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Published: 2005/12/18
by Randy Ray

Trey Anastasio, Warfield Theatre, San Francisco, CA 12/3

The Dark at the Bottom of the Stairs

Ray: “How did you feel when Big Cypress was over? Did you think it was the end?”

Sands: “You should have seen the stage and backstage area after the show was over. It looked like Vietnam.”

For whatever reason, Trey Anastasio came out on stage with something to prove. He certainly didn’t owe me anything other than a solid set of music and he most certainly didn’t need to prove his artistic chops to the naysayers lingering in the crowd or the net. We were lucky on this Saturday evening. The second of a two-night stand at the legendary Warfield yielded yet another version of 70 Volt Parade that was loose, exploratory and full of a hard rock grandeur that seemed to lift Anastasio off the floor.

12/3/05 would later be offered as a download via the Live Phish series, which seemed a weird vindication for someone like me who had traveled from out of state to see the band in my old hometown. My mom still lives in these parts; my sisters and their families have scattered throughout the West Coast and my dad passed on to a coast of a different dimension last July. Indeed, it is sometimes a bittersweet event to travel back to the Bay Area but it always helps when family, old friends and a great batch of music awaits.

A brief pre-show conversation with Anastasio reminded me that this man is a human being. You can say all you want about someone like him not deserving any compassion due to his fame, fortune and that he Yoko Ono’d his band that everyone loved and let the scene down and he has made numerous contradictory press quotes but, goddamnit, I just don’t want to live in a world where I can judge someone and determine that they don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt once in a while. I saw Anastasio’s band at their birth at the soundcheck at 10,000 Lakes Festival where Tony Hall first struggled and conquered the new material. I saw them again at Red Rocks where they played an inspiring set of music in front of an appreciative crowd. The next time I saw the group was at the Aladdin Theatre at Vegoose and they again surprised me with a harder, more focused sound that had evolved once again as the months had passed.

Did I like the new music? Yes. Why? Because after years of trance-like ambience that had shot me into the ozone layer night after night, I am glad to be back on the ground just witnessing a really good band with a great frontman playing melodic music that keeps me moving all night long with a grin from ear to ear. Do I want Trey to explore the outer galaxies with amazingly inventive improvisatory music again in the future? I really don’t care. I have zero expectations. I trust the man knows himself and what he wants a hell of lot better than I do. My role as a critic is to call them as I see them and this year I saw a man courageously play music that he felt was important to him at this moment in time. Not only that, but Trey Anastasio played the songs with a brutal honesty that sometimes confused his audience but never annoyed or pushed me to turn away from what I was hearing. I don’t know. Maybe, I was just lucky. I saw an incredibly horrible performance at Bonnaroo. Heck, Trey even admitted the show was lackluster in the current issue of Relix. After the big Roo disaster, I saw a man and his band evolve four different times while playing vital and exciting music that I understood and enjoyed.

I don’t think that when I depart I’ll be close to where I start

For whatever reason, Trey Anastasio came out on stage with something to prove. D vu, eh? A tasty little Shine sandwich bolstered the mythical first set of the show as the band tore into the recent leadoff hitter known as “Air Said To Me.” They immediately burst into “Plasma” and the horns came out for the first time in 2005 for me. The recently wedded Jennifer Hartswick was back on trumpet and the always-welcome Russell Remington had returned in a big way on tenor sax and flute. Christina Durfee also played the occasional horn to provide a solid trio of brass. This new mixture of old school TAB and 70 Volt Parade was a very interesting blend of metallic jazz rock.

