Bassist Tony Markellis was the first musician Trey Anastasio called when he decided to start a solo band in the late ‘90s. Markellis agreed to play with the Phish guitarist and recommended drummer Russ Lawton to fill out their rhythm section and the musicians played a gig at Burlington, VT’s Higher Ground as Eight Foot Florescent Tubes in 1998. The show laid the groundwork for Anastasio’s solo career and the next year the three musicians hit the road for a short tour. Anastasio—who hired Markellis to play his wedding as part of the Unknown Blues Band—also started working with the new rhythm section on a series of original songs, including future Phish/TAB staples like “First Tube,” “Gotta Jibboo,” “Sand,” “Last Tube,” “Ether Sunday” and “Cayman Review.”
The Saratoga Springs, NY-based Markellis was a mainstay in Trey Anastasio Band through 2004 when the group went on hiatus. After a two year break from the road, Anastasio reformed Classic TAB with Markellis, Lawton and longtime keyboardist Ray Paczkowski. The group tested out several future Phish and Trey Anastasio Band songs during a 2008 fall tour and returned to the road with horns last year. Shortly after completing a run of shows with TAB, Markellis discussed his work with Anastasio, his time playing with David Bromberg and how he ended up playing “Hey Ya!” this winter.
Let’s start with some background information on your time with Trey Anastasio. Trey tells a story that when he first visited UVM as a prospective student he saw you play with the Unknown Blues Band. Do you remember the first time you met Trey and, also, the first time you saw him perform?
I’m afraid I don’t remember the first time I met Trey, but I’m pretty sure the first time I ever heard him play was with Phish at Nectar’s in Burlington, when I was playing upstairs at the Metronome with the Unknown Blues Band.
The Unknown Blues Band was very influential to musicians who came of age in Burlington in the ‘80s. How did that group originally form and can you give us a little background on Big Joe Burrell?
The Unknown Blues Band was an outgrowth of a Burlington-based jazz band called Kilimanjaro that I have played with since the late ‘70s. We had a great deal of radio success in the early ‘80s and did some extensive driving tours of the U.S. All the members of the band shared an interest in the blues, some of us having spent years playing with some of the blues greats. We’ve always included a blues or two in our repertoire, which were always well received. It occurred to us that we could be booking some club gigs closer to home, where we could just play blues all night.
After we’d been doing it for a while, the band’s guitarist, Paul Asbell, came in one night and said, “You’ve gotta hear this guy, Big Joe Burrell!” Joe was a classic– he grew up in Port Huron, Michigan during the Depression, got to see the world while playing sax in an army band through WWII in places like Italy and New Guinea, played the Chitlin’ Circuit with R&B revues, backing up everyone from Jimmy Reed to Etta James, and spent the early ’60s as part of B.B. King’s horn section. After that, he lived in Canada for 10 years, playing with a black country singer named John Little. He had a stroke, and needed a place to recuperate for a while. It turned out that he had a nephew living in Burlington, who was more than happy to let his Uncle Joe come stay with him. Joe eventually felt good enough to start doing some low-key lounge gigs around Burlington, but then we got hold of him and really put him back to work! We had the pleasure of working with Joe until he passed away in 2005. He was such a beloved figure in Burlington that last year they installed a life-size bronze sculpture of him on Church Street!
You are originally from Montana but currently live in Saratoga Springs. How did you end up in Upstate New York?
After college, the first big professional job I had was playing with the David Bromberg Band as a young pup in 1973-1974. When I left that job, I wandered around a little, lived at a recording studio in Stockbridge, MA, for a year, and eventually came to rest in Saratoga, which had a very active singer/songwriter scene that revolved around the Caffè Lena. Saratoga was a nice central location for the circuit I was playing at the time, which spanned from Buffalo to Boston and Montreal to D.C. And, of course, there were the Skidmore girls…
How has the Saratoga/Albany music scene changed in the past 20 years? A few years ago it seemed to be dominated by jambands but a nice little singer/songwriter community has emerged as well.
From my perspective, Saratoga has always been about singer/songwriters. From the earliest days of Lena’s– when people like Utah Phillips, Rosalie Sorrels, Loudon Wainwright, Kate McGarrigle, Tom Mitchell, Don Armstrong, Pat & Victoria Garvey lived and worked here in town– to today, when we have, in my opinion, some of America’s great songwriters living here– Michael Jerling, Bob Warren, and Sarah Pedinotti, just to name a few.
Your relationship with Russ predates Trey Anastasio Band by at least a decade, which is why the band is so rhythmically in-sync. How did you first meet Russ and at what point did you suggest bringing him into Eight Foot Florescent Tubes, your first project with the original TAB trio?
I’ve been playing in the Burlington area since the mid-70s, and it seems I’ve known Russ since that time. He’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. When I was starting to play with Kilimanjaro, he was playing with an African band called Zzebra, fronted by a very powerful Nigerian character named Lofty, who had been a part of Osibisa, one of the first African bands to ever appear on the American scene. From playing with that band, Russ picked up a deep arsenal of African and Latin grooves. It seems that the life expectancy for drummers with Kilimanjaro back then was five years, so every time we would lose a drummer, I’d suggest, “Let’s call Russ!” Unfortunately, he would always be in the middle of a commitment with a new band, where a major-label deal was imminent, so it just never worked out. When Trey called, one of the things he mentioned being interested in was African rhythms. When he asked if there was a drummer I’d want to work with, what could I say? Fortunately, this time Russ was available!
Though you have played with an eclectic mix of musicians over the years, in the ‘80s and ‘90s you were known alternately as a blues/zydeco player and a bassist for songwriter/songwriters. Do you think your background in solid, song-driven music helps focus your improvisation?
I have gotten to play almost every kind of music you can imagine– blues, country, jazz, Latin, funk, folk, rock… you name it. I do try to bank what I learn from each of those styles, but I think one of the things that has allowed me to keep working is that I make a point of differentiating one gig from another– I don’t come in with the attitude of, “Here I am, deal with it!” My concern is always, “What needs to be played here?” There are people who only know me as a blues player, others who only know me as a country player, etc. My job is to enhance the music that’s being played by my employer– not to show off what I can do. One of the great learning opportunities I had as a young musician (that I’m afraid a lot of young players coming up today are missing out on) was playing with disagreeable old bastards who would threaten your very life if you screwed up. Who’s offering that kind of sage advice today? It may be up to me!