Vocals: Page (lead), Sharon Jones and Saundra Williams (backing)
Original Artist: The Rolling Stones
Original Album: Exile on Main St (1972)
Historian: Jeremy D. Goodwin
Though it's the easy, go-to pick for fans and critics as not only the Rolling Stones' greatest album but possibly the best album in the rock idiom, the Stones themselves have been famously reticent in their retroactive endorsement of Exile on Main St. Mick Jagger has been known to underplay (or even disparage) the album, and only a handful of tracks across its sprawling four sides have been regularly played in concert by their authors.
“[T]here’s a good four songs off it, but when you start to play the other nineteen [sic], you can’t, or they don’t work, or nobody likes them, and you think, ‘Ok, we’ll play another one instead,’" Jagger said in 2003. “We have rehearsed a lot of the tunes off Exile, but there’s not much that’s playable.”
So much for that.
One aspect of Phish’s epic triumph in playing Exile front-to-back at Festival 8 on Halloween 2009 is that the 37-year-old material was fully canonized, recorded by rock royalty who’ve spent the past few decades on expansive stadium tours for which they’ve mined their deep catalog extensively, and yet a full one-third of these songs had never even been performed in front of an audience by a major rock band, if at all. Oh yeah, and it sounded fucking great.
Misplaced in the waves of rock history, perhaps drowned out by the majestic “Shine a Light” that precedes it on record, is “Soul Survivor,” the finale of the album. It is a perfectly good, Gospel-infused rocker, which feels more like a solid, back-to-Earth summation after the heights of “Shine a Light” than an afterthought. It’s the brief encore after the show-stopping set-closer.
Lyrically, “Soul Survivor” is composed of nautical metaphors, as Mick Jagger likens a romantic relationship to a life-threatening voyage through stormy seas. It juxtaposes its two-word, titular chorus with the recurring line “It’s going to be the death of me.” As such it is a defiant proclamation of survival suffused with a grim foreboding perfectly typical of the band.
As the conclusion of Phish’s “musical costume” set, “Soul Survivor” serves as a triumphant flag waved with exhausted-but-elated panache by a band that’s just about brought it all home. Page ably handles lead vocal duties, and the band opens up the closing chorus into a climactic, all-hands-on-deck jam, with the guest horn section getting in its last orgasmic bursts of brass as vocalists Sharon Jones and Saundra Williams dig into those two words.
A punctuation mark not only on a historic set and the big-stage chutzpah it took to pull it off –material even the Rolling Stones dismissed as unplayable – but perhaps also on the comeback of a band that had called it quits five years before under a sad cloud of drug rumors and misplaced potential, it made a very loud statement.