Photo credit: Dean Budnick
Trey Anastasio doesn’t use openers very often, but when he does, those bookings, more often than not, end up feeling more like curations than simple support slots. And that was certainly the case when the Phish guitarist handpicked Yo La Tengo and Khruangbin to open for his new, somewhat-mysterious Ghosts of the Forest project during their West Coast dates on April 19 in Los Angeles and April 20 in Berkeley, Calif.
“I had hoped that the two Greek shows, in two different cities, would end up taking on the quality of one singular event, like the Island Tour from ‘98,” Anastasio says, thinking back to Phish’s famed, last-minute, four-show April run through Long Island and Rhode Island 21 years ago. “Yo La Tengo and Khruangbin both have an elegant musicality that draws a line between the two nights for me, which makes me happy.”
A hybrid of past collaborations, Ghosts of the Forest is an entirely new band featuring Anastasio, Phish drummer Jon Fishman, longtime Trey Anastasio Band bassist Tony Markellis and TAB trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick, and keyboardist Ray Paczkowski, a mainstay of almost all of the guitarist’s side projects since 2001. Rounding out the ensemble is vocalist Celisse Henderson, who has performed with Melissa Etheridge, Joss Stone, Macy Gray and Mariah Carey, as well as with Phish during their 2016 Halloween show celebrating David Bowie. While Ghosts’ sound has been kept under wraps, the musicians will kick off their run at Portland, Maine’s State Theatre on April 4 and are unexpected to perform some original material.
Much like the theatrical Michigan funk collective Vulfpeck, who warmed up for Trey Anastasio Band and jammed with the group’s namesake at Morrison, Colo.’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre in 2017, Ghosts of the Forest’s two openers will also likely introduce Phish and TAB fans to a pair of improvisationally minded acts who hover on the fringes of the jamband community. Yet, in certain ways, Yo La Tengo and Khruangbin represent opposite ends of the indie-rock world’s long flirtation with that roots-rock scene.
Though Yo La Tengo’s April 19 support spot for Ghosts of the Forest at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre marks the first time they have shared the stage with a member of Phish—outside prime placement at a few festivals like Bonnaroo—the New Jersey-bred trio has followed a similar arc to the Vermont Quartet. YLT played their first public show exactly one year and one day after Phish’s December 1983 debut and have spent the past three decades nurturing a similarly close-kit community that combs through and annotates their ever-changing setlists.
Yo La Tengo’s eight-night, repeat-free Hanukkah shows, which they have hosted regularly since the early 2000s, have always had a Baker’s Dozen-like quality, mixing obscure and fun tributes with pockets of improvisation and deep dives into their songbook. The seminal trio have even mentioned placing Anastasio on the short list for past holiday sit-ins. (They share some direct DNA too: The members of Sun Ra Arkestra, who inspired Anastasio’s first solo studio project with Surrender to the Air, are regular guests, and Yo La Tengo have long been associated with Phish art-rock heroes The Velvet Underground.)
Lead guitarist Ira Kaplan was an early Dead disciple before a “wave” of punk-rock in the 1970s shifted his interests in a different direction, though he’s checked back in more frequently in recent years, attending an after-show timed with 2015’s Fare Thee Well and contributing to The National-led Day of the Dead tribute album. Bassist James McNew is a more recent tourist but has started seriously digging into their world, especially though his wife, who grew up on Phish and their peers. Drummer Georgia Hubley actually saw Old and In the Way live but says she fell asleep during the show. (However, she makes a point to note that she also fell asleep during a My Bloody Valentine show.)
Anastasio is also a longtime fan. “I love Yo La Tengo—I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One is my favorite of their albums,” he says of their 1997 mix of sweet, tender songs and droning jams. “Their songs are so good, and there’s an emotional simplicity to their music that feels like they captured lightning in a bottle. I love Georgia’s drumming. Ira is such a cool guitar player. And all three of their vocals are great. I’m excited to meet them. I’m a fan.”
Khruangbin, on the other hand, are a fresh addition to the festival scene and their April 20 opening spot with Ghosts of the Forest at Berkeley, Calif.’s Greek Theatre, arriving around their Coachella debut, stands as one of their biggest shows to date. A trio themselves, the Texas-raised, Thai-funk-inspired outfit first broke on the national circuit in late 2015 and immediately turned heads on both sides of the hippie and hipster divide. Though mostly instrumental, the group possesses the rare ability to craft infectiously catchy hooks around bassist Laura Lee and guitarist Mark Speer’s meditative lines. When the musicians do sing, their sultry vocals recall both the quiet confidence of the Velvet Underground as well as the modern psych-rock movement that grew out of the jamband scene during Phish’s most recent hiatus.
In 2016, they played a loose, groovy late-night set at Lockn’ when Phish served as the fest’s headliners, and they have since appeared on a number of other jamband-oriented lineups. Their recent trip on Jam Cruise also left an indelible mark on the looseness of their shows. As it turns out, Anastasio first heard about the group closer to home.
“My daughter turned me on to Khruangbin after she saw them at a festival a couple years ago, and I love them,” he says. “They have their finger on the pulse. I love how melody-centric they are, particularly the bass, which was the first thing to catch my ear. They sound like they are mining for the universal melody. I believe in that. Music beyond stylistic boundaries—it feels borderless.”