Throughout the last decade and a half, jam band Phish have dedicated one of their October 31st sets to covering a classic album by another artist. The band calls it wearing a "musical costume," a little "trick or treat" gift to fans that sure beats handing out thousands of mini-Snickers bars to concertgoers, and previous Halloween outfits include full renditions of the Beatles' "White Album," Talking Heads' "Remain in Light," the Who's "Quadrophenia" and a handful more LPs that are requisites of any good iTunes library. This year at Atlantic City, New Jersey's Boardwalk Hall, however, Phish donned a musical costume that caught most fans off-guard, covering country-fried blues-rockers Little Feat's 1978 live album "Waiting for Columbus" -- or that double-LP with the tomato-headed lady on the cover that's in your dad's dusty record collection but you didn't actually steal for your own shelf.
Last year on Halloween, Phish performed the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main St.," which obviously raises the bar on all future October 31st performances, and before this year's Halloween gig at Atlantic City, New Jersey's Convention Center, fans were buzzing with rumors Phish would tackle Prince, Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix. "This year, this one's for me," guitarist Trey Anastasio said prior to this year's Halloween show, teasing fans with the hopes of a guitar epic like "Electric Ladyland." "The one we picked, I'm going to get more out of this as a musician than I ever have before." So the choice of the boogie-and-horn-heavy Little Feat likely came as an unlikely surprise to the throng of fans expecting another All Music Guide-rated five-star album (all of Phish's previous Halloween costumes like "Exile," "White Album," and Velvet Underground's "Loaded") and not "Waiting for Columbus" (AMG gives it a four-and-a-half stars, which means it's scientifically a half-star less venerated than all those other albums).
A little background on Waiting for Columbus: After forming in 1969 thanks in large part to the support of Frank Zappa -- several of Little Feat's members were denied enrollment into Zappa's the Mothers of Invention -- Little Feat were at the tail end of their prime when they released the double live album in 1978. For casual music fans, songs like "Dixie Chicken" and "Time Loves a Hero" (which Phish covered earlier this year) might sound familiar if you grew up listening to rock radio stations in markets south of Kentucky. However, founder and frontman Lowell George died the following year, and after a lengthy hiatus Little Feat entered into those one of those clichéd eras of revolving-door lineups that treads on a band's legacy (i.e. the Beach Boys, Jethro Tull and all those other classic rockers that visit your local amphitheater every summer). Still, Waiting for Columbus finds Little Feat at their final peak, and has gone on to find acclaim among rock acolytes as one of the greatest live albums of all time alongside the Allman Brothers' "Fillmore East" and the Grateful Dead's "Europe '72" (two albums the Amp personally would have preferred Phish covering).
Phish dedicated their performance last night to Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward, who passed away earlier this past August and was likely a catalyst for the out-of-left field selection. While on paper Little Feat's "Waiting for Columbus" seems like an anticlimactic choice, at the end of the day the only opinion that matters is that of the hardcore Phish fans, so let's take a look at what they're saying on the official Live Phish site (where you can download last night's performance if you're so inclined):
"I think 'Waiting for Columbus' was a great choice because it's an eclectic album by a band who can transition seamlessly between different genres of music, which lends itself wonderfully to Phish's talent and style," wrote one "phan." Not everyone applauded the decision however. "Honestly, never listened to Little Feat before tonight. Now I know why. 'Spanish Moon' and 'Feats Don't Fail Me' rocked. The rest bored me terribly. The entire show was very well played and inspired at times. Just poor choice of album IMHO," said one disappointed fan, while another unsatisfied customer commented, "Kinda weak sauce for Halloween. Little Feat? Great album but not in the top 100 albums I'd want to hear [Phish] play."
Phish's performance of "Waiting for Columbus" should provide a nice little boost in digital downloads and used vinyl sales for this overlooked live album, and by all accounts Phish's rendition was both spot-on and patently jamtastic, but hopefully next Halloween Phish put on a musical costume that's perhaps a little more recognizable.
[Photo: Gary Miller/WireImage]