Music/Lyrics: Gregg Allman
Vocals: Jeff (84-85); Trey (85-89, 99-); Fish (90-96)
Original Artist: The Allman Brothers Band
Original Album: The Allman Brothers Band (1969)
Historian: Ellis Godard
The Allman Brothers Band emerged in 1969 and, like several Bay Area bands, blended blues roughness and jazz looseness back into rock, which elsewhere was diverging into showmanship and away from the music itself. Even the Bay Area scene had by then become watered-down, with pseudo-psychedelic tailcoat riders. But the Allmans, from the Appalachian foothills of central Georgia, came with a harder edge that suggested less lysergic acid and more Jim Beam. No surprise, then, that writer Gregg Allman had to work to convince the rest of the band to take up “Whipping Post.” The song is full of raging riffs and historic bridges, but the lyrics go deeper and dark: Inspired by Gregg’s romantic and contractual difficulties at the time, they speak of being a run-down, lied-to, cheated-on fool stuck in bad times and drowning in sorrow. But the band succumbed, and the song has become a signature of the Allmans. It has since been covered by scores of artists from Los Lobos to Frank Zappa, and released by perhaps a dozen more. Gregg released an acoustic version in 1997, and the Allmans have released a number of versions, several of them live.
Long a favorite among Phish fans but never frequent in setlists, “Whipping Post” was played roughly every fourth show or so through 1988, and then declined both in raw frequency and in fraction of shows. (A third of its appearances were during 1988, not counting many teases, such as in “David Bowie” 3/11/88 or in “Anarchy” 6/30/88.) Its first two appearances (11/3/84, into a nice drums jam, and 5/3/85, segueing nicely into “McGrupp,” both following “Eyes of the World”) featured two guitars (plus Jeff Holdsworth on lead vocals) and so the band was able to faithfully mimic the Allmans’ co-wailing axes. Its next appearance (without Jeff) was as the vehicle for Mike’s religious epiphany, an extended jam (11/23/85) that included parts of both “Norwegian Wood” and “Harry Hood.” Beyond that, Trey took over vocals (starting 8/10/87), and the cover remained somewhat faithful (esp. 5/15/88, 9/24/88, and 11/3/88, with “Dave’s Energy Guide” teases). It was a straight cover, ripped from the golden days of rock and used by a bar band to communicate earnestness, with powerful placement (out of “Little Drummer Boy” 12/6/86, and out of a show-opening “Low Rider” jam 10/31/87) and strong jamming (as on 5/25/88, 4/27/89, 5/9/89, and 5/13/89, possibly one of the most improvisational versions Phish has performed.)
But then Phish got bigger, and sillier, and performances of the song became something of a joke. It was first revised as a Fishman romp, through his lead vocals (e.g. 3/9/90), lead on fretless guitar (10/28/91 and 12/6/91), and, of course, vacuum solo (12/5/92 and 8/10/96). (Also note the “What I Am” tease during the 6/5/90 version.) But the song was too strong for the joke to last and, as Mike noted in one interview, Phish was playing venues that the Allmans were playing, “so it wasn’t so much of a joke anymore.” They tried to pull it off 8/10/96, after a three-year absence, but the next day felt guilty for that version’s weakness. So when it returned 7/25/99, after a second three-year absence and in one of the best first sets of that tour, Trey was on vocals and (for the first time since the 1980s) the performance was hard-core, true to the song’s beginning. So far, it hasn't been heard since.