The impending arrival of Halloween often contains an added bit of excitement for Phish fans. The Vermont-based jam band has periodically used the holiday to serve up a treat of its own in the form of a full album that’s a favorite of one or more of the group's members.
This year will be no exception. Phish will be in Atlantic City, N.J., wrapping up a three-night stand at Boardwalk Hall, where lead guitarist-frontman Trey Anastasio and his mates will play…
Ahh, there’s the trick.
“I don’t want to give it away,” Anastasio told me recently. “We’re already learning it, and I’m having the same experience I have every year: You hear that first song, you think you know how the song line goes and how the vocal line goes, but then you learn it exactly and you find out it’s different.”
The idea started in 1994, when the band took on “The Beatles,” the 1968 double album usually referred to as “The White Album.”
“It seemed like a novel idea -- almost a joke gone awry,” Anastasio said. “We were all sitting on the bus, and someone said, ‘We should learn a new cover,’ and somebody else said, ‘Why don’t we learn the whole ‘White Album’?”
Since that grand undertaking, Phish has taken on Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light,” the Who’s “Quadrophenia,” Velvet Underground’s “Loaded” and, last year in Indio, the Rolling Stones’ 1972 magnum opus, “Exile on Main St.”
“It’s become kind of a tradition,” Anastasio said. “We’ve done at least six now… It’s fun to be playing in a band that has gone through the experience of really delving into the music of some of our heroes. You start to hear the influences pop up when you’re playing.”
“ 'Remain in Light,' at the time we did it, it hadn’t gained the notoriety it’s developed since," he said. "It was fun to come out onstage and know that people were going to discover it. It’s really a jigsaw puzzle to figure that record out. But once we did it, we found ourselves layering in background vocals a little more in that style. It starts to seep into your DNA as a musician. You pick up something from each album.”
As for “Quadrophenia,” the Who’s 1973 rock opera suggested by keyboardist Page McConnell, “I had never really listened to it that much,” Anastasio said. “That was in ’96, and we had just started playing arenas. When we played it in the big room, I got it. All their songs just resonate in these big arenas. They kind of invented that: that huge rolling wall of sound, played through huge arena sound systems. And once you’ve played something like that live, it starts to affect how you write songs.”
Although Anastasio held fast against revealing which album gets the nod for Halloween 2010, he did offer a clue that might get fans chattering.
“This year,” he said, “this one’s for me. The one we picked, I’m going to get more out of this as a musician than I ever have before. Three songs into it, I called everybody and told them, ‘None of the other ones -- I wouldn’t think, hopefully -- will have nearly the effect on my playing this one’s going to.' ”
For some reason, the first thing that popped into my mind when he said that was “Layla,” Eric Clapton’s 1970 tour de force under the nom de rock Derek & the Dominos. But, then, it could be the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s 1967 debut “Are You Experienced” or maybe even “Led Zeppelin IV.” Or perhaps something from an entirely different direction.
Readers? Start your guesses.
-- Randy Lewis
Photo of Trey Anastasio during Phish's 2003 performance at the Inglewood Forum. Credit: Ken Hively