Trey Anastasio, XM Satellite Radio Studios, Washington D.C. 3/7
“It’s gone downhill really fast,” chuckled Trey Anastasio when discussing the comparison between the thousands who were given a multi-tiered Phish backstage pass to his new freedom as a scaled-back solo artist. Perhaps, that isn’t such a bad thing. The former Phish front man (how long will one have to write “former” for criminy sakes?) played a gig for 40 at the XM Satellite radio studios in Washington D.C. The venue was so far removed from the muddy fields of New York, Maine and Vermont that one was hard pressed to find a similarity towards Treythe Jam King and Treythe Acoustic Troubadour. The irony is that so many people are consumed with Anastasio as Theoretical Scene Figurehead that the politician down the street that temporarily runs the nation seems like a shadow puppet in contrastand deservedly so. One delivers relief while the other produces tension.
He played seven songs, one fresh numbera new blend of only a week’s vintageand sprinkled a couple of Phish tunes into the mix for the loyalists and skeptics along the Divided Opinion Highway. And that’s the key word for the dayloyalty. I wondered how loyal a solo acoustic Anastasio is being to his new muse of choice and he delivered an answer. He seemed a wee bit nervous at the outset of the performance which was monitored by XM’s George Taylor Morris, who was very happy to have Anastasio on XM but seemed ill at ease discussing Anastasio’s legendary but tumultuous career. Sometimes, I didn’t know if Anastasio was tentative about the somber studio environment or off put by Morris’s demeanor. However, I may be projecting a headier-than-thou vibe that is besmirched by my own snooty preconceptions. Know thyself, dig.
The short gig was warm, intimate, solid and memorable because Anastasio poured his soul into the songs which seemed to ache with heartfelt loss intertwined with sincere hopes for a bright future for his legions of fans and his own current predicament. Was he loyal to his muse? Quite frankly, YES. Anastasio eventually remembered his infectious sense of humor and dove through a dark, transitional aura that offered strong melodic songs mixed with deeply reflective post-Phish ruminations. He also answered questionsboth personal and professionalfrom Morris and the attentive audience which revealed his struggle with the dissolution of the 21 year security blanket, Phish. Not that there weren’t those in the audience going through the same confusion. The band breakup dramarama has been well documentedincluding extensively by this writer in 2005and, in the end, time can be the only guaranteed ingredient in any known cure.
Musical laundry list“Sweet Dreams Melinda” kicked off things in grand fashion after an awkward exchange between Morris and Anastasio.
“Shine sounds like it must have taken a great weight off of your shoulders after Phish,” pondered Morris.
“No,” replied Anastasio. “I want to be very careful about that word weight’.”
And off we went into the sometimes shaky balance between inquisitive and probing questions into the Phish breakup and solo Trey playing gentle and peaceful tunes. Essentially, here’s the meatFishman is still his favorite drummer and he talks with him often, as well as with the other members of Phish. They all want to grow and develop as individuals. No reunion is planned right now. All of the festivals went off really well and they get to Coventry and everything goes wrong. It goes to show how spectacularly well everything went, especially Big Cypress: “We never thought that it could possibly rain!” He is going back to material that he has worked on for three years for a future solo releasesome of this work featured former King Crimson bassist, Tony Levin who also played on John Lennon’s solo albums (a fact that greatly impressed Anastasio). He learned more from playing with Herbie Hancock in fifteen minutes than he would with just about anyone else over an entire career. He looks forward to Oysterhead playing at Bonnaroo becausewell.duh, no brainer. The emphasis on singing on Shine was Brendan O’Brien’s idea and he supported the decision with great enthusiasm. His surprisingly modest reply to O’Brien’s suggestion was poignant: “Are you going to fix the vocals in the edit?” “No,” confirmed O’Brien. “They’ll be great.”
He played his favorite acoustic, a Martin, for “Sleep Again,” a song he said was about the hazards of drug usage and a message to fans upset with him. Anastasio was very sad at the conclusion of this bittersweet song and he explained how Shine’s rather direct lyrics can sometimes be very heavy for him. After a brief discussion with Morris about drugs curtailing sleep, the DJ replied: “There’s a pill for no sleep, you know?” That quip got the co-winner of the biggest laugh of the afternoon. “Oh, great,” laughed Anastasio. “That’ll help!” I’m really trying not to be a smart ass about the whole DJ question number but when Morris asked Trey if he got to buy a lot of really nice guitars because wellyou knowhe had the cashI almost fell out of my chair but I restrained myself from laughing and getting kicked out by Brad Sands sitting nearby with an equal look of bemusement on his face during the jovial proceedings. Did this cat not know that Trey pretty much just plays a Paul Languedoc model?! Ahhhh, blimey.we snobby Phish Heads will not go quietly into that good night
“Sweet Peace” was the newborn number that Anastasio debuted which warranted the accurate compliment after its conclusion from Morris: “I’m amazed at how gentle you play and yet your licks are so tasty.” “Thank you,” beamed Anastasio before Morris humbly acknowledged that those in attendance probably had known that for years. As a matter of fact, my two favorite Trey guitar moments are the whispery parts of “Lizards” and “The Curtain (With).” So, yes, we did know but it was good to hear Morris echo that fact about his subtle style. “Lifeboy” and “Shine” followed by request as Morris raved about the positive, upbeat qualities of the new solo albuma fact sometimes overlooked by the latent nitpicker in all of us residing in the sprawling acreage of Phish Nation. Againit was comforting to hear a so-called outsider comment upon Anastasio with a fresh perspective after long months of a sometimes nasty civil war.
“Pebbles and Marbles” and “Tuesday” (it being that day, of course) closed the afternoon gig after more interesting commentary from Anastasio. Morris cracked: “Great lyrics!!” Anastasio responded with the other co-winner of the biggest laugh:
“Thanks.”Dramatic Pause. “I didn’t write it.” More commentary from Anastasio followed“Pebbles,” of course, was written by Tom Marshall for his daughter. Frank Zappa, 2006’s recipient of a Jammy Lifetime Achievement Award was “the only genius walking the earth” during his time on our planet. Anastasio had virtually only listened to Bob Dylan for the past three or four years due to its timeless qualities, especially Desire. Perhaps, most critically, he was not talking with Homer Simpson these days because after a festival that Phish and the hair-deprived slob had shared, Simpson had called Anastasio “a poth-head.”
We walked out of the 23rd Century high tech XM studios with lucky grins and I tucked my notebook into my coat, thanked my host for the invite and walked across the street on my way back to the airport for the five-hour flight back to Arizona.
Loyalty is good; excuses are bad. The gig? Worth the trip. No regrets. Next? Atlanta.