and was one of three songs off the album that was omitted from the setlist the previous evening. It was worth the wait. As heads everywhere bobbed and fists waived, the band hits its stride early and responded with one of the night’s highlights.
Other standouts included a huge, rocking “Rubberneck Lions” complete with the appropriate line “full moon rising up above my head,” which Trey sang with extra conviction as he pointed upwards, to the delight of the festive crowd. “Psuedo Suicide” once again raged and whipped the audience into a frenzy. The acoustic intro to “Birthday Boys” then featured more comic relief from Anastasio. As he sat alone on stage, giggling with folks in the first few rows, he covered a few lines from three songs which Fishman sings with Phish: “Love You,” “Bike” and “Cracklin’ Rosie.” It was a fitting way for Trey to complete his costume and also an appropriate time in the show to do so as both Claypool and Copeland had left the stage. “Birthday Boys” is one of the highlights from the trio’s album, The Grand Pecking Order. The studio version features several vocal and guitar tracks overdubbed by Trey. In the live setting, Anastasio begins the song alone before Stewart and Claypool emerge. Les then sings the lead line “you can come around but don’t you talk to me” in his satirical cartoon voice as Trey moves to backing vocals. It is truly entertaining.
The set ended with a stretched out version of “Owner of the World.” Trey really let loose during one of the longer jams of the night, wailing and screaming in standard rock star form. It was such an ironic twist to watch a man in a dress emit such pure testosterone. The silhouette created when his frock billowed in the wind from his on-stage fans was priceless. “Owner of the World” offered one of the only jams of the night that wandered outside of the confines of the song form. After Trey quoted “Stash,” the floodgates opened and suddenly Copeland was playing linearly and improvising, whereas he generally hammers away in straight ahead rock grooves. This one jam in particular demonstrated the vast potential that Oysterhead possesses.
The early consensus among fans was that Halloween was clearly the highlight of the tour. The band seemed exuberant throughout the entire show and breathed new life into each passage. Since the setlists are almost identical from night to night thus far, it is the freshness of the improvisation that makes seeing multiple Oysterhead shows entertaining. All three members of the group seem to be ecstatic performing with each other. There is a historic feel to it. Whether this is the catalyst that will reunite any of their former bands or the beginning of a new musical chapter (or possibly both), Oysterhead is an overwhelming success.