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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2013/10/27
by David Steinberg

What Makes A Halloween Cover

As I am writing this, it is less than a week before Phish debuts their 7th Halloween cover album set. Right now we’re in the speculation stage, arguing about what it could be and fighting over rumors. [1]

While there usually has a leak of some sort, this year I have absolutely no clue about what will be played. Without being able to speculate on which of the front-runners I might like, I asked myself a question: what makes a great Halloween cover.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend all of the official cover albums (yeah yeah, I blew off 11/2/98 just like everyone else) sans Quadrophenia, so the one thing I can react to is what gets a room moving, or at least buzzing after the fact. Crowd energy can be much harder to judge than people think as its biased by the dozen or so people right around you, but sometimes it can be possible to get a feel for it. It seems like the difference between a successful cover and one that falls a bit flat (at least in the moment) depends on some of the following rules.

Have a few hits, scattered around the album

When Phish debut a song, the natural reaction is to work a bit harder, focus a bit more intensely, to try to get all of the details in because you might never see this again. That’s a lot of fun, but over the course of an entire concert, it can start to be a bit of work. Towards the end of The White Album, people burnt out a little, as there are a few more songs than people remembered on disc two, especially the really obscure one leading up to “Revolution 9.” That’s why hits can anchor the set a little. You still have to focus a bit more to see who is singing and how they arranged it, but knowing the song well helps you to relax.

Have different styles throughout the album

One of the things that makes Phish so popular is that they play to a diverse crowd. Some of them are there for the jams, others like the high energy songs, and still others are fans of the prog rock compositions of the early days. At any given moment in a concert, there’s someone who is excited that their favorite song is being played and someone else who is annoyed that what they were just doing has ended. With that in mind, the best calls are those albums that vary. If you focus solely on one style, you run the risk of appealing massively to a smaller group who loves that one but leaves everyone else cold. Always make sure to consider that when you want Phish to cover that heavy metal or acid jazz album that you’re sure will blow everyone’s minds.

It is a costume, but you should still put yourself into it

The most memorable songs from the Halloween albums tend to be those that vary the most from the originals. The end of Exile had songs that were extended or sped or otherwise changed from how the Stones arranged them. Rolling Stones purists were annoyed, but they worked well in the moment. When you can fuse your style with the band that you’re covering, you don’t just make interesting sounds in the moment; you can create a new type of jamming for the future of your band. I don’t think 1997 happens without the Remain in Light the year prior.

Ignore all of these rules, and just slay people

That Remain in Light cover is still the most popular of the Halloween albums. It only has one hit which wasn’t the most popular call of the night. The first side of the album is very self similar stylistically. There was a lot of work required from the crowd to wrap their heads around the album, but also the stagework and the complex layers of the songs. “The Overload” was aptly named. With all of the props on stage and it being the end of the album, the crowd could have indeed been overloaded. However, this set rocks so hard and has so much energy that few people were complaining. When in doubt, a great Halloween set – much like the world – is ultimately made of energy.

Will new rules be created or broken? Will a new paradigm for covering an album be created? I’m looking forward to finding out in Atlantic City. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be the one with the strong opinions.

[1] Over rumors, not over Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.


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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