Stop me if you heard this one before. Playing Halloween in a city known for gambling, Phish cover a somewhat obscure album in a set that they obviously spent a lot of time rehearsing, but the entire set got overshadowed by off the cuff performances of songs from a much more popular band. The pattern reoccurred twelve years later but it would be more of a reflection than a duplicate. In 1998 I was the one writing for Jambands explaining why Loaded was much more important than Dark Side of the Moon. This time I’m on the other side, amused by the spontaneous (but sloppy) performance but left cold by the album they worked on.
Author’s Note: It’s never fun to be the person who dislikes an album, especially one that is largely popular. While the goal of my 10/31/98 column was to try to get people to enjoy the Underground, the last thing I want is to ruin the album for people who enjoyed the Feat set. However I know my views aren’t just held by me, so I thought I’d at least try to present the point of view in order to promote understanding. Besides, Dean asked me to write this and I didn’t have a better idea for a column. Still though, if you’re a Little Feat fan and don’t want to read a somewhat negative review of them, here would be a good place to stop.
Little Feat is one of those bands that are of a certain time. When I was growing up, they had a lot of airplay on the classic rock station. Perhaps the 4-5 year age difference Phish’s members have on me is crucial here, as they never really spoke to me. “Fat Man in the Bathtub” and “Dixie Chicken” were songs that might not cause me to change the station when they came on the radio on a sunny day, but would never be music that I would actually seek out or anything. As a result I kept pushing back against the Waiting for Columbus rumor.
One thing kept me going as I got the Phishbill. I wasn’t a big fan of the idea of Exile on Main Street either but Phish did an interesting job with it, taking the songs and making them something that I would like. My main problem with Little Feat is that the vast majority of their material is way too slow for my tastes; one thing that Phish could do to make it better for me is to speed things up.
To make a memorable cover, the best approach is to create a synergy between the original band and yourselves. A reinterpretation can show a song (or an album) in a new light, showing what was great about it even for those of us who might not like the original for some reason. It could reveal a secret potential that had existed in the song, but needed a fresh set of ears to bring it forth. Unfortunately, we weren’t going to experience any of that in Atlantic City. The goal this year – with a few exceptions – was to try to reproduce the live Little Feat show as closely as possible. From all reports, that’s a deceptively hard task – and despite my lack of love for the album, none of my issues with the set came from their playing; they nailed the album as well as could be done – but it still does feel like a bit of a missed chance here, a way of seeing what Phish could do with Little Feat instead of hearing them just try to mimic the original.
This seventeen-song album can be roughly divided into thirds – “Join the Band” through “Time Loves a Hero,” “Day or Night through Rocket in My Pocket,” and “Willin’” through “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now.” One of the problems I had with this album is that almost all of my favorite sections were in the middle third. The first six songs, with the welcome break of “Oh Atlanta,” are all mid tempo. They’re competently played and any given one is inoffensive enough, but having them all grouped together is frustrating for people whose tastes don’t run to that style. By “Time Loves a Hero,” I was about as bored as I have ever been at a Phish show.
Fortunately, the set was about to pick up as we moved into the second third. It started out subtly, a little tempo pick up in “Day or Night,” an intense horn section at the end of “Mercenary Blues,” all leading to the three songs that I think most people agree are the peak of the album. “Spanish Moon,” while still slow, uses its tempo to its advantage. Melody rich with strong horn parts and an interesting story, there’s a reason why this is the most popular choice (according to Hidden Track at least) for a song to stick around in rotation. The momentum didn’t stop there either as the “Dixie Chicken> Tripe Face Boogie” combination just cooked. The jam towards the end of “Tripe” was especially hot; this was a time where it really felt like a merger between the two bands, not just one pretending to be the other. These three songs took up nearly a third of the set and were enough to impress a non-fan like me.
Alas that moment would be short lived. After the forgettable (but reasonably rocking) “Rocket in my Pocket,” things would be slowed down again. “Willin’” has a unique distinction for me as being the one song that fell short due to Phish’s performance instead of the material. With the instrument switching and Fishman on vocals, it came across as a novelty live. Only upon hearing the recording did the rather interesting lyrics and surprisingly good piano playing of Mike really shine through. Still though, the excitement that had built was starting to feel like a distant memory, especially when it was followed by three more songs that brought the pace way down. “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now” at least ended things on a high note, but it felt like a struggle getting there.
