Phish’s Baker’s Dozen residency at Madison Square Garden—which ran July 21-August 6, 2017—was a doozy of epic proportions: 13 nights, 26 sets, and tons of free donuts, and all of it was webcasted to the world at large (save the donuts, of course). They were, as Rolling Stone writer Jesse Jarnow pointed out, some of the group’s most “ambitious sets in years, with an attention to detail that recalls their nineties heyday.” On top of debuting many new tunes, as well as novel transformations of old classics that surprised even longtime heads, Phish dropped a slew of first-time covers, including Shuggie Otis’ Beatlesque funk gem “Strawberry Letter 23,” Neil Young’s static-drenched riff workout “Powderfinger,” and The Velvet Underground’s dreamy ballad “Sunday Morning.”
For those only now diving into the Phish zone, such tastefully hip covers may seem odd for a band that, truth be told, was outright dissed by cool indie types for most of their career. (Amazing how this has changed in recent years thanks to tastemakers like Vampire Weekend and MGMT singing their praises in interviews.) However, for those who have followed the band since, like, forever (my first Phish experience came when the original H.O.R.D.E. tour passed through the neo-hippie stronghold of Syracuse, New York, in 1992), the killer covers are par for the course. Even if you’re confident in the immutability of your anti-Phish bias, one thing’s unfuckwithable: their record collections.
Since their early days up in Burlington, Vermont, Phish have put all manner of choice covers through their jammy filter: the Talking Heads’ proto-New Wave classic “Psycho Killer” is refitted with a spiky funk groove shaped by Innervisions-era Stevie Wonder and rippling improv showcasing Page McConnell’s keys; “Purple Rain” is mutated into a Flaming Lips-like alt-freak anthem featuring Jon Fishman’s crying vacuum cleaner; and Ween’s weird pop ditty “Roses Are Free” is reborn as a punchy, twangy sing-along. Even Phish’s taste in classic rock reflects their crate-digging astuteness. In addition to numerous deep cuts from the Stones’ muddy landmark Exile on Main St., they actually tackle a (very liberal) rendition of The Beatles’ musique concrète composition “Revolution 9”—and, yes, it’s deeply noisy and bizarre, like a cross between Spike Jones, heroic doses of psilocybin, and nude performance art.
Part of Phish’s aim is to challenge and surprise their fans. For them, embracing the unexpected is an expression of freedom, and this extends to their unpredictable choice in cover songs. But it also has to be pointed out that covering the likes of Talking Heads, Ween, and The Velvet Underground actually isn’t all that weird, in a sense. After all, Phish—back at the dawn of their career—were considered something of an alternative band. I know this sounds strange after decades of them being hailed as the modern-day Grateful Dead (which has never been a terribly accurate comparison). But as this fogey explicitly recalls, when Phish started to make a buzz around the Northeast they had a quirky, cerebral, and mischievous reputation that owed more to Frank Zappa and David Byrne than Papa Jerry. It’s an aspect of their legacy that’s slowly re-emerging as more and more indie kids embrace their unique music. And that’s a cool thing.