Phish has been around for some time now and as a result, the band has no shortage of original material. They have songs they’ve recorded, songs they haven’t recorded, multiple versions of songs, etc. My friends, Phish has a lot of songs.
But despite having a bevy, a boatload, and bushels of their own songs, Phish also has a penchant for performing cover songs. They’ve been including covers of everyone from Led Zeppelin to the Talking Heads, Bob Marley to Jay-Z in their shows since they started performing back in the 1980s. Covers have just become part of the gig when it comes to Phish. According to Phish.net, Phish has a handful of covers that they’ve played live more than 200 times with Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up” having been played 532 times topping that list.
The art of playing a cover song is something of a sticky wicket. Generally, you want to pay homage to the original, and rarely do you want to mess with the original version all that much. The odds are that the original tune will be better than whatever spin you were to put on it, although there are definitely exceptions to this. But for the most part, compared side-by-side, it’s best to defer to the original.
Phish also mostly defers to the originals when performing cover songs. Rarely do they rework a song and if anything, they seem to pride themselves on being as true to the original as possible. Where they do tend to put their own spices into the mix is during a song’s jam. That’s where Phish is able to take a cover and in their own special way, make it their own.
Since getting back into Phish over the last year or so, I’ve developed something of a complicated relationship with Phish playing cover songs. For the most part, I kind of don’t like it. If I wanted to hear Led Zeppelin, I’d put on Led Zeppelin. I’m queuing up Phish because I want to listen to Phish, not so much Phish playing other people’s songs. Yet I have realized this is not always the case and there are covers I like hearing the band play and again, these are the ones they’ve managed to make their own without ruining the integrity of the original.
Here are the ten cover songs I’ve enjoyed the most over this past year and change and in some cases, have dug going all the way back twenty-plus years to when I first got into the band. These are also cover songs that the band has played on a fairly regular basis and I’m not including songs performed during their Halloween shows, where they don a musical costume and perform an album in its entirety. It should also be noted that bluegrass covers are a different story and I feel like they would merit their own ranking. Stand by on that one.
First, the tunes deserving of an honorable mention are “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” “Good Times Bad Times,” “Drowned,” and “Walk Away.”
10. “Golden Age” (TV on the Radio)
“Golden Age” is a bit of an anomaly for Phish because unlike so many of the other artists they cover, TV On the Radio is a modern band. TVOTR might not be active now, but it hasn’t been that long since they last released an album (2014’s Seeds.) Yet since 2009, Phish has played “Golden Age,” off of the band’s excellent 2008 album Dear Science fairly regularly. Overall, I’m lukewarm on their actual cover of the song, but I think what bumped it ahead of “Boogie On Reggae Woman” were the jams that “Golden Age” has produced. It makes me think that when the band chose to cover the song it was because they liked it, but also because they saw it as an opportunity to really jam off into different spacy funky directions.
9. “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” (Lee Dorsey)
Oh, “Sneakin’ Sally.” This one always brings me back to those lovely college days at the turn of century. I think there’s a corner of my brain where the words “Sneakin’ Sally through the alley…” are always bouncing around and most likely always will. “Sneakin’ Sally” is probably one of those covers Phish plays that frequently gets mistaken for one of their own songs by novice fans and with all due respect to Mr. Lee Dorsey, it’s kind of okay. I’d be surprised if many people had heard the original before Phish started playing it.
8. “2001” (Strauss, as interpreted by Deodato)
Phish covering “2001” (also known as Also Sprach Zarathustra”) is about as close to a lay-up as you’re going to find. This song was tailor-made for the boys to jam out and expand, bring to some wild spots in the far reaches of the galaxy. And the chorus is perfect for waking you up from the spaced-out bliss trance the chorus groove lulled you into. “2001” is the second most played cover song with the band having performed it 237 times.