Anastasio flipped around from time to time to give his hand signals when someone was playing something increasingly interesting and he would even signal for the flute from Remington if he thought the passage needed some woodwinds. If Anastasio was dominating jams at prior gigs, it certainly didn’t seem to be the case at the Warfield. The initial five songs served as a very strong example of how far out the band could stretch with their foundation linked with horns and a frontman willing to play long and exploratory guitar solos once againsort of a bizarre cutup of 1994, 2002 and 2005 for Anastasio and, for the most part, the music cooked. Raymond Weber was just plain mean and nasty and LOUD on drums. This was my first time seeing him with the band and he had a powerful bond with his Dumpstaphunk mate, Tony Hall, on bass guitar. “Last Tube” benefited from this format and the band pushed its turgid riff into elastic space. “Wherever You Find It” brought the section to a close with its fine combo of a great hook and lyrical guitar passage. The band exited; the chair and acoustic guitar appeared.

We [still] love to take a bath!

I love the acoustic section of the 2005 shows. Way back when I was a really wee lad, I saw Robert Plant on his first post-Led Zeppelin solo tour. He absolutely refused to play any songs by the mighty blimp. I admired his willingness to stretch in new melodic directions but I really questioned his motives. Why deny the past to increase focus on the present? Isn’t what you’ve done always a part of what you are? AnywayI dig the solo acoustic work and I especially liked his stripped down version of the opening “Pebbles and Marbles.” The gentle and complex piece keeps its epic luster without losing an ounce of sea legs. “Fast Enough For You” followed and was the second reason why I’ve enjoyed the ’05 gigs. Trey made a reference to a friend down in the front facing stage right and said that this next song was by request and smiled and thanked the friend for coming to the showcasual and loose without a hint of ego or preplanned structure. “Sample in a Jar” was played in a way that made me forget its electric parentwarm and friendly. The big surprise came when “Bathtub Gin” closed the acoustic set and the crowd got a chance to sing along in fine boozy fashion. Nostalgia? Hell, nojust a fine song that I, for one, would love to hear as often as possible at any venue I can travel.

Bringing It All Back to Halloween ’96
And there he wasa surprise guest out of some distant past. Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads came out with a grin and a guitar and the band locked into a killer version of the Modern Lovers’s “Roadrunner.” I couldn’t help but laugh at the development. Over nine years ago, Phish covered Remain In Light by Harrison’s old band, and the sound of that Halloween permanently altered the Vermont muse for the final eight-year ride of the reigning jam kings. With Harrison’s appearance at the Warfield, we seemed to be witnessing a book returning full circle to a defining theme. Perhaps, the final implications of that bewitched night of long ago are finally being put to rest.

Harrison exited after the brain-melting rocker and 70 VP sunk their teeth into the meat of the evening as “Simple Twist Up Dave” exploded into a million different universes that seemed to expand ad infinitum. THIS song was why I got on the plane, bubba. Yesh, indeedy. The entire band wove in and out of this massive jam highlight before pushing the momentum further with a tight and adventurous version of “Gotta Jibbo.” The Farmhouse gem featured the band at their fluid best. “Tuesday” brought the accelerator down a notch but offered a brief breather. An always welcome “Ether Sunday” served as a calming prelude to the monster tandem of “Mr. Completely” with the band at full throttle and a version of “Low” that finally exposed the intricute textures of a number that didn’t always succeed in recent gigs.

The encores arrived and Trey and the band didn’t disappoint. We got the breakout of “Come Together” by the Beatles, which was well played, full of whimsy and served as an appropriate lyrical message to everyone in the house. A rousing version of “I Want To Take You Higher” by Sly & the Family Stone sealed the deal on a great night of music that offered horns, flutes, gunslinger guitar banshery, witty banter, acoustic chestnuts, Jerry Freakin’ Harrison in the House, mind bending jams in “STUD,” “Jibboo” and “Mr. C.” and a crowd-pleasing look back at the days of “Gin” loreI had no regrets after the show, eitherin the end, looking back on 2005, wellas I gaze over my weary timescape and ponder the discussion with Sands and the encounter with Anastasio, I can only hope that they see their progress with wise and tired eyes that refuse to close after a long day of hard workalways searching for that next creative spark around the bend.

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