Under the Covers Vol. 1 – Loving Cup

Its signature piano intro sends shivers down your neck, or chills up your spine.  It’s a “beautiful buzz.”  It’s Trey’s opportunity to play his “bad guitar.” It’s Loving Cup from the Rolling Stones’ popular Exile on Main Street album released in 1972 (and re-released in both 1994 and 2010).  Rock critics from across the globe will highlight Exile on Main Street as one of rock and roll’s greatest albums, from one of rock and roll’s penultimate bands.  According to Wikipedia, the 2010 re-release alone sold more than 545,000 copies worldwide.  Loving Cup finds itself on a track listing that includes Tumbling Dice, Shine a Light, Happy and Sweet Virginia; songs recognized and respected across the globe.  Mick and Keith, does it get any better than that?

Festival 8 (rollingstone.com)

Everyone knows the story of Loving Cup and Phish. From its humble beginnings as the first song ever played on Page’s baby grand piano to its almost guaranteed position at the end of the line every four or five or six shows, Loving Cup has grown to one of the band’s most common cover songs. However, in the beginning of Loving Cup’s roots with Phish, the song regularly opened shows and second sets or fit into the meat of a show. Natural segues out of the piano solo in Squirming Coil in the mid-90s is a Page fan’s wet dream.  Since its Phish debut on February 3, 1993, Loving Cup has found itself on the pages of fans’ notepads 104 times.

For me, when I got the tape of the Bomb Factory’s second set “Tweezer-Fest” (5.7.94) in 1996, I first had to get through Loving Cup to hear that one-of-a-kind segue explosion.  This was my first foray into a song that always gets my feet moving.  In college, swimming through Napster for random stuff to download, the Rolling Stones’ version of Loving Cup was at the top of my queue. Personally, I’ve seen Loving Cup eight times. 7.25.99, 6.28.00, 7.6.00, 7.10.00 and 9.27.00 are memorable shows for me for personal reasons, perhaps in part because of Loving Cup closing the show.

Over the years, my tour buddy and I have taken a different approach to Loving Cup. From cheering our first live experience with the song to watching him leave for the parking lot and his sarcastic “So, how was that?” it’s clear both of our positions are widely shared in the Phish community.  This kind of interaction so common on lot got me thinking and led me to propose the case for and against Loving Cup for a column on OnlinePhishTour (thanks for the opportunity).

The Case for Loving Cup

You know exactly what you’re going to get.  Pure and simple rock and roll.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Seven minutes of blazing guitar work, classic Page vocals and some raucous opportunities for a sing-along from the rail to the rafters. No lyric flubs, no screeching halt to a funk jam and no segues into Possum (knock on wood). Loving Cup is what an encore is supposed to be about – ending the show on a high note.  Men, women, vets and noobs can all bob their head in unison to end the rock show.

I look back on sitting in my friend’s backyard about 15 miles from Alpine Valley on June 20, 2009 discussing the first Festival 8 and Halloween rumors that were hitting lots and message boards across the country.  Hotels in Palm Springs were booked, flights were researched and general giddiness followed.  After another Spotted Cow in the sun, I’m proud that I guessed the Halloween costume that afternoon. Obviously, great debate followed.

The Festival 8 Loving Cup is a key reason I see Phish.  Pure energy, special guests and a unique sound that few other acts could match.  With Sharon Jones and Saundra Williams adding soulful power to the “Gimme little drink” lyrics, the Dap Kings filling the jam with brass gusto and glowsticks by the thousands filling the California sky this version of Loving Cup was a true experience for all the senses.  While the guitar riffs peaked, I texted my girlfriend (now wife) “Horns and glowsticks for Loving Cup.” Not an exciting text, but one of four I sent her the whole weekend.

In addition, perhaps no cover has made the case to be treated as an original more than Loving Cup. At the same time, perhaps no cover is more confused as a Phish original – apologies of course to Timber (Jerry).  With roots in rock and roll, blues, bluegrass, funk and dozens of other musical genres, Phish is welcome to honor their influences and put their own touch on a classic.  The diversity of the songs they choose to cover matches the range of their playing ability. Obviously, Loving Cup fits this mold and has for a while.  As other covers stretch their legs (see: Sneekin’ Sally) mid-set, lend themselves to a bubbly dance party (see: Ya Mar)  or open potentially exploratory second sets (read: Crosseyed), Loving Cup holds its form. There is a time and a place for a rock and roll ballad, and it’s the encore.

Many Phish friends of mine have used Loving Cup in their attempt to welcome future fans to the Phish fold. This is an important argument for the song staying put.  Phish isn’t for everyone, but any song that can lead friends to find further musical common ground is a great thing.

The Case Against Loving Cup

You know exactly what you’re going to get reprise. But in this section, we don’t mean it in a good way.  It’s always the same. Almost literally. Whether you think the songs rocks or not, it’s always the same. Same beautiful buzz, same Page Side Rage Side vocals, same rock show playing to end a great night. No room for change. And usually, no room for another song.

Critics of Loving Cup or tour repeats will say that having Loving Cup as an encore is the band “mailing it in.”  A favorite component of any show experience is spontaneity.  Playing Loving Cup to close a show is not what this fan would consider spontaneous and imagine most of the fanbase would agree with me.  It goes without saying that another important aspect of a Phish show is expansive jamming.  Obviously this isn’t happening with Loving Cup. Pointing to Festival 8 as the song’s high is admittedly a bit of fluffing as you’re not going to get horns or Sharon and Saundra or the Empire Polo Fields on Halloween again (most likely).

In 2010-2011 Loving Cup was played 15 times.  Ten of those were as encores and in four instances the song segued into Tweeprise to end the show.  Not only that, with “marquee” shows like Bethel 3, Watkins 2, Gorge 1 and the Vermont Flood Relief show closing with the song, fans are starting to feel shortchanged by its place as the encore. In following Twitter feeds during Couch Tour, or hearing banter at shows, cheers are being replaced by groans slowly but surely.

While its 104 total song count leaves it somewhere in the middle of the pack for frequency in the Phish catalog, its position within the encore rotation has left something to be desired for many fans.  The answer to my friend’s aforementioned sarcastic question about a Loving Cup encore always warrants a basic “Oh, it was fine.” No “I didn’t see that coming” or “they took that version for a walk” or “it was the perfect end to a great night.”  It was just fine. Phish fans are dedicated, interactive, passionate and perhaps above all, opinionated.  That combination of adjectives and “Oh, it was fine” is not a strong compliment.

The Conclusion

For better or worse, the argument can be made that Loving Cup is a defining song in the Phish cover catalog.  The band has put its mark on the song over the past 18 years; albeit, a mark that has changed very little over time.  While there is a strong case for giving the song a break, or at least moving its place in the rotation, my conclusion is that Loving Cup can’t find its way to the proverbial shelf.  For Harpua or Oh Sweet Nuthin’ to be memorable as an encore, other songs have to stay in rotation.  For funk jams or bluegrass boogies to stand out in setlists, straight up rock and roll needs to be present as well.  Many of the things we all love about the band, are the result of things we think we’d be able to live without.  In my view, we can’t live without Loving Cup.

Be sure to check out… (download playlist here)

  • 2.3.93 Premiere
  • Acoustic Loving Cup on 10.18.98
  • 4.3.98
  • Trey’s “have fun in the campground tonight, don’t do anything we wouldn’t do” banter at the end of the rocking 7.25.99 version/show.
  • 6.24.04 – A rare 2.0 show opening version
  • 10.31.09
  • Download the Champlain show & help out a great cause, while catching the Loving Cup encore.