The 21 Greatest Halloween Concerts Of All Time

Posted on October 30th, 2012 by steve in Features, Lists, The Blog, Top Stories

7. Umphrey’s McGee 10/31/10 – The Pageant – St. Louis, MO

The guys in Umphrey’s are nothing if not innovators. They attempt an awful lot of things to see what sticks, from improv-only sets to taking fan direction via text messages to hosting their own summer camp retreat.  One of the most intriguing is the concept of covering, and inventing, musical mash-ups for their Halloween gigs.

It is a testament to the talent of the band that listening to these inspire truly WTF moments — it is a can’t-believe-your-ears experience. This particular gig is on record as guitarist Brendan Bayliss’ favorite and includes mashed up covers with their own material (Guns N Roses’ “November Rain” + “Cemetery Walk”, The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” + “Hajimemashite”), pop chestnuts (Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” + Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel”), and modern rock and classic rock (Phoenix’s “1901” and Van Halen’s “Jump”).

Umphrey's McGee - November Walk - 10/31/10 Play
Umphrey's McGee - The Way You Make Me Rule The World - 10/31/10 Play
Umphrey's McGee - Bittersweet Haji - 10/31/10 Play
Umphrey's McGee - 1901 Jump - 10/31/10 Play


But, the piece de resistance was the seamless blend of  Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” and Rush’s “Spirit Of The Radio” — two songs that are so remarkably similar that the lines between them just seemed to evaporate.

And yes, the band was dressed in their own mashup costumes: G.I. Joakim Noah (Farag), Yoko Bono (Bayless), Paul Stanley Cup (Cinninger), Pope John Paul Shaffer (Cummins), Larry David Letterman (Myers), and Dr. Evel Knievel (Stasik).


6. Frank Zappa – 10/31/78 – The Palladium – New York City, NY

Halloween in New York City was a Zappa tradition (he played 20 times on the holiday), but the ’78 show was perhaps the longest (and greatest?) Frank show ever.  Don’t take it from me.  Here are some comments by Richard Harrold, a fine Zappa blogger.

This concert had some serious head-banging heavy metal guitar solos that stimulate your entire body with scintillating current; you will hear the magical musicianship of the band as it displays complete mastery of some of Zappa’s most difficult material; you will be awed by Denny Walley’s super sweet and melodious slide guitar delivered with a Delta blues fingerprint so implacable and delicious that it’s like a savory sweet potato pie; and the interplay between L. Shankar’s electric violin and Zappa’s guitar approaches the mystical.

With 38 songs, staples and rarities alike, and clocking in at almost four hours, there is something here for every Zappa fan.  I’m sure the freak show was out in full force this evening.

Parts of this was official released by the Zappa family as a DVD-A entitled Halloween, but you can download this set from Guitars 101.


5. moe. 10/31/09 -Washington Avenue Armory – Albany, NY

moe. often “went big” in Halloween shows, setting up whole themes with set decoration, themed covers and antics that spanned iconic topics such as The Simpsons or Wizard Of Oz. But by 2009, they came up with a so-crazy-it-just-might-work concept of just straight up asking fans to vote on a setlist.  The top vote getters would get played — simple as that.

The result of which was brain-popping mix of long lost moe. tunes (“Farmer Ben”), the big heavy hitters(“Rebubula”, “meat”), explicit nods to jambands (“Dark Star”, “Stash”) and classic rockers (an “Echoes” sandwich), and out-of-leftfield choices like Miley Cyrus and Tenacious D covers. It was a one of a kind, interactive experience that I’m sure many in the room and participating in the various campaigns to get these songs played won’t ever forget.

moe. - Eyes Of The World - 10/31/09 Play
moe. - Fuck Her Gently - 10/31/09 Play


4. Benevento Russo Duo > Bustle In Your Hedgerow 10/31/04 – The Funk Box – Baltimore, MD

Imagine a Halloween experience so profound that it births an entirely new band. After playing a set as The Duo, Marco Benevento and Joe Russo invited Scott Metzger and Dave Dreiwitz for a second set of Zeppelin covers so intense that it couldn’t be contained within a single show.

Offering cover choices which span the storied history of the band, the foursome (since christened Bustle In Your Hedgerow) funnels their love of the source material into every note they play.  Benevento whipping up Plant’s vocal lines on the organ, Russo slapping skins like with the spirit of Bonham — they play suitable homage to the songbook, and also transform it.  But the musicians also lend a bit of their jazz sensibilities to the mix — with an infusion of improv, delicious segues and some nasty funk.  These guys felt such a connection with the music, and the audience response was so great, that it became a semi permanent band, forming for festival gigs or short tours whenever the band members schedules have allowed in the 8 years since.

