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Getting Loaded in Vegas

By Brian L. Knight & Corinne Heft

Read about Phish's Performances in Worcester and Albany During the Fall of 1998

Read about Phish at the Great Went-Summer 1997

Hear an opinion about The Lemonwheel-Summer 1998

Read an Interview with Tom Marshall

Trick or treat. The trick is trying to figure out just which album Phish will decide to play during the second set of their sporadic Halloween shows. For months before the show fans postulate the possibilities. Give it up guy, they ain’t gonna play American Beauty in its entirety. Phish are true aficionados and their album choices reflect their understanding of artistic ingenue and radical departure from the mainstream. In 1997 Phish replicated the 1977 Talking Heads album, Fear of Music, with such precision and energy, things started making sense. This past Halloween they opted to investigate a darker side of the seventies. No, they didn’t reach the moon until the following week (i.e. Dark Side of the Moon played on 11/2/98), but they did do justice to the Velvet Underground’s swansong- Loaded (1970). The Talking Heads and the Velvet underground, like Phish, have constructed a sound that is unique unto themselves. They are each anachronisms of their musical era.

The Velvet Underground first came together in 1964 and consisted of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker. Throughout the mid and late 1960s, the Velvet Underground symbolized the darker musical underworld blossoming in New York City. While the music scene in San Francisco remained steeped in the summer-of-love tradition, a harder more experimental sound was developing in the avant-garde music/art world of New York. And while the West Coast celebrated Ken Kesey, New York exalted Andy Warhol (who discovered VU in 1965). The music of the Velvet Underground reflected these differences; it was both dark and penetrating with Reed’s flat vocals set against pounding disconcerting rhythms, and lyrics which described the harsh urban realities of drugs and despair. The Velvet Underground represented a new era in music, and their influence would be seen in both the Glam-rock bands of the seventies, the harder thrashings of the punk experience, as well as the alternative sounds of the nineties.

By the time Loaded was released in 1970 , the band had experienced some profound changes. As far as band make-up, only Morrison and Reed would remain intact. John Cale had already left the band and been replaced by Doug Yule, and Maureen Tucker had to sit out of the recording due to her pregnancy. Without Cale’s dark lyricism and Tucker’s driving drumbeats, the song content was contrastingly upbeat, a deviation from earlier dark tunes such as "Heroin" and "All Tomorrow’s Parties". Ironically, Loaded was the most successful and visible efforts of the Velvet Underground, and songs such as "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll" became anthems for the band. Although Loaded was a strikingly happier album than the Velvet Underground’s previous releases, historically the band remained as a counter to the 1960s counter culture. It is this less mainstream genre of music that seems to intrigue Phish.

Unfortunately, Phish suffers from endless unjustified comparisons to the Grateful Dead. On a musical level these comparisons are arguably unfounded. An undeniable commonality exists in the bluegrass influences seen in both bands. The rest of the comparisons are on a cultural/social level. These are discussions for another day perhaps in Sociology 101.

By choosing a non-psychedelic band for their Halloween album, perhaps Phish will be able to further distances themselves from these Dead comparisons. The Velvet Underground had very few associations with the "hippie movement" of the 1960s or even the revival of such bands in the 1980s & 1990s. Via their stellar performance of Loaded, music fans have received another snapshot of Phish. While the first two fan-picked Halloween albums, the Beatles’ White Album and the Who’s Quadrophenia, were played with mastery, they were not true reflections of the band’s soul. And although Loaded and Fear of Music are relatively obscure albums (especially to younger Phish fans), of more pertinence is the fact that these albums are essential to the members of Phish in terms of their personal musical development. The Velvet Underground and the Talking Heads represent two significantly different strands in the evolution of rock and roll. As to if or from which strand Phish has developed their sound, the question still lingers. That is the enigma of Phish: they are indistinguishable and unidentifiable, and that is what keep fans coming back for more.