Photo by Bill Kelly
As an avid Phish fan who has never seen the Trey Anastasio Band perform nor listened to much of their catalogue, I had little knowledge of what their performance would entail upon entering the lavishly gilded King’s Theater in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, aside from a band fronted by my favorite guitar shaman, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio. So, as a ‘noob’ to the T.A.B. scene, this is my layman’s review.
Taking on even greater meaning for me, this trip to Brooklyn from my sub-suburban digs nestled in the foothills of the Catskills in the idyllic enclave of Harriman is an aliyah of sorts, my return to the homeland, the Flatbush section of the borough of my birth, my childhood home on Lenox Road nary a few blocks from the recently renovated King’s Theater. Built in 1929, this lavish movie palace was once the destination for many Brooklynites seeking a night out on the town, including my then newlywed parents who would venture there to see the latest sensations of celluloid in luxury, awed each time by the undeniable grandeur of the French-influenced baroque design of the grand auditorium. I too am taken by this magnificent venue, and after spending some time before the show exploring my old neighborhood, I was feeling nostalgic and primed for inspired entertainment.
The crowd entering the King’s Theater was a bit older on average than the traditional Phish crowd. Still, the applied
T.A.B.-filter rendered a scene concentrated with diehards, whose unbridled enthusiasm bordered on obsession with Big Red and his musical offerings. The energy in the room was palpable, the crowd hungry for a taste of something more, following an unbelievably potent summer of Phish. The trippy surroundings didn’t hurt either.
When the lights dropped, always a chilling and thrilling moment, the band took the stage and quickly launched into “Gotta Jiboo,” a Phish staple and supreme vehicle for spacy variety. It was performed with exceptional grit by Trey’s band, the air-tight rhythm section moored by Tony “I kill ‘em like a Soprano” Markellis on bass and the indefatigable Russ Lawton on drums—so locked-in these two are; but they still got that stank. “Jiboo” served as the perfect appetizer for a TAB virgin. When they dropped competently into a debut cover of Bob Marley’s “Soul Rebel,” I was floored, and it immediately becomes clear that by missing T.A.B. all these years, I was asleep for so long. So glad I am for the wake-up call.
I made the decision then and there to participate, and welcome these songs into my heart, to ignore the exhaustion of a body that woke at 5 a.m. that morning to go teach in the Bronx, and to dance. The memo pad I brought with me to take notes never surfaced from my backpack.
Other standouts that first set included “Valentine” off of 2012’s Traveler; a burst of robust energy bolstered by big horns; the song surges; the refrain “Spinning in Circles, Walking in Straight Lines” was instantly infectious, the groove frenetic; the emotion was unrestrained joy. A tight swinging performance of Phish keyboardist Page McConnell’s “Magilla” was followed by the first of a few rare interludes in which Trey spoke to the crowd, crediting his Phish bandmate for his composition and Page’s maniacal devotion to the NY Mets, working the NY crowd, the consummate showman, our humble servant.
For me, as a new fan of the Trey Anastasio Band, hearing “The Land of Nod” for the first time was a spellbinding experience. The song, which now haunts me, began with carnival-like madness and crafted instrumental acrobatics, finally resolving into the number’s only lyrics, “I was asleep for so long,” performed in beautiful harmony in mantra-like fashion. Indeed, I may have been late to the T.A.B. party, but the party is still raging.
Trey then charmed the crowd again with a story, fluffing his hair as he recalled some sage advice imparted to him several years back by Graham Nash, who told the young rising star “don’t fuck it up,” referring to Trey’s increasing success. This was his intro into the CSN cover 49 “Bye Byes,” which the band did not fluff up. By the time set break came, I was completely sold on T.A.B. I roamed the theater glowing and had great conversations with strangers. I couldn’t wait to jump back in.
In what was perhaps one of the most energy filled moments of the evening as the second set was getting under way, Trey filled the room with “The Song,” a cut off Paper Wheels. The interplay of Trey’s light riffing and Ray Paczkowski’s organ was perfect, paired with a powerful and irresistible chorus. It would seem that many of the cuts off the imminent release reflect a new plateau reached by Anastasio and his writing partner on “The Song,” Steve Pollak, aka The Dude of Life. “Cartwheels,” another Paper Wheels composition penned with Pollak which did not make it to the set that night, is pure gold—bittersweet, melodic and heartfelt. Paper Wheels promises to be a
transformational record for Anastasio, who never seems to stop moving in new directions. If “in the end, all that’s left is the song,” he will leave behind a very rich legacy, indeed.
The second set followed suit with Trey’s business model of incredible dynamics; the balance of sweet and grimy, dark and light. During “Flying Machines,” saxophonist James Casey’s tone and nuance brought the song to inconceivable places. Dropping into “Sand “after this nearly burst the envelope, another Phish monster fueled by a classic Anastasio riff that begs for the boogie. Dancing at a Trey Anastasio performance may not be compulsory, but it should be.
Covers of the Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood” and disco classic “MacArthur Park” would have the crowd in Friday night dance party mode, countered by “Lever Boy,” off of T.A.B.’s imminent release Paper Wheels, a moody dynamic rocker that moved between dark and airy places, replete with arena rock grandeur and Zappa-like feats and narratives. The show ended with another Phish regular for an encore, “First Tube,” an instrumental assault that builds with such ferocious energy, it was impossible to resist. This song, heavy in my treadmill rotation, is Trey’s “Eye of the Tiger.” On this night, they slay it, and he ended the show in full Jedi mode, guitar hoisted high above his head, arms fully stretched towards the stars, his shining brethren.
I was forewarned that seeing Trey with his fantastic band was going to be an absolute treat, and it was. It was like seeing a band for the first time that you saw hundreds of times before, sort of. T.A.B. perfectly balances the polish and the rough edge. Ray Paczkowski’s exquisite keyboard work was masterful and subtle, while the immensely talented Jennifer Hartswick (trumpet, vocals) and Natalie Cressman (trombone, vocals) filled the sound with sass, bigness and melody.
Like the luminous giant stars known as Red Giants, the ginger-maned Anastasio is in a later phase of his stellar evolution, his radiance pronounced and mesmerizing. And though he continues to evolve as an artist, his craft is so well-honed; it is a marvel to experience. To witness him at such heights and share in the glory of his personal achievement, all belied by such poise and humble grace is a privilege. Trey’s bigness, his continuous output and staunch relevance, propelled by his sobriety and seemingly endless supply of creative energy is beyond commendable. A soft-spoken and congenial rock star if ever there was one, it is easy to love this man who has confronted his demons and triumphed with unparalleled class.
Like the man in Marley’s “Soul Rebel,” Trey too is a rebel and a capturer. He rebels effortlessly against the stereotype of an American rock star. This man, who less than a decade ago was nearly lost to addiction, has become the antithesis to the too-soon departed rock stars of yore, by beating addiction and recapturing his vitality, his life and his career. He has done so much for so many of us, and for this, we are eternally thankful to be watching him shine.