Bustle - Bring it on Home > GTBT > The Crunge > Bring it on Home - 10/31/04 Play


3. Grateful Dead 10/31/91 – Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum – Oakland, CA

Having played the date only 13 times over their 30 year career, The Dead celebrated Halloween the old fashioned way, by terrifying the fuck out of people. My guess is that more than a few attendees at the 1991 gig lost their shit during the “Dark Star” in the second set.

The show is rounded out with a amped up first set, which opens with “Help > Slip > Franklin’s” and closes with “Let It Grow”. Coming at the tail end of the Bruce Hornsby era, this show has all the hallmarks of his time with the band — adventurous setlist choices, subtle jams and teases (we get the first glimpse of the “Dark Star” during “Spoonful”), and all sorts piano poking and prodding for Jerry to react to.

But things don’t get truly weird until the aforementioned “Dark Star”.  After the intro, this beast of a version morphs into a downright menacing jam to accompany the entry of Ken Kesey to the stage.  Kesey then delivers a spooky dual eulogy for both his son and the recently deceased Bill Graham.  Quoting / paraphrasing poet e.e. cummings, he lays on a truly psychedelic sheen to the proceedings, admonishing… “In any given situation there’s always going to be more dumb people than smart people. We ain’t winning!” and “What I really want to know is… how do you like your blue eyed boy now Mr Death?”.  Terrifying.

The band closes the show with “Werewolves” (for good measure).

Grateful Dead - Dark Star - 10/31/91 Play
Grateful Dead - Jam with Kesey Speech - 10/31/91 Play
Grateful Dead - Werewolves Of London - 10/31/91 Play

 Honorable Mentions: This was a tough call, with some awesome compeition.  10/31/71 was released as Dick’s Picks Volume 2 has a magnificent “Dark Star”. The 1980 Halloween gig at Radio City Music Hall features three sets, including an acoustic set, and is available as a pro-shot video.


2. Widespread Panic 10/31/98 – UNO Lakefront Arena – New Orleans, LA

Widespread Panic. New Orleans. Halloween. The band has played many places for the holiday, but no other city is so synonymous with the celebration. This was the first time the band invited friends Dirty Dozen Brass Band to the party and together they delivered a second set that will certainly hold up as one of the greatest of their career.

But let’s not forget about the first set, opening with a rocking superfecta of “One Arm Steve”, “Fishwater” an absolutely huge “Diner” and “Porch Song”.  Continuing what was at the time an uninterrupted streak of Halloween Doors covers, they offer the one that even the most jaded Doors-hater will have to tap his feet to, “Peace Frog”, and follow it up with a “Pusherman” with another nice jam.

But like most Panic shows, the real fireworks occurred in the second set.  Never before has “blow the roof off” have been such an appropriate metaphor — with 13 musicians contributing to an immense rumble of sound that rolled along with purpose and power. Together, these two bands showed the People why NOLA is the home of funk.  Starting with Talking Heads “Swamp”, a nice nod to the region’s geography and one of Talking Heads’ funkiest tunes, they dive right into the deep end.  Next, they continue the Panic tradition of taking a relatively unknown cover and absolutely owning it, blasting through Funkadelic’s “Red Hot Mama”, but wait… is that..? YES!  Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” pokes its dance party inducing head out from deep in the funk, complete with Halloween imagery (“When you believe in things that you don’t understand…then you suffer”) and oh so many pockets for horn breakdowns.  Some Jimi teases take us into the drum break, while “Climb To Safety” gets its proper coming out party on the flip side.  Few realized just how huge this tune could be at the time, but slotted in the right place and delivered like this, it snatched its rightful place in the pantheon of Panic jams at that moment.

A “Driving Song” encore always portends good things… but going Zeppelin after the dose of funk delivered at the start of the second set was exactly the right call.  This show set the standard for WSP Halloween gigs in the future.

Widespread Panic - Swamp - 10/31/98 Play
Widespread Panic - Third Stone From The Sun Jam - 10/31/98 Play
Widespread Panic - Over The Hills And Far Away - 10/31/98 Play

Honorable Mention: 10/31/01 CHICAGO! (Zappa’s “Joe’s Garage”, Temptations’ “Ball Of Confusion” again with DDBB, Neil’s “Cortez The Killer”), from the Jimmy Herring era 10/31/08 (Stones, Credence, Aerosmith…oh yeah!)


1. Phish 10/31/94 – Glens Falls Civic Center – Glens Falls, NY

You’ll have noticed that the majority of entries on this list from the late nineties and beyond. That’s because Phish essentially CHANGED THE GAME with their Halloween 1994 performance.  By the time Halloween had rolled around, they were 94 shows into a touring year which had seen them cross the country several times and play some of the most brilliant music of their career.  They coined the term “musical costume” as they engaged with fans to vote for a full album’s worth of material.  Still, there were limited clues as to how exactly this would go down until they stepped on to the stage in Glens Falls, NY on Halloween night.

