Phish’s cover albums can largely be divided into two groups. There are those that they played note for note accurately to the best of their ability – The White Album, Quadrophenia, Dark Side of the Moon – and those that they put their own Phishy spin on, mainly Remain in Light and Loaded. My first reaction to Festival 8 was to put Exile on Main Street into the first group. I had only listened to the album a few times before the show – yeah yeah, I know, bad me – and what I remembered from the quick listens sure sounded like the original.
Then came the re-release of the album and the week on Jimmy Fallon and all of the publicity. As a result of that, I went back onto Grooveshark to listen to the songs again. It was there that I got a surprise. Phish’s versions didn’t really sound that much like the originals after all. However, it’s not like they really made it sound like Phish either. Their cover of the album deserves to be in a 3rd group, one that brings back dorm room conversations.
Most people have had this one. It’s 3 in the morning and you’re arguing with your friends. “Sure we both agree that this color is green, but how do we know that it looks the same to both of us? I like this food and you hate it; is it because it actually tastes differently to each of us? How do we know that music sounds the same to both of us?”
In the last case, there are some actual examples to show that music does sound differently to different people. One example is with the Indigo Girls. Their early songs have a lot of complex vocal parts with the two singers switching off parts. If you get two fans of the album together and they start singing along, often you’ll find that they instinctively choose different parts to sing. When they listen to the song, one person hears Emily’s line as the main one and the other finds that Amy’s stands out. Another example is the fact that you can actually train yourself to listen to music differently. When I was younger, I couldn’t hear the bass. I knew it was there, but it was inaudible to me. With time, training – and perhaps with loss of the upper registers in my hearing – I now frequently find myself focusing on that instrument.
What does that have to do with Festival 8? Exile on Main Street isn’t note for note as a quick listen to “I Just Want to See His Face” (much slower in the original) or “All Down the Line” (with much less repetition of “Be my little baby for a while.”) would show. However, they didn’t really jam out the songs like they did with “Rock and Roll” and “New Age” to make them song like Phish songs. Rather, when I listen to Exile on Phish Street, it sounds like an insight into the band’s ears. We’re not hearing what is on the album; we’re hearing what the band hears when they listen to it.
Perhaps the best example is on “Shine a Light.” Trey most definitely sings, “Making bloodshot eyes at every woman that you meet,” even though the official lyrics say, “Make you shut your eyes at every woman that you meet.” It’s somewhat understandable as Mick’s vocals are pretty garbled, but the version with Bonnie Raitt performing with the Stones make very clear what the actual lyric is.
It’s not that Phish got the lyrics wrong; it’s that the lyrics they sang were better. The fact remains that as much as I enjoyed the Exile set – in fact, it was the most enjoyable in concert of the 4 cover sets that I saw – I still don’t really like the album. Phish didn’t turn me into a Rolling Stones fan or a fan of Exile on Main Street. However, what they did do is make me understand how someone else could be. Phish’s cover was performed from the perspective of a fan of the album, showing what amazing music is on the disc, even if it can be hard for me to hear it when the actual album is played.
Musical taste is arational. You can tell me a song is trite, but if it sets off an emotional reaction in me, I won’t care. Similarly, a long explanation about why an album is great will do nothing for me if I put it in and am bored by it. What Phish managed to do in 100 minutes was most impressive. Hearing their version in Indio was about as close as I could ever come to the moment when Page first placed the vinyl on his turntable and was blown away. People may (and do) argue over whether Phish ruined or improved the album with their version, but they managed to translate the joy that it brings them to at least one person who still doesn’t get it from the Rolling Stones. That by itself might have made the whole Halloween cover album project worth it.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog