On August 12th, 1998 I found myself in the latter half of a little entertainment run south of the (Canada/US) border courtesy of Phish and The Tragically Hip (though mostly Phish I suppose), a stretch that had proved to be high on the fun-scale and somewhat rife with technical difficulties, not the least of which was a nagging car problem that no amount of wishing and hoping could seem to remedy. Regardless, my friend Jason and I got everywhere we needed to go, including Vernon Downs, a harness racing track in New York that was hosting Phish on that fine summer evening.
Vernon is just outside of Syracuse, which happens to be hometown to the band’s drummer Jon Fishman and I remember a lot of attention being thrown onto the quirky percussionist throughout this show. There was a shoutout to Fishman’s high school cover band Frodo before they covered Zeppelin’s Ramble On and I seem to recall Trey trying to goad Fishman into singing some cheesy cover song (perhaps Sexual Healing*?) that he really didn’t want to sing to the point that it became an onstage argument, though it is possible that I’m mistaking that with another show or perhaps even dreamed it up entirely.
How could one know?
On the other hand, the internet does confirm that this concert was indeed littered with some killer cover songs that weren’t Sexual Healing, from the show-opening La Grange and the aforementioned Ramble On through a sweet second set Loving Cup and into the now-legendary encore ofBurning Down the House, sung (of course) as “Vernon Down the House”. Not bad, huh? Covering ZZTop, Zeppelin, The Stones, and the Talking Heads all in one show, and a bunch of tasty Phish too, like Makisupa, Slave, and a Mike’s>Weekapaug sandwich that had Simple, Rift, and Sleeping Monkey along with that Loving Cup all squished inside. For me it was all about the You Enjoy Myself that closed the concert. Back then YEM was hands-down my favourite Phish song and one I was always always always hoping to see, most especially as a show-ender. I just loved it when the last thing I heard was an extended whacked-out vocal jam.
Though really, when I think back at this show all I can think about are those cover songs (and the banter). Maybe Grumpy Billy Joel had a point when he jealously dismissed Phish as a “second-rate cover band” after their historic no-repeat thirteen-show run at Joel’s favoured venue Madison Square Garden.
Except for the “second-rate” part, of course.**
*Not that Marvin Gaye is cheesy, but Phish covering Marvin Gaye is certainly cheesy.
**Though thinking about the times that I actually did hear them cover Sexual Healing…maybe in select instances Joel has it righter than wronger?