Phish Halloween 2013: The Case for _Songs in the Key of Life_

Wayan Zoey on October 8, 2013

Continuing with our Phish Halloween series, we present yet another cover possibility for the Atlantic City run later this month. This time, we’ll take a look at Stevie Wonder’s classic album Songs in the Key of Life. Be sure to check out the first installment where we discussed the possibility of Bob Seger’s Nine Tonight as a cover choice.

I’ll be honest, there’s albums I’d much rather see Phish tackle than Songs In The Key Of Life. I think they could do something really magical with any Radiohead album, and I’d personally love to see them tear through a Zeppelin record, but if we’re approaching this academically, I think Stevie Wonder’s double-album masterpiece makes perfect sense for the band to take on.

My favorite moments of live Phish are when they get funky. When their jams venture into tight, syncopated synchronicity, they remind me of all the reasons I continue to defend them against my bigger-music-snob friends. However, they frequently get in their own way when they actually write their own funk. The playing is right on, but there’s just something off about the harmonic decisions they make when they’re consciously trying to compose within that discipline. So keep Phish’s ability to execute the style, and combine it with the pinnacle work of the genre’s greatest songwriter, and you have a recipe for a truly transcendent night of music.

The band and audience would ease in to a night of soulful bliss with the opener of “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” before dropping in to the slow sway of “Have a Talk With God.” This band is practically built to take on the fusion-funk of “Contusion,” and frankly I think Trey would be the happiest person in the room to hear a borrowed horn section blasting out the lines on “Sir Duke” behind him. Given the overwhelming number of daughters the band members have, “Isn’t She Lovely” seems the most perfect of Stevie’s famous love songs for the band to attempt. We know the band isn’t afraid to bring extra personnel along for the big shows, just imagine the combination of horns, percussion, possibly even a choir that could be brought out to augment this performance, all of whom would have to be onstage for the close of the set. It has all the majesty appropriate for a Phish Holiday Show, with the promise to keep everyone dancing all the way through.

Why They Might Do It: Frankly, because they can. We know they’d love to take on a funk/soul/R&B classic, but most of the obvious options are out of their reach. They don’t have the singer to seriously take on MJ or Prince, they don’t have the discipline to do justice to James Brown or The Meters, and I don’t think they’d even consider trying a Parliament record. Stevie is not only within their capabilities, but his exalted status as a composer allows for a certain greater freedom for professional musicians to interpret his works. This is right in their wheelhouse, and perfect to mark their 30th anniversary as a band. Plus Stevie frequently wrote music for MJ, whose music was, according to legend, used to drown out the band at their first ever gig, which they mistakenly thought occurred around Halloween for a good chunk of their career.

Why They Won’t Do It: Because I thought of it, and I am terrible at predicting Phish.

Listen to Songs in the Key of Life via Spotify: