|Originally Performed By||The Beatles|
|Original Album||Magical Mystery Tour (1967)|
|Historian||Parker Harrington (tmwsiy)|
Phish is no stranger to covering the Beatles. They famously covered The Beatles, (also known as “The White Album”) in 1994 to kick off their impressive Halloween history of having musical “costumes” and covering classic albums from the past, their own future, and even from the imaginary past of an obscure Scandinavian band. Subsequent to that fateful night in Glens Falls when the band performed all 30 songs off of the ninth studio album of the English rock band, several other Beatles covers have been performed.
To say that the band was invigorated with the Beatles after Halloween 1994 is an understatement. They went on to debut “Come Together” and the Sgt. Pepper classic “A Day In The Life” in 1995, “Mean Mr. Mustard” in 1996, another track from Abbey Road in “Something” in 1998, and “I Am The Walrus” in 2010. In addition to these Beatles debuts, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” became a setlist stalwart and closing many sets or performing as the encore. Likewise, “A Day In The Life” has also been performed more than 70 times and also used as a set closing rocker or in the encore slot.
Given the band’s affinity for the Beatles, it was no surprise they chose to cover yet another Beatles song during the “Baker’s Dozen” run. This came in the form of “Strawberry Fields Forever” on “Strawberry” night on 7/22/17 which was night two after “Coconut” on 7/21/17.
Like covering the Beatles, Phish is also no stranger to performing a capella with scores of songs being performed over the years. Among many others, “Freebird,” “Amazing Grace,” “Grind,” “Sweet Adeline,” and “Space Oddity” have all been performed without instrumental accompaniment.
Some of these a capella numbers have been performed with mixed success to put it charitably. It is not the vocal chops that have been the hallmark of the live Phish performance. Yet, one of the big surprises on “Strawberry” night was not that there was a Beatles song debuted or that a show was opened with an a cappella number, it was how hard Phish crushed “Strawberry Fields.”
Before we get to the Phish performance, let’s just look briefly back at this masterpiece that was famously nixed from Sgt. Peppers and ultimately released on Magical Mystery Tour, because the label forced them to release it as a pre-album single along with “Penny Lane” in 1967. The song, written by John Lennon, is often considered one of the singular best pop-rock songs ever recorded. In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, Lennon remarked about the song, “It’s about me, and I don’t know anything else really. The only true songs I ever wrote were ‘Help!’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.'”
That’s quite an extraordinary statement if you think about it. The Beatles released a dozen albums and Lennon penned well over 100 songs himself. Yet, “Strawberry Fields,” about an orphanage run by the Salvation Army near his boyhood home in Liverpool, was one of only two “true” songs he felt he ever wrote. So when one listens to the dozens of outtakes and alternate versions of the song that are widely available, you can hear the emotion dripping from the vocals every time. “Strawberry Fields” became so synonymous with Lennon that “Strawberry Fields” in Central Park, New York was dedicated to his memory after his untimely murder in 1980.
While “Strawberry Fields” may not have been covered by as many bands as other Beatles songs like “Yesterday” (perhaps the most covered song in the history of rock and roll), “Blackbird," or “Eleanor Rigby,” it has had its share of performances. Ben Harper, Richie Havens (a stunning performance at Woodstock), Peter Gabriel (his first release as a solo artist), Todd Rundgren and The Runaways among many others have all covered this classic song.
On the night of July 22, 2017, it was Phish’s turn.
Before the “strawberry goo” of "Halley’s Comet" and the Phish debut of “Strawberry Letter 23” in the second set, the strawberry theme was gleefully kicked off in the very first number of the night, solidifying, as if there was any doubt, that the “donut” theme would be prominently performed every night.
To a raucous applause getting into their barbershop formation in the front of the stage after briefly assuming their regular spots on stage, Page tuned the band up as he always does with a capella tunes, Mike motioned for the group to move closer together, Trey nodded to each bandmate and then counted off before belting out the famous first verse:
"Let me take you down
'Cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields
Nothing is real
And nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever"
Lead vocals were shared among the band members across the verses after Trey kicked off the song. Mike followed, then Page and finally Fishman and they were all simply perfect in pitch and tone delivering one of their more forceful and compelling a cappella numbers keeping the capacity crowd of 20,000+ in rapt attention. It was a spectacular way to open the “Strawberry” show and judging by the smiles of the band after breaking the huddle, they were as pleased as the crowd with the performance.
The show of course continued, like the Baker’s Dozen run, with lots of other highlights but “Strawberry Fields” has not continued in the Phish repertoire. In the following years post Baker’s Dozen, the band has yet to play the song again.
Whether they ever chose to play “Strawberry Fields” again is nothing to get hung about as we’ll always have the memories from the Garden.
Strawberry Fields forever. Strawberry Fields forever. Strawberry Fields forever!
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