Having now listened to Waiting for Columbus a few times in an attempt to try to let it grow on me, an additional Achilles Heel becomes apparent: its lyrics. When compared to the other albums (well other than The White Album which is too all over the place to give a summary) Phish have covered, its weakness is glaring. Quadrophenia is about battles between British subcultures and the desire to feel true to the image that you have of yourself even if it forces you to make decisions for stupid reasons. Remain in Light is largely about the oppressive potential of government, the way that facts can be twisted to serve an ideology, and the confusion this creates; there’s even a song set from the point of view of a terrorist. Loaded is filled with slice of life stories of the down and out. Dark Side of the Moon may not have much to bring to the topics, but it addresses issues of aging and war and financial policy. Exile on Main Street falls victim to the rock star nature of the Rolling Stones. So trapped in their insular culture, they’re left to write about what it’s like to be a rock star, but they still manage to present it in such a way that lets outsiders to that world get a feel as to what it might be like.
In contrast, Little Feat’s collection is largely about doing drugs and trying to have sex. Sometimes it’s disguised a bit (“Fat Man in the Bathtub,” “Rocket in My Pocket” which is a ditty about having an erection), others not at all as in the banal “Don’t Bogart That Joint,” but that’s largely what Lowell George had to say . What’s his concern about aging? You won’t be able to perform sexually as easily as you would when you were younger. Yes, that’s the 70s culture, but we’re not in the 70s anymore. It’s a party album about partying, giving few entrances for those who don’t live in that world. Obviously, sex and drugs are a major part of rock and roll, but my favorite albums were always about something more interesting and universal than that.
While I’ve done a lot of explaining how the album falls short for me, some perspective is in order. I know this is the Internet and everything has to be either the best thing ever or completely godawful, but Little Feat hits neither extreme for me. I created a subset of songs (“Join the Band,” “Oh Atlanta,” “Day or Night,” Mercenary Territory,” “Spanish Moon,” “Dixie Chicken,” “Tripe Face Boogie,” “Willin’,” and “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now”) for work and without the slow songs and the two worst lyric offenders, and suddenly it’s a decent showing. Live it’s hard to not notice the half hour that bores you, but on tape you can focus on the hour that you did enjoy.
The best analogy for me came in a flash early in the morning of November 1. It was about 2 AM and I wanted to get some juice to fight off tour ick. I figured also I was in a legendary casino town hours after Phish played a Halloween show. While I’m old and married now, I was curious as to what kind of trouble I could have gotten into if I were so inclined… Much to my surprise, the casino was pretty dead. Yeah there were a few people here milling about gambling, but hardly anyone was still in costume and the place was a quarter full. The most interesting thing that happened was encountering a person who I’m praying was acting in character with his costume (abusive asshole?) or something as he was being rather threatening to his girlfriend . I’m not the biggest Vegas person, but I can promise you that if you went through a major casino late on a Halloween night, it would be exciting. This felt more like being at some random tribal casino on the side of I-5.
I have to admit that going into the trip, I was a little intimidated by Atlantic City. I had never been there before and all I heard about was burnt out shells of buildings and “Don’t even think about venturing off the Boardwalk!” Once you got to your room, the first thing that anyone should do is strip off the sheets and check it out for bedbugs, lest you bring them home. Fortunately, once you got to the Boardwalk, it actually was fun. The Tropicana had a little store that had some cool vegetarian options. The poker room there loved hosting the Phamily Poker Classic and the staff was a delight to work with. The hotel was close to the venue and while the Boardwalk was seedy, it was seedy in an amusing, authentic tourist trappy sort of way that gave a connection to the sketchiness that founded the city. You could easily walk from the venue to the beach and look out at the ocean if you needed a break from people with fingers in the air.
Ultimately for me, Waiting for Columbus was like Atlantic City. They both have fascinating and complex histories. Neither one was as bad as I feared they would be ahead of time; in fact they both had moments where they rather impressed me. However, after Asheville and the Gorge and Indio and Telluride, Atlantic City doesn’t quite stack up. It’s not so much that I hate Little Feat as much as I don’t feel that they rise to the ranks of The Beatles, The Who, Talking Heads, the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, or The Rolling Stones. If they do for you, that’s great; many others would say the same thing about the Underground for that matter. For me though, this set ranks as the least good one.
 I’m singling out George here because the songs that ventured afield from these two topics were largely not written by him. In his defense though, he had nothing to do with “Don’t Bogart That Joint.”
 In the list of overheard conversations that you wish you hadn’t heard, a joking reference of, “Keep that up and I might leave you,” followed by a furious, “Don’t say that. Don’t EVER say that!!!” is about as far from the silly gambling story fun I was hoping for.
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 http://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 and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page