Phish Halloween 2013: The Case for The Last Waltz
Our Phish Halloween series continues with another cover possibility for the Atlantic City run later this month. This time, we'll take a look at the live album from The Band (and friends), The Last Waltz. Be sure to check out the previous installments where we discussed Bob Seger's Nine Tonight, Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, Derek and the Dominos' Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, The Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Led Zeppelin II and Michael Jackson's Thriller.
Halloween is sort of like the Super Bowl for Phish fans eagerly waiting to see which album the band will cover for their musical costume.
On Thanksgiving night in 1976, after 16 years on the road (8 playing local bars and 8 playing the arena circuit), The Band walked away from touring, as they played their final show together in San Francisco, at Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom. The Last Waltz featured an all-star cast of musicians who had been there along the way through The Band’s career in one way or another, as everyone from Ronnie Hawkins to Bob Dylan joined the group.
The record that emerged has been praised as one of the greatest live albums of all time. Martin Scorsese further cemented the importance of the occasion with the self-titled documentary of the show complete with interviews and stories. It truly is a masterpiece.
Phish would unquestionably encounter a few obstacles when taking a swing at this album, but time and time again the group has proven they can handle the most difficult musical risks. Page McConnell would have to essentially count for two musicians as The Band was armed with Garth Hudson on organ/synthesizer and Richard Manuel on piano/clavinet. McConnell’s rig can handle this task but it would still be a challenge.
Much like The Band, Phish is also well equipped with multiple vocalists. So it would be no problem for them to each take individual roles when singing The Last Waltz. Phish would absolutely need a strong horn section to really do these songs justice and pump life into these classic staples but the last two musical costumes (Exile On Main St. and Waiting for Columbus) both featured depth in the brass department so this shouldn’t be too much of an obstacle.
Whenever Phish covers new material, they keep the originality of the musical foundation, but are still able to add their own unique twist. They would really excel playing such songs as “Up On Cripple Creek,” “Life Is A Carnival,” “The Shape I’m In,” “It Makes No Difference,” and “The Night They Drove Ole Dixie Down.” The album also features original music from Neil Young (“Helpless”), Dr. John (“Such A Night”), Van Morrison (“Caravan”), Joni Mitchell (“Coyote”), Neil Diamond (“Dry Your Eyes”) and Bob Dylan (“I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Have Never Met),” “Forever Young”) that offer opportunities for experimentation and guest players.
Why They Might Do It: The Band has been covered selectively in Phish side-projects. Trey is no stranger to “Up On Cripple Creek,” which he played with Dave Matthews & Friends and the Mike does an excellent “Don’t Do It” with his own group (a version appears on his official release The Egg). Mike Gordon also played a role in 2012’s Love For Levon benefit concert, appearing on bass for “Rag Mama Rag” and adding vocals to the group ensemble for “The Weight.” Jon Fishman played “The Weight” at a 2001 benefit organized by The Mimi Fishman Foundation and a 2012 show in support of NOFA VT’s Farmer Emergency Fund.
Why They Probably Won’t Do It: In their 30 years together, Phish has only covered The Band twice. They played “I Shall Be Released” in 1998 and “Look Out Cleveland” in 2010 but other than that there hasn’t been any of The Band’s work in Phish’s rotation. The Last Waltz also features a list of monumental guest musicians and if the group didn’t do something similar, it probably wouldn’t match the mystique of the original. So chances are slim but one can still dream about how incredible it would be to hear Phish play this legendary album.