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Published: 2001/07/30
by Jesse Jarnow

Trey Anastasio Band- PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmdel, NJ 7/29

NYC ROLL-TOP: A Simple Twist

Where, oh, where have the heady kids gone? Whither the nourishers of the
hungry, thirsty freaks, streaming around the lot before a show, looking for
a quesadilla or a Gatorade. Weep for the masses without sustenance, the tour
without bumper stickers or tee-shirts, the cops with no heads to roll.

Yar, on Sunday afternoon, Trey Anastasio's first full-fledged summer tour
without Phish slipped, without fanfare, into the PNC Bank Arts Center,
Phish's long-time Jersey home venue. The lot showed the barest signs of
vending in the few hours proceeding showtime. The serious vending, it seems,
is often done by hardcore tourheads needing to push themselves from venue to
venue. The lack of Shakedown commerce, then, would imply that there aren't
many who have yet committed – in the
Jesus-God-I'm-going-to-travel-the-whipping-byways-of-these-grateful-goddamn-
United-States sense – to the idea of a Trey Anastasio solo tour as a good
thing worth getting behind.

What this reflects, precisely, is open to interpretation, though one
couldn't help but wonder if there was a correlation between that and what
the audience would hear when Anastasio and his seven-piece band took the
stage a little after 8:00. The setlists, tickering off on the 'net as usual,
revealed an almost wholly new repertoire of songs. The covers and oddities
have been paired down. Working with the fresh material – as well as
originals debuted on the two previous Anastasio outings – and not much else,
songs were bound to get repeated from night to night. Regardless of how
often the band played them, though, the question still remained whether or
not they would be able to keep them interesting.

Inside, things reeked of old habit. Paul Languedoc and Chris Kuroda stood by
their respective mixing boards. The tickets still read 7:30 and the show
still went on at 8:05. Anastasio has been talking his new band up in the
press, citing a wide array of theories behind the music (as he is wont to
have). He's done a good job with it, too. It sure had me excited to see the
show, though it was a lot to live up to: the idea of the Trey Anastasio Big
Band replete with horn charts and choreography.

Both set openers – Simple Twist Up Dave and Money, Love, and
Change – came on like The Moma Dance with more balls. Regardless
of musical content, the band had an undeniable force behind it all night
long. Unfortunately, it seemed, the band played its whole hand within the
first 20 minutes of the show, revealing their charms along with their faults
as they would play out over the whole night.

With the covers removed from the set, along with most of the ballads, the
music remained at a constant, relentlessly upbeat tempo for almost the
entire evening. When it changed, it was heartily refreshing to the ears.
That, however, did not happen very often. The band, with the core rhythm
section of Tony Markellis and Russ Lawton on bass and drums, respectively,
grooved deeply through the material. In the past, though, they have had the
luxury of being able to, at least, bring the music down to a quiet level.
Tonight, they didn't. This is probably mostly a product of playing in a
summer shed. While always sounding large, groove can obviously be infinitely
more nuanced in the smaller venues the band has played in the past.

What depth the music had was revealed as the band broke down into various
configurations. Anastasio engaged in several duets with keyboardist Ray
Paczwowski, including a demented break in Last Tube and an extended
section near the end of Money, Love, and Change. The four piece horn
section wandered on and off stage all evening, though they never stayed off
for long enough for the band to really gain any distance. At their most
successful, the horns – as a unit – filled out with dixieland-style
breakdowns. At their least successful, they kept the band at the same level
of unvarying intensity.

With the exception of Push On ‘til The Day Anastasio's songwriting
fell into the same sort of groove exercises that produced First Tube
and Sand. The fact that the band is playing almost all new songs is
an obstacle. Phish had over 10 years to build up their repertoire, to create
songs for certain moods for certain spots in the set. It happened gradually.
Anastasio's recent songs have all worked on similar principles — which is
fine so far as his evolution as a musician goes, but not as great when the
songs make up the whole show.

The setlists on the band's spring outing were much more effective in keeping
the show varied so far as keeping a mix of acoustic and electric, original
and cover material. The only real variations seemed to come with a
middle-eastern sounding song midway through the second set, and a gorgeous
horn/acoustic guitar instrumental that led off the encore. Each of these
sounded sweet and lovely.

Despite the grooving simplicity of the jams, there was something about the
music that made it hard to connect with. Phish were abstract, jerky, and
weird, but surrendering to the music never seemed to be an issue — though
that could've just been a case of over-familiarity. Though it could've been
a result of the small repertoire, the excitement of the unknown seemed
absent from the music. If the unknown ain't there, then there's nothing to
fear. And if there's nothing to fear, then why bother?

To continue the comparison to Phish that most (not in the last Anastasio)
probably don't want to hear: there was a quality to Phish shows that what
they were presenting was larger than their means. Perhaps it had to do with
the physically overflowing crowds, perhaps it had to do with the sense of
history attached to specific venues or specific songs, but the feeling that
the band was playing the venue out of a sighing practicality always
prevailed. At its best, the music seemed to suggest that the physicality of
its situation was a nothing but a mere inconvenience; like watching a film
on television. It yearned for a more accurate kind of presentation. The
music tonight fit perfectly within the confines of an amphitheater, for
better or for worse.

In the "for better" column, the music was mostly quite fun, if overly
innocuous. Throughout the evening, in songs like Mozambique and the
encore closing Push On ‘til The Day, the group fell into dance
routines – somewhere across between the geeky shuffles of Phish's two-steps
and David Byrne's spastic routines in "Stop Making Sense" – with Anastasio
leading the way on a wireless guitar. It didn't quite feel like a nostalgia
act, but it didn't feel like anything radically new either.

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