On Your Way Down
Music/Lyrics: Allen Toussaint
Original Artist: Allen Toussaint
Original Album: Life, Love, and Faith (1972)
Albums: Alpine Valley
Historian: Ellis Godard (lemuria)
Last Update: 2011-07-07
As is the case for several other songs, "On Your Way Down" is an Allen Toussaint original better known by the versions he later recorded with Little Feat. Indeed, Phish had already played three songs recorded by Little Feat, once for each stage in the career of this very ‘70s blues-adelic band, well before their 10/31/10 musical costume – and Phish fans (like most listeners) typically attribute it as a Little Feat song.
“On Your Way Down” may be the most conventional score of the three – not that any of them is a fugue – and it has an odd history. It first appeared in 1972 on Allen Toussaint's Life, Love, and Faith, which garnered little if any attention. Toussaint recorded it again the following year with Little Feat for their third album, Dixie Chicken, which gained critical and fan acclaim years later, but bombed upon its 1973 release. When the previous album (Sailin’ Shoes) sold poorly, bassist Roy Estrada (formerly with The Mothers of Invention) had split to join Captain Beefheart. And when Dixie Chicken floundered, the whole band split. Despite all the ingredients for success, the band was on its way down. They’d be on their way up again within two years, releasing progressively stronger LPs (Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, The Last Record Album, and Time Loves a Hero), but down again in 1979 when, after the disappointing Waiting for Columbus, founder Lowell George left the band and then passed away.
Except for George and drummer Richie Hayward, the band today comprised of the same people who met up in 1972. They picked up again in 1987 and began releasing albums again in 1988, the same year Phish began covering their classics, including perhaps a dozen versions of “On Your Way Down,” typically in the first set. It fit well with Phish’s newly expanding tour schedule: classic tune, with a likable boogie beat but enough blues for Trey to wail, with lyrics that mix hope and humility. But that mix must not have fit well with their developing air of aggressive unpredictability, and the song was dropped from rotation.
The song resurfaced on 9/16/99, after just over ten years (and over 1,000 shows), was played twice more on that fall tour (9/25/99 and 10/2/99), and then appeared 108 shows later (7/30/03, in a thematic set that also included “Lonesome Cowboy Bill,” the debut of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and “Taste” with the repeated lyric “I’m down.”) Earlier versions had a raw energy that comes from being on your way up, living in a moving truck and sleeping on YMCA floors. Of earlier versions in circulation, 9/8/88 is probably the strongest, in recording quality as well as performance.
"On Your Way Down" – Phish, 11/27/09, Albany, NY
By the time of the hiatus, it didn't look like Phish would be on their way down to that rawness again anytime soon. The song’s rareness thus seemed justified. Appearing only once after the hiatus (7/30/03) it has crept back into once-or-twice-a-year rotation. From recent performances try 11/27/09 Albany, 8/15/10 Alpine Valley (three days after the death of Richie Hayward, the drummer and founding member of Little Feat) or 6/11/11 Merriweather.