Blogpost: Rock on the Cowbell Slowly

Posted by Sarah • April 14, 2012

Posted by Sarah • April 14, 2012

There are a few cultural constants we all come to understand depending on where we come from, and growing up in Vermont is no exception. Amongst other things, many develop an unnatural appreciation for not having to smell cow shit. More common, however, is the universal love for Ben and Jerry's ice cream, a company with a classic story of two men with a common drive coming together and making a shitton of money. Equally universal to Vermont culture is the shared love of every single one of the major band that have come out of the state. By this, of course, I refer to the absolute above-all without-a-doubt second best jam band in the world, Phish. And when these two forces come together, their combined power can draw in nearly every person in Vermont.

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All fifteen of them.

It turns out there is a world record for the largest cowbell ensemble. The Guiness Book of World Records currently lists this number as 640, which, despite all evidence otherwise, is apparently less than the population of Vermont. After what was surely the world's oddest conversation, Ben and Jerry's and Phish drummer Jon Fishman came together on 14 April and decided that, together, they could rally enough people to break this world record. Also something about raising money for flood relief. Whatever. That didn't matter. What did matter was that there was a mass gathering that involved a large part of my natural culture, and I had to be a part of it.

Knowing full well the risks, I set off to join my fellow percussive bretheren in an afternoon of song, camraderie, and inevitable ear drum damage. When I arrived, Ben and Jerry's were issuing cowbells to everyone who had previously signed up to be in attendance--and by some counts, that was upwards of 1,300 people, more than enough to secure a record-breaking performance. I got in line to receive my cowbell along with the rest of the folks who had compulsive punctuality issues. Unfortunately, we ran into a big problem.

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Thankfully, I had come prepared with my own, sufficient percussive device. Others, however, had not been so lucky. They were stuck with a collection of second-rate instruments. But I could tell they were rallying together to get past this setback: they weren't going to let insufficient hardware get in the way of having a rocking, cowbelling time, no matter what. Empowered by their persistance, I stuck around, mingled with the folk, and enjoyed the beautiful Vermont afternoon while the stage was being set up. And slowly but surely, the stage came to erection, the band sauntered on, and in an instant, a cacophonous din of cowbells were raised skyward, of which no two managed to ring at the same time.

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Not pictured: the dense, pot-fueled haze that had settled over the crowd.

The ramshackle band, led by Fishman on the cowbell, burst into a riotous set of cowbell-intesive tunes, eliciting many a clang of appreciation. The band started out with a cover of The Chambers Brothers' classic "Time Has Come Today", an incredibly popular and well known tune for everyone born half a century ago. The performance was preceeded by a warning from Fishman that the song "slowed down" in the middle, and he urged the crowd to follow him at this point while he banged the cowbell slowly. They responded with a generous, frantic ringing of their cowbells in something resembling assent and happily banged their cowbells along with Fishman, who nobly struggled to keep the tempo from being overrun by zealous cowbellers with all of the precision of a middle school percussion section. When the song reached its infamous and labourious decrescendo, the crowd had a difficult time keeping pace with Fishman, who kept pushing the tempo slower and slower; the strain could be heard in the crowd's reluctance to slow down, as strikes became less precise and more akin to general clusters of noise.

The band followed up that crowd-pleasing number with their tribute to Will Farrell and Christopher Walken, both of whom (for some reason) had declined to be in attendence that day. The song, a rendition of Blue Öyster Cult's classic "(Don't Fear) The Reaper", definitely got the crowd enthusiastic. In fact, if the crowd had been any more enthusiastic, the band would've had to give up for sheer inability to play that fast. Fishman also couldn't help but get into character a little bit for this song.

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Much to the regret of everyone involved.

Having run out of songs that actually had cowbell in them, the band rounded off their performance with a couple of songs that had cowbell forcefully inserted into them. They ended the main set with Bachman Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business" , a hard-rocking common time jam that no single person seemed to be able to hit the correct beats on. Finally, a version of the ever-popular tune "Hang on Sloopy" by The McCoys followed for an encore, pleasing absolutely everyone who still cared about popular music from 1965. Cowbells clamoured and rang in a sonorous display of gratitude as the band ended, leaving the crowd to linger and bang their cowbells for several hours afterwards, as noted by everyone in the city who was trying to sleep later that evening.

All things considered, it was a pretty wonderful event. Something like 1,600 people showed up to play in total, smashing the previous world record, and more importantly, the day's events gave testament to the combined power of Ben and Jerry's and Fishman preying on Vermonters' sense of shared culture.

Oh yeah, and a lot money was raised for Hurricane Irene relief in Vermont, which had suffered massive flooding and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage statewide from the storm in late 2011. Phish's Waterwheel Foundation, which had organized the event, actually has raised several million dollars itself to contribute. So, there's that, too. Sometimes I do like living in a small state where we do have a very definite sense of community. It's the only way something like this could've possibly worked out.

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The only thing that could make this feel more like Vermont would be maple syrup in the mosh pit.

Sarah • April 14, 2012

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