Trey Anastasio, Aladdin Theater, Las Vegas, NV- 10/28
There's always a lot to do in Las Vegas but over Halloween weekend Trey Anastasio kept himself especially busy: a late night show, in addition to a twilight set on the main stage, plus closing Saturday's events as one of Dave Mathews’ friends, as well as joining Widespread Panic for a mind-blowing festival closer. All of this and a new album hit the stores the day after the festival. You could say it was a big weekend for the jam-world's favorite redhead.
“Fuck Trey. He broke up the band.” That’s what I heard more than a few times in and around the festival. Though it's obviously been a hard year for Phish fans and resentments linger, it appears that Mr. Anastasio has landed on his feet. This massive festival combined with the release of Shine felt like a jumping off point for the veteran rocker.
Friday night, even before the first performers would grace the stages of the UNLV Silverbowl for the first annual Vegoose, Trey and his band played a show at the Aladdin Theater inside the Aladdin Hotel in the heart of the strip. The show was scheduled to begin at 11:59 pm, commencing the sleep deprivation that is synonymous with Vegas. The pre-show energy in the sold-out arena was a bit subdued. Certainly many were aware of the contrast between this and the buzz and hype present at any of the dozen Las Vegas Phish shows from the past. However, despite the hype, the last time Trey and the Fab Four came through Sin City, Trey looked challenged, the music was inconsistent at best, and The End was announced less than a month later. So though we all knew this might not be the band and songs for which so many are now jonesing, it marked a new beginning: the first look for many West-coasters at Trey and his new band post-Phish, as well as the auspicious kickoff of a new annual festival.
The eerie pre-show music was a pre-recorded instrumental version of “Guyute.” Trey and the Parade took the stage around 12:30am. Unlike Trey's previous band (The Trey Anastasio Band or TAB) there are no horns and few of the old faces. Ray Paczkowski still lays down his warm and rich texturing on keys, and Jennifer Hartswick remains but now without her horn. Instead she and Christina Durfee sing backup vocals. Tony Hall holds down the basslines, and Skeeto Valdez is the new guy tapping the skins. Harder to get used to is Les Hall who oscillates back and forth between keyboards and guitar.
They kicked things off tentatively with two mellower songs from the new album, “Air Said to Me” and “Sleep Again.” The upbeat “Money Love and Change” took the energy up a big notch. Being the first song played from Trey's self-titled debut album of 2002, it was familiar and welcome. Also, like most songs from that release, it's spirited, funky and upbeat. Though I do like the newer material and think it plays well, most songs from Shine aren't exactly dance party tunes like much of Trey's first release. Instead they have the emotional impact that a lot of the first album lacked, which is fitting since many of these songs were forged from the turmoil that followed the breakup of Phish.
After a few more new songs, “Tuesday” and the haunting and moody “Dark and Down,” we were treated to “Drifting,” one of Trey's sweetest solo tunes. “46 Days” was next, one of the rare Phish tunes being played with full band. This song has always been a barnstormer and lately has been used as a launchpad for some especially exploratory and heavy-duty jamming. This one had heads banging by the end and the first truly enthusiastic response from the crowd. Things were in gear. The opening signature guitar riff of “Night Speaks to a Woman” continued the high. The jams in these two songs were some of the highest and brightest of the night.
Without horns some of the material has had to be reworked; filling much of that space are Hartswick and Durfee's backing vocals. The singers are located near the back, and at times their presence feels minimal, (even leaving the stage for more protracted jams), but they offset the group’s meandering with steady melodic support in the way the horns once did.
There is certainly a lot more guitar to be had in this new arrangement. Instead of rather long horn interludes, there really isn't much soloing other than by Trey. His energies have been redirected away from band-leading and seem fully engaged on his own musical leads. His playing is chunky and strong with frequent blistering crescendos. Throughout the night (and the weekend ), Trey wrapped himself around generous grooves and took the music up to the sorts of peaks that earned Phish their premier jamband reputation. He seemed happy with his new project and the smiles were constant.
