Little Feat has always been, and will always be, a musicians’ band. And so when Phish – the ultimate musicians’ band – decided to cover their 1978 live album, Waiting For Columbus, on Sunday, there was perhaps no album more fitting.
Like Phish, Little Feat is a band that plays best in a live concert setting. As Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne told Relix in 1978: “This band is a playing type of band. We just sound better live than we do on records.” So rather than attempt to learn a studio album, as they have done in the past, Phish took on the task of recreating one of these live experiences. The music lent itself so well to Phish’s playing that at times it didn’t seem as though they were covering another band at all – it seemed as though this music had been a part of the band since the beginning.
The Halloween set began with “Join The Band” being piped over the PA system, as Phish took the stage with percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo alongside. In an attempt to replace the Tower of Power horns, who are featured on the album, Phish brought out members of Antibalas Horns – one of the finest horn sections on the scene today – and the Dapkings on several of the songs. There was instant chemistry, and as the band began to play we were shepherded back to the summer of 1978.
From note one of “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” it was clear how much of an influence these songs had on the members of Phish. Unlike many of the past musical costumes, where the band had to change their sound to suit the album, Little Feat was, as Jon mentions in the playbill, “in the fabric.” At one point a friend of mine turned to me and said “This sounds like Phish.” Or perhaps more appropriately, ‘Phish sounds like Little Feat’. Unfortunately, Trey did not use a slide (as George did) but instead mimicked his playing by cranking the treble on his amp and placing an equal importance on every note he played (as George did).
While Phish has played “Skin it Back,” “On Your Way Down” (made famous by Little Feat) and “Time Loves a Hero” since the early eighties, it was some of the other songs that gave us a true glimpse at the connection between the two bands. Waiting for Columbus takes songs from all different parts of Little Feat’s early career, giving us a feel for the various directions the band explored. The album is much like a Phish studio album (or show) in that it explores so many different genres. There’s the shufflin’ boogie on “Dixie Chicken” or the jazz-fusion songs like “Time Loves a Hero” and “Day or Night” (the latter of which led to Lowell George’s departure from the band) that show the signs of a band that could truly do it all. As Trey mentions in the Playbill: “’Tripe Face Boogie’ is in 9 time, then switches to 5, and still maintains that dynamite boogie.” So it was no surprise that it was complex songs, such as these, that Phish shone brightest.
The first few songs let the band slip into their roles – Trey as a mix of Lowell George, the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor,” and Paul Barrere, Mike as Kenny Gradney, Page as Bill Payne and Jon as Richie Hayward. But by “Time Loves a Hero,” the two groups had converged as one, Little Pheat, and the delivery couldn’t have been better. The band performed perhaps the best ever version of the song, flanked by Antibalas multi-instrumentalist Stuart Bogie on sax. From that point almost every moment was a highlight, but a run of songs in the middle of the set especially stood out – the run of “Spanish Moon,” “Dixie Chicken” > “Tripe Face Boogie.” I imagine it will be one of the songs from this segment that will be revisited by the band in the future.
One of the highlights, for me, was a near-perfect rendition of one of my favorite Feat tunes “Day or Night.” Phish nailed the vocal harmonies, and did justice to the complex instrumental sections. Little Feat’s influence on Phish was readily apparent as they worked through the odd-measured sections that resembled so many of their own compositions. “Mercenary Territory,” was another highlight and showed Trey mimicking George’s slide solos using bends instead of a slide, which actually worked surprisingly well. Although, I would have liked to see Trey tune to ‘G’ and lay down some leads with George’s trademark ¾ steel socket slide.
But it was the fitting “Spanish Moon,” a song about hookers and hustlers, and a run of songs that followed that served as the main highlight of the night. Having played “Spanish Moon” with Dave and Friends in the past, Trey was familiar with the jam, and it came off as one that had been in the rotation for years. Again, “part of the fabric.” The jam seemed so natural, and showed the massive influence Hayward has been on Jon’s playing. As Jon mentions in his personal tribute to the legendary Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward included in the Phishbill, “there has probably been no greater direct influence on my drumming than Richie Hayward…”
Next, the band switched gears to the other side of Little Feat’s song catalog, the George-driven down-home “Dixie Chicken,” and Phish once again flourished. Few bands could go from an R&B boogie to southern barroom blues as Little Feat did, but Phish mastered the challenge without a single slip. Page shone on this one, paying a worthy tribute to his hero Bill Payne. After “Dixie Chicken” the band segued perfectly back into the jazz-fusion side of Little Feat, annihilating the band’s complex jam vehicle “Tripe Face Boogie.”
The night also served as a tribute to Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward, who passed away this past August, and Lowell George who died in 1979, shortly after Little Feat’s disbandment. Jon donned a pair of Henrietta-patterned overalls, as a tribute to George who often wore overalls onstage. George truly was a musical genius, shown by his songwriting ability, his singing, his slide playing and his signature compressed tone. His greatness is perhaps best described in a Little Feat song called “Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor,” “He’s got two degrees in bebop, a PHD in swing, he’s the master of rhythm, he’s the rock ‘n’ roll king.”
While the band’s comments prior to Halloween may have led our minds astray, Little Feat should have been an obvious choice all along. While in 2003, when Trey made comments about wanting to do King Crimson or Brian Eno, the musical direction at the time was entirely different. I mean, he had just played and released an album with Oysterhead and was in the midst of what is perhaps Phish’s most psychedelic and exploratory period. Fast forward to now, and it seems Trey, along with the rest of the band, has moved forward in a new direction – one that focuses on songs, songwriting, and rediscovering old songs. So it seems fitting that they chose an album by a band that had all of that and more, and one that has influenced them since the very beginning.
“When we started Phish, we wanted an experience – dancing, fun, togetherness…while sticking in the crazy influences and time changes, and the funk and African things. But those guys were doing it all along. Little Feat were the gold standard.” –Trey, 2010 Phishbill
[All pictures courtesy of Glowstickwars.com user Redredworm]