“Frankenstein” kicks the Halloween party off, before getting to versions of “Simple”, “Reba” and yes even “Divided Sky” for the ages.  While “Harpua” wasn’t quite the rarity in ’94 as it is today, using its narration as a set centerpiece, including misdirection regarding the cover album and holiday-inspired storytelling, was a perfect choice, and finds Trey at his most lucid.

I’ve recently seen the second set described dismissively as “A long nice set of Beatles covers. Nothing more, nothing less”.  While it may not have not achieved the same improvisational glory as the costumes of subsequent years — ignoring the psychic connection that Phish forged with The Beatles in this context wouldn’t be fair.  Forced to reach deep into several styles of music, using some of the self analysis they would eschew in later days, I argue that it made them as aware of what it means to be a “great” band than any other exercise.

Perhaps one of the only bands who could so confidently reproduce such a sprawling and ambitious album on stage, Phish shattered boundaries and pushed their their career long anything-is-possible theme forward a few steps. In a sense, it was an acknowledgement of their boundless technical prowess and even growing popularity — a signal from a band on the rise.  They even managed to put some Phishy touches on these tunes, too: spreading lead vocals around, delivering a bluegrassy take on “Don’t Pass Me By” and a dissonant jam in “Helter Skelter”.  Then there’s the “Revolution 9″ spectacle, accompanied via vacuum cleaner, crash cymbals, and grand piano and culminating with a nude Fishman prancing through soap bubbles emitted from the stage.

What’s more, the band is back with another whole set.  Bookended by “David Bowie” and “Antelope”, songs that were entering their peak years during this performance.  With this one show, the bar had been raised.  The gauntlet had been thrown.  While other Phish Halloween shows have produced unforgettable music and performance challenges, this is the one that opened the floodgates.  It assured fans that Halloween was a date to circle on the calendar and put other bands on notice.  Halloween was a time to go big, put in hours of practice, maybe invest some money to craft a one-of-a-kind experience and connection with your fans.

Have you noticed that the very notion of Halloween itself has taken on a greater prominence in American culture since the mid-nineties.  Coincidence?

Honorable Mentions:  Really every Phish Halloween, since each one brings something new and memorable to the fold.  Ranking is nearly impossible.

Amazingly, the full video from this night is actually very watchable and available on youtube.



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5 Comments on “The 21 Greatest Halloween Concerts Of All Time”

  1. Parker

    Outstanding compilation and write-up! Kudos. I shall now endeavor to source, download and listen to all the ones missing from my library. Thanks again for this!

  2. Adam

    That Bowie is so sick.

  3. bennyboy

    Dude is a SCI hater obviously. Even picked IMO the worst of the bunch to write about…….

    SCI kills it on HULAween.

    The “Whistlestop tour of NY” with all the songs from the city narrated by JP Barlow? Just the initiative to try to do something like that makes that show head and shoulders above any show ever.

    The HULAWEEN show from Vegas with Keller? …Hot iN Heere, War Pigs, Freaker (best one ever IMO).

    The Dead Rock stars set from The LA Shrine and the whole red carpet ambiance of the venue etc?

    I really hate it when closed minded people write articles.

  4. deemen

    Not to get nit picky but do you realize you never once actually named the album that Phish played during their second set? I am sure most readers know already, but there may be the occasional person finding this that wouldn’t know.

  5. Tony Ratliff

    Good People there have been many great Halloween shows but the hold on to your bones show was in Marin in 1983 by yes THE GRATEFUL DEAD . You can hear the room gasp the mind swirl the blood drip from the ceiling . The HELP SLIP FRANKLINS is pristine the Estimated is Dark the drums ooze into the other side with a cry from the darkness for all to rise with the eerie HAPPY HALLOWEEN call. Then with the quietness that could only come from the west coast allowing Jerry and Phil the perfect moment to give the final ST STEPHEN and nail the coffin shut. THIS SHOW IS ONE OF THE FINEST EVER. No they did not play DARK STAR but they played the kind of show that you traveled for years and years to see. I have gone through so many copies of this show than any other show .It doesnt have to be released by The Dead as the audience recording puts you in the room and you taste feel and see every note as they do what only the DEAD could do —STEAL YOUR FACE RIGHT OFF YOUR HEAD while the MUSIC PLAYED THE BAND. Even if you didnt see JERRY listen to this a you will get a fine dose of magical music and a glimpse of why your favorite band plays music.

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