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Published: 2012/03/03
by David Steinberg

Featured Column: It All Happened (Remembering the Small Bands)

Last Month I suggested that people might want to check out bands that weren’t big, weren’t likely to get big, but still would be fun. Then I flew out to Boston for my third (and likely final) business trip.

I’ve been on a pattern with these trips. The first time Phish were playing a local show that ended up being rather emotionally wrenching. The second time I was there over the weekend and managed to take in a Furthur concert down in Bethel. So when I received a message on Saturday that a friend’s [1] JGB cover band was playing alongside a Phish cover band in New Hampshire, how could I resist? First I see a band playing their own songs, then I see a band with some original members, and now I’m down to cover bands. If there were a fourth trip, I’d be forced to listen to a busker in Harvard Square playing “Brown Eyed Women.”

It’s about a two-hour drive from the suburb I was staying in to Plymouth, NH. Once you get past Manchester the road gets interesting. First there’s the rest stop/liquor store designed to appeal to Bay Staters back when Massachusetts had ridiculous blue laws, the State Liquor Store snuggled up next to the State Safety Rest Area building; it just happens to be on the other side of a tollbooth, go figure. I-93 then winds up and down hills past rock faces and small towns, until you hit central Plymouth. That’s the advantage of being on the edge of the Boston to DC megalopolis. Head north a few miles and you’re out of it.

Showing my cutting edge interest in movies, just before my flight I finally got around to seeing Almost Famous. As Erin directed me to the backstage area, down some flights of stairs, past the snow covered windows, I couldn’t help feeling like The Enemy [2], out to ruin the buzz by covering the show. Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly a wild rock and roll party with lots of stories to report. It was just people hanging out, discovering the super secret hidden passage in the dressing room, and getting ready for the show. I promise you I would have reported any dramatic LSD fueled dives into swimming pools.

The Phreaks opened and immediately there were signs of something that many of us hadn’t seen in a while: a young energized Phish crowd. Maybe it’s just because Plymouth is a college town [3] and New England is where Phish began, but there weren’t the abundant late 30s attendees that so many shows have had lately; those were mostly there for Cats Under the Stars. Instead there were dreadlocked college students excitedly dancing and singing along. For those who were wondering if Phish could rebuild their crowd, this was a sign that it was indeed quite possible.

The band itself drew strongly from the spirit of Phish. It was most noticeable during “The Divided Sky” where they not only jumped during the right section but guitarist Dave Brunyak also played a long “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” jam in the quiet section. Random teases is a huge part of the Phish experience so it was nice to see one in the middle of the set, especially because it was one that Phish don’t do themselves. Being false to the letter of the law was more true to the spirit.

Covering Phish lets you play some games with arrangements but the Jerry Garcia Band was a lot more structured than Phish ever was. The one interesting opening is that there are so many eras of the band that you can mix and match at will. While most of the arrangements might have been close to the classic late era JGB, the time when many diehards preferred the Jerry Band to the Dead, Cats Under the Stars’ first set closed with “After Midnight.” [4] Switching to the style of 1980, Zach Nugent played an extended “Eleanor Rigby” solo in the middle of the jam, which was very appropriate since this concert was 48 years to the day from The Beatles first US performance. [5]

While there was a question of whether the younger crowd would still be excited by the JGB portion of the evening – Want to feel old? In 2013 students will be entering college who were born after Jerry passed away – but the band was playing with energy, Zach had moments of channeling Jerry, and the two female singers (Liz Beatty-Owens and Sarah Marshall) had incredible charisma. My trip had been stressful, full of constant mini-crises and a family catastrophe, but for a few hours, I was able to completely forget about that.

That’s why it makes sense to see a jamband cover band. Sure they’re not playing their own material, but the whole point of these bands is the joy in seeing these songs performed in front of a crowd. A Doors or Led Zeppelin cover band would have the goal of playing note for note perfect renditions but these bands are trying to replicate a live show, to try to reproduce the idea of pushing yourself and playing to the absolute limits of your ability, maybe even beyond them. The idea is to be fun [6] and on a good night to channel some of the experience that kept us going back again and again. It might not be perfect transcendence but for $10, it sure beat sitting around Boston hiding from the subzero windchills.

[1] Ok fine, a friend’s boyfriend. Close enough.

[2] I guess that makes Erin Penny Lane. Good thing she likes the character or I’d be getting a slap through the Internet.

[3] Plymouth State University. Go Panthers!

[4] One conversation backstage was where the overlap could be if they wanted to do a superjam with the two bands. The only songs we could think of that were performed by both were “After Midnight” – with much different arrangements – and “Boogie On Reggae Woman” but that was more of a Legion of Mary thing. It’s amazing how much these two bands have in common and yet there’s so few musical ideas they share.

[5] No, I didn’t know that off hand. There was a poster in the dressing room for the event.

[6] Another example of this spirit is Colorado’s Dead Phish Orchestra who love to mix Phish and Dead tunes together in humorous but musically appropriate ways.


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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