Geeking Out on Phish’s Musical Costume
This year, Phish did an excellent job covering Little Feat’s Waiting For Columbus, an album of truly challenging music. I won’t bore you with a song-by-song rundown, but it’s pretty flawless (apart from the obvious fact that nobody can fill Lowell George’s shoes). And from what I’ve read, everyone in attendance had a great time. But what deeper meaning can I take away from this year’s choice?
That’s where I’m at a loss. Phish chose a costume that’s too much like itself, like pulling a durable, blue dress shirt and khakis out of the closet, when it should have worn something playful, like a frilly, retro tuxedo, freaky clown suit, or novelty teeth. Or maybe that’s exactly what the band was shooting for, the shirt and khakis, only it’s not funny, like Oscar’s “sensible consumer” costume on The Office?
The history of Phish’s costumes has been well documented. Phish wore its first musical costume in 1994, when the band performed the entire
Beatles White Album. The costume made perfect sense, a mannerist rock band covering a mannerist rock album – a cover of a “cover.” The Who’s Quadrophenia, another double LP dose of classic rock, followed in 1995, and crystallized the costume concept – give fans the most bang for their buck, i.e. a classic, time-tested double album.
Phish’ 1996 choice, Remain in Light by the Talking Heads, was unfamiliar to most of the audience, many of whom came from the Hippie side of the musical spectrum, but it didn’t matter. Songs like “Born Under Punches” and “Crosseyed and Painless” were built for extending in concert (watch Stop Making Sense ), and Phish could mimic David Byrne better than Paul McCartney or Roger Daltrey. After two classic warhorses in two years, fans seemed willing to let Phish off the hook for breaking with tradition, and some even noted the galvanizing effect the Afrobeat-inspired collection had on the band’s playing.
In 1998, Phish covered Loaded by The Velvet Underground, an album of unhealthy debauchery and proto-Glam, three-chord rockers. They were
easy songs to learn, fun to jam out on, and stress-free to sing. A few people grumbled, but by now it was clear that you couldn’t really anticipate what the next costume would be. And then Phish abandoned the costume concept for more than a decade.
With the score tied at Crowd Pleasers, 2, Guilty Pleasures, 2, last year’s Exile On Main Street couldn’t miss. It worked because the album simply has so many stellar cuts: “Rocks Off,” “Let it Loose,” “Tumbling Dice,” all of Sides Two and Four. Together again, Phish was content to get its collective rocks off. It could be as loose as it wanted to be with Exile’s bluesy rave-ups, piano anthems, and sloppy cowboy rock, and didn’t have to sweat the details. Keef wouldn’t mind, right?
The Beatles, The Who, The Talking Heads, The VU, and The Stones are all iconic, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-type bands. Waiting For Columbus was a great album by a faceless, cultish band of incredible musicians, one lacking household recognition and somewhere down the road from their heyday. When it was released in 1978, Little Feat, like other bands with strong ties to the Hippie Aesthetic, was hardly the hippest thing going, a mixture of SoCal yacht rock (listen closely and you’ll hear Glen Frey ripening avocados in the background), Steely Dan-ish jazz-pop, blue-eyed soul, and even jazz-fusion, a testament to – and perhaps by-product of – their individual day jobs as in-demand studio players.
Back then, with an LP and turntable, you could easily skip the clunkers. You dug Side One’s first three cuts (“Fat Man in the Bathtub,” “All That You Dream,” and “Oh Atlanta”) and hopefully got off the couch in time to flip the vinyl before “Old Folks Boogie.” If you didn’t make it, your baked ass fell asleep, and you awoke amid the silence that followed the needle reaching the inner groove. Eventually, you got up and put on the stellar Side Two (“Time Loves a Hero,” “Day or Night,” “Mercenary Territory,” and “Spanish Moon”).
Rarely would you stop listening before Side Three, the climax of a Feat concert – “Dixie Chicken,” seguing straight into a sprinting “Tripe Face Boogie” – and the subsequent encore, “Rocket in My Pocket,” a Lowell George-penned, pocket symphony of sorts. Side Four? You avoided it entirely. It remained as pristine and scratch-free as the day you bought it, unless your ex-hippie neighbor dropped by to hear “Willin’” (a small price to pay for some free bud). Early CDs made it even easier to skip Side Four (two cuts, “Don’t Bogart That Joint” and “A Apolitical Blues,” were deleted so that the album would fit one disc), and I suspect that iPods were designed at least in part for the purpose of avoiding “Old Folks Boogie.”
Even so, few classic albums – Exile, Blonde on Blonde, Pet Sounds, any Beatles album – don’t have at least one song to skip over. Stylistically, Phish’s musical costume was a perfect fit, and maybe that’s the only thing that matters after all. But it wasn’t scary, funny, exotic, esoteric, playful or even popular enough, and unlike Remain in Light, it’s hard to imagine how Waiting For Columbus will push the band’s music forward. It was a rich, maroon-colored crayon of a costume, like dressing up as a Turnbull AC, the much feared,
no-frills gang from the movie The Warriors, instead of as a flashier Baseball Fury.