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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2012/08/29
by David Steinberg

Fame and the Effectiveness of Covers

Jambands love covers. If for no other reason, it makes sense for them to extend their setlist options since they don’t want to vary the songs that they’re going to play. The more songs you have, the more options there are, and even the most prolific bands could use a little help occasionally. Obviously, any band needs to write originals in order to escape the trap that only playing other people’s songs brings, but once the pump is primed, there’s a dual source of power that makes these work: taping and the power of fame.

What’s fame got to do, got to do with this? [1] To tell this tale, let’s go back a few weeks to the Long Beach Arena. I was just settling in by the soundboard when Chris Bertolet informed me that standing a few rows in front of me was Justin Bieber. Here’s the totality of my knowledge of Beiber before this night: I knew he was some sort of singer or musician. I was pretty sure my niece was a big fan as were many other young women. However it didn’t matter what he did. What was important was that I knew him.

Sure, a lot of the fascination came from watching the bodyguard do the same dance over and over again – someone walked back through the crowd, bodyguards would get worried, person kept going to get their drink/use the bathroom not even noticing Bieber at all – but I got slightly sucked into the world of fame. Never mind that I don’t know his works and couldn’t pick him out of a police lineup, the fact that Justin Bieber is throwing glowsticks right in front of me in inherently amusing. There’s a power that exists just by being part of the star machine. When everyone is paying attention to someone, it infuses otherwise mundane acts with extra meaning. Someone walking down your street is mundane. Madonna walking down your street makes your entire road somehow seem important.

Ultimately it’s a variant of that that makes seeing live music powerful. Maybe The Australian Pink Floyd could play versions of Pink Floyd’s music better than Roger Waters can these days [2] but even without the elaborate stage, there’s a difference when watching Roger perform The Wall that’s not completely about the quality of the actual music. When you’ve listened to a song hundreds of times, watching a performance of it resonates back into the past. It’s here where the existence of recordings comes into play.

The Jerry Garcia Band was an important enough band in the lives of Deadheads that many people travelled to go see them. While few actually toured, three show runs were not unheard of. The weird thing about them is that they rarely performed originals. Some were songs popularized by his main band, but outside of a few songs here and there, the band stuck to old standards. However, when a Deadhead thinks of “My Sisters And Brothers,” few have The Sensational Nightingales in mind. Even a more popular song like “The Way You Do the Things You Do” can be associated with Jerry because people listen more to their bootlegs than their Motown collection. Allowing recordings re-originalizes songs even to fans that know better. Yes, Morning Dew isn’t a Grateful Dead original but the Bonnie Dobson recording doesn’t mean anything to me.

That works for more obscure covers but quite a few bands cover songs that would never be associated with them; even the biggest Deadhead would think of The Beatles “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” not the late period Dead cover. However, that’s where the star effect comes into play. When one of your musical idols plays a song you love, there’s that emotional resonance from discovering that they were listening to the same music that you were. Is it a little silly to care that famous people are doing the same thing that we are? Of course it is. That doesn’t mean that it’s an easy temptation to resist. The subtext of all of those Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez see Phish stories is that of thousands of Phish fans basking in the reflection glow of celebrity followed by the reflexive self mockery of fans who are bemused that they caught themselves doing that. Supercharging mundane events and making them hyperreal is what being fame adjacent does to us mere mortals. It’s all worth it for the rush that was the 10/30/10 “Tweezer.”

[1] Wouldn’t be so much cooler if I could reference a Bieber song there. Too bad I don’t know any.

[2] Or maybe not. I’ve never heard them.


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 and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

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