As the lights went down, the sold-out audience rose to a standing ovation for Trey Anastasio. Dressed all in black, the Phish singer/guitarist took a seat under a lone spotlight, strummed his plugged-in acoustic, and paused. “I just want to listen to the air,” Anastasio said, marveling at the fidelity of the immaculate concert hall.
With that, he confessed a change on his intended opening to something quiet, and proceeded to fingerpick gently a tender “Secret Smile.” Satisfied, Anastasio moved next to a tour debut, tapping his foot intently in time on the groovy “Set Your Soul Free” as a lone balloon floated up and was batted around the first few rows of the solemn venue. What started as an evening of respectful restraint quickly became punctuated with the frolicking fun of a Phish show.
Anastasio, too, indulged in the amusement, sharing several fond memories that kept Los Angeles at the center of the plot. Whether recalling his hilariously awkward encounter with Paris Hilton, his disdain for the Hoist album cover, or learning the fundamentals of funk from Rose Stone for the recording of “Wolfman’s Brother,” his memories of the City of Angels were each resolved with self-effacing laughter.
The music alternated between classic Phish album tracks, more recent loose-limbed rockers, and sedate interludes. Anastasio said he’d take requests- an offer he maybe regretted after the shouts for songs became increasingly more aggressive and spread out- and true to his word, played “Free.” At one point, hearing the audience’s desires, he quipped, “You guys want to see me struggle.”
His comment raised, unintentionally, a conclusive thought: Anastasio simply on acoustic, or with one or two effects pedals, never struggled. To the contrary, he is as moving and masterful a guitarist in this setting, maybe in some ways even more so, than with his Phish mates. The supporting examples flowed throughout the two-hour appearance: The cascades of “The Inlaw Josie Wales” set beautifully by revolving spots of light; the loving touches of “Summer of ’89” and “If I Could,” sung to a nearly silent, enraptured crowd; the rhythmic call-and-response of “Limb by Limb,” and rallying cry of “Prince Caspian,” as inclusive and stirring here as they are in a stadium with tens of thousands.
In the final turn to the finish line, Anastasio played the tricky “Bathtub Gin,” allowing the audience to sing him offstage with the tune’s looping instrumental melody. The singing continued, long enough to woo him back out and louder as he returned for a three-song encore. The last trio’s highlight was the middle entry, “Say it to Me S.A.N.T.O.S.,” the newest song of the set, debuted as a Kasvot Växt number in Las Vegas on Halloween, that drew immediate shouts and applause of recognition. After 35 years, it’s a telling, optimistic sign for Anastasio, and Phish, that the new material is so well-received. And, that his repertoire is as entertaining in this hallowed hall as in a Sin City arena.