Phil Lesh & Friends / GRAB (Gordon, Russo, Anastasio, Benevento), Jones Beach Amphitheater, Wantaugh, NY- 7/7
NYC ROLL-TOP: Phew!
Phew, because the show at Jones Beach, an amphitheater built on a glorified barrier sandbar off of southwestern Long Island, was seven hours long.
Phew, because — y’know, being Phil Lesh and members of Phish and all — you need a pun with a "ph."
Phew, because there are only few of them.
But, mostly, phew because Trey Anastasio finally seems to have found, if not the right track, then at least the middle road.
Assuming Anastasio plans to stick with this latest band — which he should — they’ll need a name. "Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon featuring the Benevento Russo Duo," as they were billed at the sea-swept amphitheater on July 7th, is a little wordy. The various acronyms — GRAB, DMT — are cute, but don’t cut it. And, while the Ambiguously Trey Duo is a wonderful bit of hippie mash-uppery, it’s hard to imagine them willfully putting that on a marquee. So it goes.
By the time the, uh, quartet took the stage for an early evening set, the Duo had already taken a short turn, delivering their fiercely friendly indie-jam to a mostly empty theater. What drummer Joe Russo’s crashing cymbals lost in subtlety to the boomy PA and the pleasant inlet breezes, they gained in surprisingly attractive noise by melding with Marco Benevento’s circuit-bent keyboards. Emphasizing their Play Pause Stop (out this week), the massive drums of "Best Reason To Buy the Sun" led into a perfectly afternoony confection.
Joined by Anastasio and Gordon after a short break, the venue still half-empty, the Duo & co. noodled easily into "Plasma." Working the jazzily elliptic melody, a leftover from Anastasio’s big band, they found a dense space, building the song’s identity as a winner in their decidedly post-Phish repertoire. Abandoning the well-trodden Phish catalogue entirely, the quartet mixed extra-Phish nuggets ("Mr. Completely"), Duo songs ("Something For Rockets"), classic rock covers (Paul McCartney’s "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey"), new Gordon/Anastasio collaborations ("Trouble"), and Anastasio’s earnest dabblings in summer-pop ("Shine"). And while the moments of specific greatness were infrequent, the cocktail was just right.
Highlighted by Gordon’s "Suskind Hotel" (with its distinctly knotted riffing) and a long "Mr. Completely" (Anastasio and Russo trading machine gun rolls), the band even made Anastasio’s poppiest songs palatable. Much of the new material, including Anastasio’s "Host Across the Potomac," remained raw, though the melodies, changes, and drama will only grow clearer and more precise with repeated airings. As such, it’s nice to see the band in the active process of building a repertoire through repetition, and doing it with such character.
While the Duo’s minimalist "Something For Rockets" didn’t entirely work, it may’ve been the most interesting song played. And if Stealers Wheel’s "Stuck In the Middle" was one cover too many, the multi-sectioned Wings tribute (with Anastasio dusting off his megaphone) suited them perfectly. More than anything, GRAB/DMT/the ATD/Phish 2.0 seems to be the blank slate Anastasio has long craved, enjoying both the continuity of Phish with the obligation to do something new.
In that regard, Phil Lesh’s latest lineup of his long-running Friends band worked in exactly the opposite mode, turning out nothing — save one Ryan Adams tune — but material from the good ol’ Grateful Dead songbook. Playing in the closing slot, the sun finally sunk behind one of the east coast’s most naturally pleasant venues, Lesh wasted little time in launching into the deep fusion of once-and-future Deadmate Bob Weir’s "Playing In the Band." Relegating guitarist Barry Sless to the pedal steel and bringing on post-bop saxophonist Greg Osby, Lesh created a band of six distinct instrumental voices, each breathing comfortably in his own space.
Drummer John Molo, sadly absent during Lesh’s spring outing, held the band together, engaging in multiple conversations. With no one player comping a rhythm, they jammed impressionistically — a squiggle from Osby here, a dabble of color from guitarist Larry Campbell there — and morphed gently into "China Cat Sunflower." Settling into slow-motion, Campbell — Bob Dylan’s longtime multi-instrumentalist — switched to mandolin, and the band modulated surprisingly into Jerry Garcia’s "Ruben and Cherise," slipping easily back into psychedelia afterwards.
Anastasio tag-teamed Sless out for the second set, and Lesh called for the A-list, including a long, somewhat predictable "Scarlet Begonias"/"Fire on the Mountain" opener. Despite the pure meltdown of "Dark Star," Anastasio and Osby trading lines, and Lesh’s hilariously repurposed vocals on "The Other One," the band seemed far wilder during the first set. But I’m not sure about that. Who’s keeping score, anyway? The moonset on the beach later was pink and gorgeous.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com.