They were hard to come by, but if you were able to score a ticket to Trey Anastasio’s intimate show at the Music Box on March 4th, consider yourself lucky. The rare west coast appearance proved to be an ebullient occasion that featured two stellar sets, one (mostly) acoustic, the other electric. Trey himself looked healthy, happy and focused, the darker days now seeming to be behind him, and his band sounded as tight as can be and as vibrant as ever.
It had been five years since Trey and TAB had last played in California, and although Phish has continued to tour constantly since they reunited two years ago, shows on the west coast have been far fewer compared to the east coast. That being said, opportunities to see the beloved icon perform live in this part of the country are much more scarce, but with this Sunset Strip appearance, Trey made good with his time on stage. For close to three hours, the 1,300 fans in attendance would be treated to plenty of material from Trey’s solo efforts and a generous amount of songs from Phish’s vast catalogue, as well as a handful of inspired covers.
The solo acoustic portion of the first set turned out to be all-Phish affair. “Chalk Dust Torture” kicked off the evening as it has so many times before for the Vermont four-piece. “Bathtub Gin” followed, segueing right into a stirring take of “Prince Caspian.” The crowd joined in on the fun and would sing all of these songs with Trey, hollering and hooting the choruses and choice verses. It was songs like these, the ones that lent themselves to audience participation, that were given the hollow-body treatment, and for 45 minutes it was pretty much one big group sing-along.
For the most part jam-free, Trey’s acoustic style was less about the improvisation and placed more emphasis on the song, and in terms of structure, these songs may have been reduced to nothing more than riff, melody and vocals, but they sounded every bit as pretty and/or lively without a band. A song like “Joy” still possessed its soulful sweetness, a song like “Wilson” sounded naked but still had it’s gritty bite. “Cavern,” now transformed into a folk-blues number, was arguably the highlight of this part of the evening, and might have been more powerful in this raw rebirth.
For the last half hour of the first set, the band accompanied Trey, and over the course of four songs, they had transitioned from a semi-acoustic ensemble to the classic TAB sound. For “Heavy Things” and “Liquid Time,” Trey stuck to his wooden six string while the band added rich textures, but then put it aside, slung on his electric axe and launched the dance party with “Gotta Jibboo.” Once the band had eased into a steady groove, Trey transformed into the multidimensional warrior and dropped one of his inspirational solos that had those in attendance shaking down and allowing the music to take them for a ride, including Ben Harper, who could be seen up in the balcony throwing up his arms and letting loose. The band would take it up another notch with the up-tempo “Push On ‘Til The Day” and pretty soon it was raining glow sticks. Judging by the fantastic interplay amongst the band during this four-song preview of what was to come following the intermission, it seemed clear that this was going to be one of the better nights of the tour.
The carnival of euphoria that was whipped up at the end of the first set had returned at the start of the second set with “Caymen Review,” and that energy would carry on until the night was through. One key factor to this spirited sound was the band’s ability to bring their pop sensibilities to life, as heard in songs like “Valentine” and “Shine.” Another essential component was superb musicianship. Every member of this band played in integral role in creating this sound; Drummer Russ Lawton and bassist Tony Markellis proved to be a tight foundation that the other musicians built upon. Keyboardist Ray Paczkowski, weaved dancing melody and color into the fabric of each song. Then there was the horn section, consisting of Jennifer Hartswick (trumpet, vocals), Russell Remington (saxophone, flute) and Natalie Cressman (trombone, vocals). Usually when a band relies on the services of some brass and woodwinds, it’s to add a little bit of grandness to songs that can already stand on their own, but this three-piece was highly involved in the music, whether the band explored the West African rhythms of “Burlap Sacks and Pumps,” the loose funk of “Ocelot” or the reggae ska of “Acting the Devil.”
The Force was strong with Trey, and he lit up the stage like the Jedi that he is. In other words, he ripped. The fluidity in his playing seemed effortless. When it came to improvisation, he would soar over the musical beds laid out for him. In particular, songs like “Money, Love and Change” and “Night Speaks to a Woman” featured his most extensive jams, in which he would close his eyes or stare into space and free the inner rock star. On other songs he would slowly prowl the stage back-and-forth, unleashing wicked momentary compositions in that wonderful tone that has come to be his trademark sound.
The covers of the night all drew from various influences and were given the TAB treatment. The band’s take of Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” dropped the original’s bluegrass fiddle fills and replaced it with their Zappa-like wall of sound, making for some of Trey’s most wonderfully whacky music since he teamed up with Les Claypool and Stewart Copeland for their Oysterhead project. Trey and company would also take on one of the Band’s most beautiful ballads, “It Makes No Difference.” Under most circumstances, a song as lovely as this is best left alone, but they bravely took the risk and as it turned out, it might have been the most moving moment of the evening. The third and final cover was of the Gorillaz’s “Clint Eastwood.” While Trey sang the sleepy chorus and the band locked into the gloomy stomp, Jennifer Hartswick laid down the funky rhymes with her own flow that left the audience floored.
Following the set-closing “Sand”, the band returned for a two-song encore before parting with the enthusiastic audience. “Dragonfly” came first, to the delight of a fan who had been calling out for the song all night, but the real grand finale was “First Tube.” With Russ Lawton and Tony Markellis laying down the groove, Trey creeped in with the song’s meandering note pattern. Moments later, the horn section added blaring radiance, while Ray Paczkowski contributed eerie ambience on keys. The song would continue to build in intensity and then just like a volcano, Trey erupted, spewing sounds of jubilation and wonder underneath a dazzling array of flashing lights. As the song wound down from this climactic coda, Trey repeated actor Charlie Sheen’s million dollar catch phrase; “Winning! Winning! Winning!” He may have been joking around with Sheen’s recent headline-grabbing word play, but to the audience, it was a perfect way to sum up the evening.ACOUSTIC SET:
Chalkdust Torture, Bathtub Gin, Prince Caspian, Theme From the Bottom, Joy, Cavern, Backwards Down the Number Line, Wilson, Heavy Things*, Liquid Time*, Gotta Jibboo*, Push on ‘Til the Day*ELECTRIC SET:
Cayman Review, Burlap Sack and Pumps. Ocelot, Valentine, The Devil Went Down to Georgia, Money Love and Change, It Makes No Difference, Acting the Devil, Night Speaks to a Woman, Clint Eastwood, Shine, SandENCORE:
Dragonfly, First Tube
* with full band