When Trey Anastasio first decided to put together the ensemble that eventually grew into his long-running Trey Anastasio Band, his first call was to Tony Markellis. A resident of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. since 1975, Markellis had long made a name for himself as one of the best groove-oriented bassists working the Northeast corridor between New York’s Capital District and Burlington, Vt., when the Phish guitarist first approached him in 1998—Anastasio has said on more than one occasion that a major reason he decided to attend the University of Vermont was after seeing Markellis play with the Unknown Blues Band while shopping for colleges. Markellis turned Anastasio on to drummer Russ Lawton—an old friend he has been longing to play with for decades—and the three musicians formed the core of the one-off project 8-Foot Fluorescent Tubes on April 17, 1998. In 1999, the trio hit the road for a theater tour—Anastasio’s first proper run outside of Phish—and, with the exception of a brief period between late-2004 and 2008—the bassist has been the backbone of almost all of the guitarist’s solo projects ever since. (He also co-authored a number of future Phish songs TAB originals like “First Tube,” “Sand,” “Gotta Jiboo” and “Drifting” and worked with Anastasio on Hands on a Hardbody.)
A native of Helena, MT and an in-demand bassist, producer, illustrator and radio show host, Markellis has a long and varied career outside of Anastasio’s orbit. Markellis enrolled in the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1969 and quickly established himself as a sought-after musician for visiting artists. He joined the David Bromberg Band In 1973 and went on to work with everyone from The Mamas & the Papas to Dr. John and, on one very special night, Jerry Garcia. Since 2010, most of Anastasio’s TAB tours have included a full horn section, but late last year the guitarist decided to celebrate the group’s 20th anniversary by temporally scaling things back to the original, improv-oriented trio along with longtime keyboardist Ray Paczkowski. Unfortunately, shortly before their 20th anniversary run kicked off this spring, Paczkowski was forced to step aside to undergo emergency surgery to remove a brain tumor. The original TAB trio forged ahead, offering an incredibly varied setlist that mixed TAB staples with new covers and a number of Phish originals Anastasio had never performed with his solo band.
Thankfully, Paczkowski’s surgery was a success and the keyboardist will rejoin Classic TAB for their upcoming appearances in Charlottesville, Va., New York and Marshfield, Mass. In advance of the run, Markellis reflected on his long history with Anastasio and Lawton, his backstage encounters with Garcia and Ram Rod and how he ended up playing two Phish weddings.
Let’s start by talking about the origins of Trey Anastasio Band. In a recent Relix My Page, drummer Russ Lawton said that you met in the late-1970s. Do you remember how you first crossed paths with him and the first time you played together?
We met in Burlington, Vt. I was playing with the great Burlington-based jazz fusion band Kilimanjaro (which did double duty as the Unknown Blues Band). Russ was working with Zzebra, a wonderful Afro-beat band led by the late Nigerian percussionist Loughty Amao (formerly of Osibisa). If I remember correctly, we met one night in front of Hunt’s, Burlington’s original concert club. When my friends and I discovered that one of his bandmates’ cars had been broken into, we guarded the car until they arrived. For a while, Russ was renting a room from a mutual friend, and my dog Spot and I would often occupy the living room couch when I was playing in town. We were friends, but we never got to play together back then. Kilimanjaro seemed to have a five-year drummer turnover, and every time we lost one, I would recommend Russ, who was always involved in one band or another that was on the verge of a record deal and he would be unable to justify jumping ship. That happened about three times at five-year intervals. We didn’t actual play together until Trey got this project started.
Trey Anastasio has famously said that a major reason he enrolled in UVM is that he saw your band, the Unknown Blues Band, play in Vermont while he was looking at schools in 1982. How would you describe the Burlington musical community in the early 1980s as opposed to today?
Being the university town that it is, Burlington has always been very supportive of variety and diversity. I first started driving up there in the mid-’70s to play on sessions for Philo Records, a folk label based just outside of town. At that time, as now, there was every kind of music you can imagine going on in Burlington. Nectar’s, which is still going strong today, was presenting free music every night. That’s where I first heard guitarist Paul Asbell, whose vision began the band that became Kilimanjaro, out of which grew the Unknown Blues Band. We would play at Hunt’s about one weekend a month, mixing a blues night in with the jazz nights. Coincidentally, Paul later became Trey’s guitar teacher.
Phish started making a name for themselves in the early 1980s and Trey even asked your band to play his wedding. Do you remember the first time you met Trey and, if so, what were your initial impressions of his music?
I know the fans will be disappointed, but I really don’t remember our first meeting. I do remember hearing the boys play at Nectar’s, and I remember thinking how dedicated and energetic they were. Sometimes, we would be playing upstairs at the Metronome when they were playing downstairs at Nectar’s. We’d slip up or down the stairs to catch each other during our breaks. For the record, not only did we play at Trey’s wedding, but at Page’s first wedding as well.
You were Trey’s first call when he decided to form a solo band and you recommended Russ and the three of you sketched out some early songs like “Sand” and “First Tube.” What was his initial pitch when he asked you to form TAB?
At the time Trey was very excited about African rhythms. It sounded like a great opportunity to do some exploration. When he asked me to recommend a drummer, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate choice than Russ, who had been playing a lot of African music with Zzebra and actually happened to be available for once. In just a few practice sessions we came up with a variety of groove-based ideas that evolved into songs like “Sand,” “First Tube,” “Last Tube,” “Gotta Jibboo,” “Sweet Dreams Melinda,” “Ether Sunday,” “Push On,” “Mozambique,” “Tube Top Flop,” “Drifting,” “Burlap Sack & Pumps” and many more. We did a one-off show at the original Higher Ground in Winooski, VT under the name 8-Foot Fluorescent Tubes, some of which can be seen on YouTube. It was pretty wild!
This year mark’s TAB’s 20th anniversary and you celebrated by returning to a trio format for the first time since 1999. What did you notice about your musical interactions with Trey and Russ as a trio after working in a big band format for so many years?
The band has had various incarnations over the years—all the way up to a 10-piece [from 2002-2004; Anastasio also toured with an octet in 2006 and 2007, one of the few versions of TAB Markellis was not involved in]. Recently, we’ve evened off at seven or eight, with three horns and percussion (depending on Cyro Baptista’s availability). The trio situation is hard work. I’ve grown accustomed to staying in the background and providing a solid foundation for all those brilliant musicians while they shine, but this last time around we were interacting in whole new ways. There’s a lot more jamming and playing off one another in the trio format—less structure. In a situation like that, it’s hard not to draw from the classic power trios like the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Band of Gypsies and Cream. The crowds were remarkably accepting of the trio.
Sadly, Ray was unable to perform with the band this spring due to a medical condition. Did his absence influence Trey’s decision to tour in a more stripped-down format without horns and auxiliary percussion?
Definitely. Faced with choices like: cancel the tour, go out without keyboards, hire a sub, or try something altogether different, Trey opted for the latter. Ray’s one of a kind; there’s no replacing him. I’m so glad that he’s well enough to join us on our next trip!