7. “Ya Mar” (Cyril Ferguson)
Fun fact about me is that it wasn’t until I was doing some research for this piece that I realized “Ya Mar” was a cover. You learn something new every day, huh? The original “Ya Mar” comes from this Cyril Ferguson fella, who originally recorded the track in 1974. According to Phish legend (which is right 40-90% of the time depending on the subject matter,) Mike Gordon heard a group called The Mustangs playing “Ya Mar” while on vacation in the Caribbean. Upon returning to the states, he then introduced it to the band and they’ve played it over 200 times since.
6. “Roses Are Free” (Ween)
On a lot of nights, once we get the kids to bed and the kitchen cleaned up (two cheers for domestic bliss!,) I take the dog out for a walk, and more often than not, I put some Phish on. Now, based on this experience I can say with 100% confidence that Phish’s version of Ween’s “Roses Are Free” is an excellent song to listen to when taking your dog for a walk around the neighborhood in the evening. For the record, it’s also a great driving song and pretty good to listen to when doing some yard work because again, two cheers for domestic bliss, y’all!
5. “Rock and Roll” (Velvet Underground)
Page McConnell is so good at channeling the sound of late 60s, early 70s AM radio rock music and he takes the Velvet Underground’s classic to places I don’t think was intended. Under Phish’s stewardship, the song becomes a beacon of arena rock goodness and a springboard into some lively, spirited, and transcendent jams. Whereas the original feels like it’s holding back some, Phish takes the top-down, lowers all the damn windows, and sends it sailing down the open road with a wonderful reckless abandon.
4. “Funky Bitch” (Son Seals)
“Funky Bitch” is another cover song that Phish has broken out over 200 times. But you know, it’s 2021 and I think calling the song by its original name is kind of not cool. So I’m going with calling it “Funky B.” I’m sure I’m not alone here. Why tarnish a killer song with a regrettable and unfortunate name, right? Remove the name issue and you’re again free to enjoy this tune in all its dirty, funky blues splendor. Or don’t worry about the name and just enjoy the song. I don’t know anymore. Life is weird.
3. “Cities,” “Crosseyed & Painless (Talking Heads) – tie
I mean, this is just a fun song to sing along to. You don’t even need to be a good singer, which is just a bonus. You know, because I’m not a good singer. I was for a hot minute in middle school but then you know, puberty and then banging on drums seemed like a good move. But enough about me, one of the things I’ve noticed about the band’s version of “Cities” is how moldable it is and how they mess around with it, changing the tempo or overall vibe of the song. This is truly an example of the band making a cover their own without stepping on the toes of the original.
As for “Crosseyed & Painless,” when Phish play it, they don’t just play it, they activate it. It doesn’t just appear in sets, it explodes into sets. The song is shot out of a canon and never looks back. It soars like an eagle traversing the clearest of skies and…and…well, it’s a lot of fucking fun and I think that covers it.
2. “My Soul” (Clifton Chenier)
Hi. My name is Ryan and anytime “My Soul” comes on, this is a decent representation of what happens:
Thanks. That’s all I have to say about that and frankly, I feel like I’ve said enough.
1. “Loving Cup” (The Rolling Stones)
It’s simple math.
You take a bonafide, great rock song + a band comprised of incredibly talented, chameleon-like musicians who are damn near capable of anything musically and the end result is an endlessly enjoyable cover of the song in question. Lucky for all of us, simple math is about all I can handle in math. But what I can handle always is Phish playing The Rolling Stones’ “Loving Cup.” I had never heard the original before hearing Phish’s version and then became a fan of the original as well. Talk about a bonus, huh?
And I suppose for Phish, that might be some of their intention with playing some of these songs, to introduce songs that they themselves love and are inspired by to their fans. To pay it forward musically, show fans what shaped the band that they all love so much. Why just say you’re inspired by the Stones when you can rip off an amazing cover of one of their best songs, right?
It’s also a hell of a way to close out a concert.
Ryan harbors a constant fear of losing his keys, prefers flip flops, and will always choose cereal if it’s an option. He maintains his own blog, Giddy Up America, and has previously contributed work to UPROXX & Heavy. Ryan is on Twitter: @ryanoconnell79