Trey Anastasio, Jones Beach Ampitheatre, Wantaugh, NY- 8/6
NYC ROLL-TOP: Night Speaks to Trey Anastasio
Arriving at Trey Anastasio's show at Long Island's Jones Beach Amphitheater was exactly like arriving at a show on, of all places, Long Island: a couple of people tailgating, some light BBQing, cops ticketing folks for drinking, teenagers wandering around excited. Given its location, that shouldn't be too surprising. But what it wasn’t like was arriving at pretty much any summertime show Trey Anastasio has headlined before because there were no Phishheads — or, at least, no obvious signs of Phishhead culture. There was nobody slinging soda, nobody flipping grilled cheese, hawking gooballs, gleefully infringing on corporate copyrights, or selling glass. There were no wookies. It was kinda like a hippie zombie movie, actually.
Inside, the beautifully weather-beaten WPA-era stone columns at either side of the stage were draped with banner ads for NBC, Best Buy, and Tommy Hilfiger, and giant monitors where — if one squinted through the early evening light — he could just make out Warren Haynes, blown up and shredding. With his dinosaur rock stadium aspirants Gov't Mule, the reliable Haynes appropriately covered Wings ("Maybe I'm Amazed") (well, almost Wings), played a buncha blues-rock, and later invited Anastasio onstage for a respectably crisp (if not exactly mindmelting) run-through of Little Milton's "That's What Love Will Make You Do."
With Phish one year gone and Anastasio in the middle of his second tour with his latest outfit, the 70 Volt Parade, he is still attempting to carve out an identity as a solo artist. Like his last solo band, who hit the shed circuit in that first non-Phish summer of 2001, this is a trial by fire for Anastasio and crew — putting them on arena stages with barely a theater tour under their collective belt. Ideally, those attending are doing so not because they expect to hear a particular songbook, but because they want to hear Anastasio play them something new and great and wonderful. Or maybe they just wanna party or are going out of a sense of obligation. Either way, it's an awfully ambiguous pressure to put on a guy, even if Anastasio invites it. At Jones Beach, the amphitheater's upper deck was closed, and empty patches dotted the upper corners of the loge.
The 70 Volt Parade — now featuring a pair of female backing vocalists (the Treyettes?) and fellow Dave Matthews friend Tony Hall on bass — made a case for themselves early on, sliding into "Cayman Review," one of a half-dozen songs from Anastasio's self-titled 2002 disc. Twin keyboardists Les Hall (on piano) and Ray Paczkowski (on organ) traded half-phrases, completing one another's thoughts while Anastasio soloed fluidly on top. It was neat and new. Soon, Anastasio slipped into the new tunes: eight songs created with a mostly new vocabulary that's as plain as can be (and one written in a very familiar language). It is Anastasio's latest experiment in identity, to see what's left of his music after stripping it of much of what once made it unique: odd time signatures, atonality, precise passages, exploratory jams, ambient quiet, and cosmic jokes. In some ways, the smooth 70 Volt Parade is everything that Phish wasn't.
"Air Said To Me" is driving modern rock, while "Dark and Down" is Anastasio's newest take on the idea of breaking free of gravity, a notion he's musically expressed in a number of ways, from the cascading winds of "Esther" to the gentle romantic buoyancy of "If I Could," to the watery abandon of "Free." Here, it is a darker representation, out of control in a way that is something less than ecstatic. "Now I'm falling, then I'm floating," Anastasio sang over a somewhat stiff groove, "no power left to live." "Invisible," too, is a driver, sounding like a number off a latter-day Allman Brothers album. "Shine" is unremarkable Big Rock, while "Spin" features a surprising turn reminiscent of Radiohead's "No Surprises."
"Goodbye Head," however, is a more familiar beast. While its verse section is cut from the same cloth as the rest of the new material, it quickly gives way to the kind of careful, written-out sections that some Phishheads have wanted Anastasio to return to years. Metal-like riff-knots are pulled through by a real sense of melodic momentum before giving way to a shimmering Frippertronic jam that many have likened to Phishhead favorite "Reba." "Goodbye Head" is a strange concession inside Anastasio's reinvention: a sign to Phishheads that the old Anastasio is still in there, a musician at once playful and serious and tasteful who would never, ever — under any circumstances — think of singing a lyric like "shake it up, shake it down, shake that thing all over town." One hopes his new band will play "Goodbye Head" enough to make it worthy of the setpiece it could be.
A three-song acoustic set had Anastasio returning to some Phish numbers, highlighted by a jaunty take on "Get Back on the Train," filled with well-placed harmonics and complex Leo Kottke-like asides. Warren Haynes emerged midway through the second set for "46 Days," a half-written rocker from Phish's Round Room, and "Push on ‘til the Day," a signature song for the Trey Anastasio Band (though they never even hit the hook; Haynes started soloing and drummer Skeeto Valdez slowed the song to a generic blues-rock crawl before the band got to the chorus). Haynes and Anastasio locked horns and traded solos. A set-closing take of Peter Gabriel’s "Sledgehammer" was a pleasant reminder that Anastasio had avoided the bread-and-butter classic rock covers that dotted his sets the last time 70 Volt Parade hit the New York area.
After the show, over growling stomachs decidedly not filled with veggie burritos, Phish fans were left to ponder where the tourheads went. In some ways, Anastasio has perhaps accomplished the impossible. If his goal in breaking up Phish was to escape the overzealous pressure cooker of an expectant fanbase ready to be anywhere he was at the drop of a hat, then Anastasio has inexplicably succeeded by creating music that is almost entirely repellent to the kind of obsessive listening that propels mild-mannered 20somethings onto America's byways. There is nothing to write on shirts, little fodder for inside jokes. The 70 Volt Parade — seemingly session musicians pulled from nowhere — have the opposite of a mythos.
Banality is poor replacement for humor, though thankfully it's not Anastasio's only option. It is, one hopes, a first step. Just as Phish had to go through "Dear Mrs. Reagan" and "Prep School Hippie" and "Lushington" and a half-dozen other unspeakably silly songs before getting to their artistically unique cocktail of quirk and intricacy, perhaps Anastasio will have to go through a wave of irreducible blandness before finding the proper way to express his current notions of restrained beauty. Still, it can be exciting to see a reinvention in process, even if the results are a little stilted, and fans could be in for an exciting (if frustrating) few years if Anastasio continues to churn songs out at this rate.
As the Coen Brothers have long paid homage the old Hollywood studio system in their films while retaining their own voice, Anastasio has referenced suburban pop in his music. And, as the Coens attempted to work within the system with Intolerable Cruelty, Anastasio has finally shed the last shields of irony — and, in a sense, mystery — from his musical skin. The riddle is that there is no riddle. As riddles go, that’s not a bad one. Maybe we’ll find out for sure next time.