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Columns > Randy Ray - Peaches En Randalia

Published: 2010/06/29

Down with Covers

Peaches En Randalia #52

[Author’s Note: (again? An Author’s Note in a column?! Is that legal? Someone get Budnick. One of his old troopers is having another ‘moment’.) Tiring long ago of the thesis in my writing: a) present an idea, b) support the idea with colorful examples, and c) wake up the stoners after the metaphysical meanderings so one and all can return to the idea, I segue to my favorite form of writing: riffing on a question presented to me.]

Looking upon a time when creating something unique and teleportational requires one to gather all of the disparate strands of one’s imagination to document that experience. I’m not sure for whom, or what, or when, but just sitting down and creating something now, while we all still have the opportunity, wouldn’t be such a bad idea. You never know—cave drawings are great fun when accompanied by a nifty iPod playlist, but I derange with spontaneous moments of what-the-fuck?-weirdness. And then I think of the legions of jambands who have also held that opportunity in their collective hands, and let the moment pass without creating their own combination of the bizarre and the sublime.

Ahhh…but it is 2010, and we have Phish on the road, again, don’t we…

Recently asked by a few people how I felt about the amount of covers that Phish have played thus far on their summer tour, I sat bemused, as I hear the soundboards hours after the gigs, late at night, as I now prefer, as darkness descends, and the mind starts to unhinge and let go of its restraints, I had to remember that I no longer hit the road for stretches at a time for numerous reasons, from felonious to familial to financial to fecund frugality, but, hey—I will attempt to answer the question.

Not overly concerned with what songs have been played, or how often, or when they were played, or at what venue, or what set, or who sang lead vocals, or how rare the cut was, or if it was an indie rock band influenced by Phish, and now Phish is turning the mirror back on them (which misses the point, to a degree—indie rock came about as an alternative to the dying breath of record company-sponsored corporate rock, and Phish is comprised of four strong musicians with a wide variety of tastes coming together to play music creating these disparate strands of music as an alternative to everything), what does interest me from my office desk in the back of the sprawling ramshackle house where I now reside with music, movies, and mayhem underfoot at all hours, and the tunes blasting out of my speakers in the semi-soundproof room, is the way these covers appear to cement a certain sense of adventure. Phish is playing a cover, in the beginning or the middle or end of a set, and that cover coats the texture of the show. Often, the band appears to commenting on some recent event, or element within the sound that was once used as a framework for their own sprawling ramshackle house of music. What does excite me is Phish isn’t just having loads of fun, again (especially frontman Trey Anastasio), and bringing their legions of devoted fans and doubting jadesters along with them, but they are addressing the nostalgic act dilemma.

By inserting songs from another band into their set, Phish appears to be re-addressing who they are as a band, what they can play, when they can play it in the context of a set, and why each night needs to be a unique adventure. It is that sense of a living, breathing entity seeking a fresh adventure which hooked many longtime fans of Phish, myself included. And I’m not talking about the really cool road trip from Minneapolis to Milwaukee to East Troy back to Minneapolis in the space of 24 hours, or the thousands of miles of other asphalt and dirt and mud voyages made by countless other fans, but the trips taken in one’s mind. An adventure of the mind is a very pretentious and ethereal thing, but it is also a concept rooted in the comedic and dramatic textures of theatre.

When theatre is bad, it is normally bad because the script is horrid, and the actors are not given enough to work with on stage. If a script is good, a mediocre actor can muddle through, and still provide a competent performance. Maybe. What is fascinating about improvisation, whether it is an acting performance for thespians, or a concert performance for musicians, is that the players involved have to be really gifted and well-trained. One can’t just walk up on stage and start riffing on anything and expect results. So what draws me to improvisational music, which isn’t even remotely the same thing as jamband music (a blender, of sorts, which attempts to amalgamate many genres, while sorting out the best bits for a whole new different form of unique music), is that the possibilities are exponentially increased that a band can deliver numerous nights of adventure. And those possibilities are tenfold with a band like Phish, still very much a jamband when they are at their peak, taking chances, finding new ways to stretch boundaries, and, yes, insert a cover, which can set the tone and mood for the adventure, but not detract in any way from the overall portrait being constructed within an ever-changing framework. So, indeed, yeah, man, sheeeet, have to say, in the bag I endorse: I’m down with covers. Let them join the adventure.

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