This year’s TAB’s setlists have been quite diverse, including a few songs you haven’t played for quite some time and some new covers that were introduced in reaction to specific locations and events. You also introduced a number of Phish originals into the TAB songbook for the first time. What brought about the change in song focus?
After witnessing events like Phish’s Baker’s Dozen, where they went thirteen nights at MSG without repeating one song, you know by now that every day with Trey is a change in the song focus! It’s rarely a band decision. All you can do is hold on and try not to fall off.
The Unknown Blues Band recently reconvened for a few dates in Burlington. Can you talk about reviving that material and if there are any plans for future dates or recording sessions?
In theory, we are still an active band. Even though our beloved Big Joe Burrell passed away in 2005 and Chuck Eller, the keyboard player, has been living in Mexico since around that same time, we stay in touch and do try to get together a few times a year. Chuck even brought us down to play some shows in the Puerto Vallarta area in the spring of 2017. That was a beautiful trip, which I hope we can do again.
You have been playing with Floodwood for a few years now. How did you end up joining that project and do you feel that playing in a bluegrass-jam outfit has influenced your style across the board?
I have been playing all varieties of American music my entire career. I was playing bluegrass, country and blues long before I was playing most of the music you might associate me with today. I was opening a show for Floodwood a few years ago in Albany with one of the many local bands I work with and we hit it off. At the same time, they were going through some personnel changes, and they contacted me about doing some shows with them. It worked out well. Vinnie Amico and I live about ten minutes from each other, but because he’s so busy with moe. and I’m so busy with TAB and the other nine or ten bands I play with, we hardly ever got to hang out together. Now, we end up carpooling to a lot of the Floodwood shows. We get to shows hoarse from jabbering all the way. Floodwood’s new CD ‘Til I Die is excellent!
You’ve also been playing recently with an all-star Boston-based band called “Krewe Orleans.” Can you talk about the origins of this band and working with past TAB bandmates in a decidedly more New Orleans setting?
Krewe Orleans is an ongoing project, fronted by Pink Talking Fish keyboardist Richard James. A couple of years ago I was playing with Floodwood at a club in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. As we were packing up, a big guy and a little guy came up and introduced themselves. They turned out to be Ricky and Zack from PTF. It seems they had been headed for a gig in Pittsburgh when the got a call saying. “Don’t come—the club burned down!” They were playing in Wilkes-Barre the next night, so they turned around and came back to town and looked us up. We got talking about New Orleans, food, music, and one thing led to another. It turned out that Ricky and I share a passion for the music of the Crescent City, a place that for the past four decades I have considered a home away from home. He mentioned that he would like to try something, and the next thing you know, we had a 10-piece band with four horns together and ready to do a one-off at the Wonder Bar in Boston on Mardi Gras 2017. It was unbelievably good! You can find some evidence on YouTube. We got together again in February of this year for a five-date New England tour, and we just played in Burlington and at the Byfield Music Festival outside of Boston. Former TAB bandmate Dave Grippo has even been able to join our horn section on occasion. That band is so much fun! The only problem is getting ten extremely busy musicians to be available at the same time.
You have played with Bob Warren for years. How did you first connect and would you say playing in a more singer-songwriting setting informs your improvisational chops in your other projects?
I’ve been playing and recording with songwriters Bob Warren and Michael Jerling, both of whom live near me in the Saratoga area, for about forty years. They were both great when I met them, and they keep getting better and better! Both have new CD projects in the works, which I have been proud to be involved in. I also work with a number of other basically acoustic acts, including Ithaca’s Burns Sisters. The wonderful thing about the varied projects I find myself involved in is that it all the styles inform each other. Although I won’t play the same things with Trey as I would with Bob or Mike or Kilimanjaro or Floodwood or Krewe Orleans, it’s like cross-training– it all adds up to make me a better player. Plus, it’s really nice to play quiet gigs now and then where every little nuance is audible and earplugs are not required. [Anastasio appears on Warren’s 2002 release Clear Connection, former Band keyboardist Richard Bell and a number of other Update New York musicians.]
Saratoga Springs has also changed a great deal during the past 15 years since I graduated from Skidmore and a lot more since you arrived in 1975. How would you describe the city’s musical community now versus when you first arrived?
