In their second February gig at Chicago’s Riviera Theater in as many years, the Trey Anastasio Band provided the crowd with every reason to justify making this an annual tradition. In fact, especially in the context of the expectations and baggage that comes with Anastasio’s other group, I contend that this ensemble is damn near perfect once-a-year entertainment. Allow me to explain the qualification…
While the mere concept of Phish evokes emotional response in the faithful – incredible peak moments, epic tours and stunning feats of innovation and improvisation are tightly woven into the entire experience –TAB has the luxury of being more casual. We enjoy the brief glimpses afforded into Trey-centric musical stylings for what they are, and can save the frothing and teeth gnashing for the original foursome. In recent years, as the number of Phish concerts (and presumably rehearsals) has diminished, it appears as if Phish has sacrificed some of their trademark innovation for a greater variety of, and a cool competence with, their older material… making them a tad more predictable in the process. It becomes harder to justify trying to see multiple shows, but sometimes our emotions just can’t let go.
Without as much audience investment in TAB, it smacks of irony that this band has become the creative outlet for Trey’s talent as an arranger. Rather than reinventing and redeploying a new Phish template periodically (practically an annual event in the nineties), Phish’s repertoire and approach remains (relatively) steady. But for two or three weeks a year, Anastasio gathers the troops and explores the contours of his musical persona, each time adding a little more to the mix. Few people drop out of school or quietly amass vacation days for this tour but those who do make it out are treated to something new each time, which makes it entirely worthwhile.
Last Sunday, Trey’s re-visitation and expansion of the acoustic segment the show was just the type of daring you might expect out of the old Phish — offering an entirely new setting for the songs and melodies that are already course through our veins. Of course, in this day-and-age, that often evokes massive crowd sing-alongs, as evidenced by the show opening, solo “Backwards Down The Number Line.” The audience faithfully reproduced the “All my friends…” refrain with Trey’s reaction – a slight pause, sly smile and barely palpable decrease in his vocal volume – bordering on downright charming. His commitment to acoustic is admirable but, as in years past, did lead to mixed results in the first half of the set. While some arrangements added little to the electric versions due to the songs’ simplicity (“Kill Devil Falls”, “Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan”), others demand the texture that electricity and full band dynamics can provide (“Theme From The Bottom,” “The Wedge”). “Halley’s Comet” and “Gumbo” fared the best, offering a little something extra to chew on in the acoustic setting.
Once he got help from the cavalry, starting with Jen Hartswick and Natalie Cressman on backup vocals for middle three tunes of the set, the pace of the evening began to change. Jen and Natalie were in great voice and Trey’s playful banter with Nat (they riffed on her being from the South of France) added some levity and personality to the show. The only drawback was the relative safeness of the song selection (“Let Me Lie”, “Wading In The Velvet Sea”). But, it is evident that Trey loves these tunes and they did pave the way for the genuine highlight of the evening: the full-band acoustic arrangements. Each song in this segment provided another look at what the band was capable of: “Heavy Things” featured nimble piano work by Ray Paczkowski and a more bouncy and light sensibility than Phish versions, “Liquid Time” blended the sounds of the full group together in an atmospheric yet symphonic bed that flirted with indie, and the fun, inspired cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya” was built around Russ Remington’s bouncy flute and the immediacy and power of the Hartswick’s vocals.
The electric material was a bit of a comedown after the acoustic numbers. Anchored around good-ole TAB standbys like “Gotta Jibboo,” “Cayman Review” and “First Tube.” it did give the audience the opportunity to see Trey shred, which is what he did. Starting in the first set with a set-closing take on the rave-up “Push On Til The Day” and continuing on through a hefty 14 song second set, Tony Markellis and Russ Lawton’s rock solid bass and drums foundation provided ample room for many a fierce guitar run. Trey doesn’t move around and explore in a funk tune such as “Burlap Sack And Pumps” but in TAB the dynamics come from the composition and counterpoint of the horn section, and Anastasio uses their cover to build up to some frenetic peaks.
Though some of these tunes may not stand up to repeated listening, there is no denying that they are downright fun to see get worked-out every year or so. And, just so the set doesn’t run too stale, the band does manage to shake thing up a bit, offering a horn-fueled, bottom end-driven TAB version of “Ocelot,” a cover of the Gorrilaz’ “Clint Eastwood” and a blistering and well placed, tear-the-roof-off-the-Riv “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” with everybody in the band pretty much playing as hard as they could through the song’s frantic pace.
This is an act best experienced with little to no expectations – think of it as an opportunity to learn a little more about Trey, and to reconnect to the side of him that never stops creating.
Steve Siegel is a blogger and occasional promoter at www.thebarnpresents.com