There was a time in the not so distant past when jam fans went to see Trey Anastasio Band shows in their fruitless rummaging quest for a disbanded but ever so beloved foursome. In between songs disgruntled fans would bark out requests to “play some fucking Phish.” Much has happened since then but when TAB took the stage at Charlotte’s newest live music venue, The Fillmore, any such animosity was gone. One could argue that this is due to the fact that Phish is on a perceived break at the moment and that should they disband the same resentment would resurface. However, something has changed. Trey has changed. Fans have changed. With this evolution, a level of purity has returned and with it, a new level of respect.
This version of the Anastasio band features classic TAB members Russ Lawton (drums), Tony Markellis (bass), and Ray Paczkowski (keys) with the addition of Russell Remington (Saxophones), Jen Hartswick (Trumpet), and newcomer Natalie Cressman on trombone and vocals. Tony Markellis and Russ Lawton first made music with Trey in Eight Foot Florescent Tubes, a one-off project that celebrated the opening of Higher Ground in Phish’s stomping grounds of Burlington, VT and joined Trey for the unveiling of his “solo” act in 1999. Ray Paczkowski came along shortly thereafter and earned his stripes for sticking it out through the Anastasio calamity known as 70 Volt Parade. Russell Remington and Jen Hartswick are no strangers to the ensemble either, as they have both been around since late 2001.
Natalie Cressman, meanwhile, was an absolute newcomer to this or any other scene until this tour. She is studying at the Manhattan School of Music and is also the daughter of Jeff Cressman, a former player in one of Trey’s group. What was interesting about Cressman was her obvious commitment to music. It is plain to see that she is a student and she added just the right amount of malleability that Trey needs in order to fulfill a musical vision. She watched for cues, she followed leads and when led to turn loose, she did. There is an interesting bond that also appears on stage with Cressman and Anastasio. He looks at her as though she is a kid sister- never missing an opportunity to rag on her in an attempt at making her blush. This was exemplified in his introduction of her wherein he referred to her as “The Chainsaw” as though he were introducing “The Real Deal” Holyfield. It was all in good fun, and apparently she got the turn loose cue on this night for “Mozambique” because she officially became the cornerstone in this newly orchestrated version of the tune.
The show kicked off at 8:35pm with the septet taking the stage as Trey cordially waved at many in the crowd with a beaming grin and a twinkle in his eye. Then the music began with a warm-up of the horn section. It was as though a symphony was beginning, save for the fact that the conductor was holding a guitar rather than a baton. The warm-up was a preamble of sorts to “Shine,” which served as a stellar introduction of the brass as Trey stepped back to allow for their seamless entry. It was solo yielding to trio, all while being held nailed down by the bass and percussion with Ray blending in the drawl of the organ as though he was instilling lifeblood into the track. It was splendid.
The set was genre spanning, although it certainly it had the common themes that one would expect. There were classic rock riffs in “Push on ‘Til the Day” which patiently built upon itself into jam fervency with all parts equally ecstatic. From here, we took a stroll through Jamaican roots reggae via a cover of Toots and the Maytalls’ “Sweet and Dandy.” The set wrapped with a return to the album Shine, with “Tuesday” and received a resounding and exuberant response from what seemed to be all in attendance.
Set two opened with “Curlew’s Call,” which served as a limbering up number and as stellar groundwork for its near-segue partner, “Gotta Jibboo.” Let’s face it, this is a song that all Phish devotees have heard countless times. However, this version was especially funky but what makes this outfit unique is the blending of instrumentation. The parts are separate but discerning them in a live setting is nearly an impossible feat.
From here the set progressed with the rarity, “Peggy,” which was requested via a sign in the crowd and obliged with a smile as Trey proclaimed that “Anybody who is bringing in a sign for this song is a hero in our book.” It is such a rarity that it did kind of lose the crowd, but for that “hero,” although his night was made. It is a beautiful song in spite of the fact that the band played it somewhat sparsely.
“Sand” is a Phish song. However, on this night though it bled TAB, taking interludes that even Phish may have a hard time duplicating, for several reasons. Primarily though is because they have no female presence. The grace that Hartswick and Cressman gave it made it what it was: subtle and trance-like with a softness that is reminiscent of a mother whispering into a crying baby’s ear as the women lightly sang accompaniment. This set the stage for what would turn into an epic 14 minute jam. It was symbolic of all successful improvisation. Anastasio positioned himself centrally between Lawton and Remington sharing a rich dialogue. The set wrapped with Jen Hartswick wailing Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.” Who knew?
As has been par for the course on this tour, the final encore was “First Tube” where we again met our friend of old, the loop refrain, the song familiar yet revealing itself with fresh colors. The same could be said for the band as whole and the audience as well, dancing like there was no tomorrow despite of the aches and pains in the knees that the morning will surely bring.