For a relatively small town, Saratoga has always had a remarkably active and diverse musical scene. Some clubs have come and gone, but others are still with us. Caffè Lena, the oldest continuously-run coffeehouse music venue in the country—since 1960!—is going stronger than ever. After years of fundraising and renovation, the building is finally up to code. The room has been expanded, there’s a new sound system, and there’s now an elevator. It’s beautiful! Putnam Place offers a variety of concert-quality acts, and there are still numerous venues up and down Caroline Street that offer mostly rock music. One Caroline is gone, but there’s still jazz at 9 Maple. When I’m not touring, I’ve been hosting Wednesday evenings at the Mouzon House. Every week I invite guest artists to come and join me there. One week I might have roots rockers Jo Henley from Boston, or bluesman Hugh Pool from Brooklyn, or guitarist Sam Whedon, or Bob Warren, or Michael Jerling– all people I enjoy playing with. On August 1, we’re even going to try and squeeze into that little space the six-piece ‘60s and ‘70s band that Bob Warren and I play with– Jeanne O’Connor & the New Standard. That should be a good time.
The current version of TAB is the longest running to date, lineup-wise. Was there a particular tour or album when you felt that the current band truly gelled as its own unit?
The ten-piece band we had in 2002, although versatile and infinitely interesting, got a little unwieldy. We went out in 2008 as Classic TAB (Trey, Ray, Russ and me). When we got a “full” band back together, it had been trimmed down to seven or eight. Especially with the triple-threat horn section of Jen Hartswick, Natalie Cressman and James Casey (all great singers, players, and keyboard players), things really started to gel. I couldn’t ask to be playing and traveling with a better group of people. I look forward to having them all back together.
For the for time in many years, you have started to participate in quite a few Dead tributes in recent years. What was your initial gateway into their world?
I ran into the Dead on one of their first tours east when I was in college in Ann Arbor. I became friends with Garcia and Ram Rod, who is also now deceased, who had been the band’s crew chief since the beginning. I had pretty much unlimited access to backstage all through my twenties and thirties. During the “Wall of Sound” era, Ram Rod would occasionally hire me on for a day’s work with the crew. I was fascinated by the innovative musical technology with which they surrounded themselves. You haven’t really heard bass until you’ve stood in the middle of that mountain of speakers! I never got close with the rest of the band, but I spent many hours backstage hanging out and shooting the breeze with Ram Rod, who was one of the most solid human beings I’ve ever met, and Jerry, who was an extremely inquisitive character. He was very generous with his time and always had some new topic of curiosity to discuss– music, art, philosophy, you name it. When I was playing with the David Bromberg Band in ‘73 and ‘74, there was some musical interaction. Give a listen to David’s Wanted Dead or Alive album. It’s a good one. One side is us, his band, recorded live, and the other side is David in the studio with members of the Grateful Dead. Unfortunately, I only got to play live with Jerry one time, when I sat in with the Garcia Band at the Keystone in Berkeley.
I’ve been playing a lot of Grateful Dead music the last three or four years. I’d known it to listen to, but had never really played it before. Russ [Lawton] had been playing the occasional Tuesday night Dead Set gig at Nectar’s, and it seemed like it would be fun to do that with him. Next thing you know, I’m doing a lot of shows with the great Zach Nugent (guitarist with Melvin Seals & JGB), including the annual all-star jam at Jerry Jam in New Hampshire with people like Zach, Melvin, Jay Lane and Scott Guberman. There is something very freeing about playing that stuff– an implied license to “take it out.” Although I don’t adhere religiously to Phil’s unique approach to the bass parts, I think I’ve been successful at melding my own “hold down the fort” tendencies with his original style.
Speaking of 1960s California music world, how did you end up working with The Mamas & the Papas?
In the late ‘80s, John Phillips, Scott McKenzie, and John’s daughter Mackenzie all moved up to Bolton Landing, N.Y. John started doing some solo dates, and hiring local musicians to accompany him. I was on a hiatus from Kilimanjaro at the time. I had always been a big fan of the music of the Mamas & the Papas, and when I heard that the great New Orleans drummer Kenneth Blevins was going to be playing with them, I signed on. I played with them for most of 1988, including a two-week tour of Norway. The singers at the time were John, Scott, MacKenzie and the wonderful Spanky MacFarlane.
When you hosted your own radio program, you turned a lot of listeners on to a mix of classic blues and other roots styles. Are there any cover songs you brought to the TAB songbook?
I do love that stuff! I brought the band a couple of Professor Longhair tunes, “I Done Done It” and “In the Wee Wee Hours,” as well as a Chris Ardoin tune called “Actin’ the Devil”. They’re just simple three-chord songs, but they all really tend to get the party started!