The first set ended with the new rocker, “Come as Melody.“ Before the set break, if you can call it that, the band engaged in some goofy antics, each musician carrying around a spotlight, rotating its beam like some mutated human version of a Vegas attraction spotlight.
Set break, or in this case the half hour that separates two electric sets, has been replaced by Trey performing solo acoustic numbers. This is the part of the show when most Phish tunes appear. At the Aladdin we were treated to a powerful and bittersweet “Pebbles and Marbles” and an impromptu “Bug.” The solo acoustic versions of Phish songs work well. This prevents much of the "it's not as good as Phish used to do it" criticism that is inevitable. It also brings out the emotional impact these songs now have in a way that heavy electric versions might not. The acoustic portion of the set was so strong that the mad rush for the bathrooms came at the end of set break instead of the beginning.
The 70 Volt Parade reemerged and launched into “Shine,” the catchy title track of the new album. This is yet another new song that really feels right, even on the first listen. It is on the “poppy” side like some later Phish songs but only because it’s a catchy and not terribly complicated. “Goodbye Head,” one of the more open-ended new jam vehicles, came next. It wasn’t a particularly strong version and was one of the few parts of the show where the band had trouble finding gratifying musical space. The jam seemed to run aground. “Mr. Completely” took over and the energy returned. The set ended with yet another new song, “Low.” The encore was “First Tube,” our second electric Phish tune of the night. This was really an experience as much as an encore, as ridiculous amounts of bubbles poured from the stage, lit by a strobe that lasted the length of the song. All the while Trey and his trademark jumping took the energy up and out. Though there were a few low points in the night, the energy was soaring by the end.
The new band seems to fit Trey well. Though the horns of his previous group were unique and added their own sound, this outfit is smaller and more maneuverable. It rides more like Phish and is heavier on guitar. True, some of this guitar isn’t coming from Trey, and that takes some getting used to. Les Hall, the “other guitarist” and synth player, is obviously talented, but it’s not exactly clear that he is an intrinsic part of this musical stew. He certainly doesn’t add nearly the thick, tasty layers of texturing that Paczkowski adds, and on guitar he’s overshadowed to say the least. He also doesn’t have the stage presence of the rest of the band. He and Trey do get locked in at times but more often it's Tony Hall on Bass who really grooves with Trey. Often Paczkowski joins them for some for some seriously stellar funk. At times these musicians sound as if they’ve been playing together for years.
These same musicians made up the backbone of Dave Mathews and Friends, who performed not only immediately prior to Trey (at the same venue, on a separate ticket) but headlined the main stage at Vegoose on Saturday. Though I missed much of their main stage set, I heard enough to know that the band certainly didn’t hurt from the addition of guitarist Tim Reynolds. Trey also weighed in several times including on Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round in Circles” and on a cover of the funk classic “Tell Me Something Good.” The triple encore even included Phish's “Bathtub Gin.”
Sunday, Trey was on the main stage with his 70 Volt Parade, sandwiched between moe. and Panic. The well-played set was mostly repeats from the Aladdin show but also included new song “Spin” and the Vegas-appropriate “Push On Til The Day.” The only part of the set that really ventured into different terrain was the acoustic “set break.” This time after “Back On The Train” and a poignant “Waste,” Jen Hartswick was called on stage to sing a few duets including “Brian and Robert.” Unfortunately there were sound problems as low-level distortion plagued the mini-set.
Overall the energy level for both the late night and daytime shows was great. Trey looked happy, healthy, and his playing was inspired, especially when compared to his visit a year ago, to the city that appeared to have nearly knocked him off his feet.. By most accounts, all the bands brought their “A game” to Vegoose. Performances, both day and night, showcased the true potential of each band. Trey was no different; he just seemed to have more riding on this weekend. I know some don’t agree with me about his performances or new band. I think it's hard to detach from all the letdown and lingering resentment over the demise of Phish and be fully open to one musician’s attempt to create something new. To me the goal is to experience the music in its own right without expectation or clinging to the past. From this perspective it seems clear Trey Anastasio is still a powerhouse. It will no doubt be a very interesting and rewarding musical journey as we continue down his still fruitful path of creativity and spontaneity.