Trey Anastasio, Trey Anastasio and Phil LeshOrleans Arena, Las Vegas, NV (10/27), Vegoose (10/29); Stubbs BBQ, Austin, TX (10/31)
Those golden times remembered
On highways disappearingand the past is receding – In Spirals, Trey Anastasio
Of the two new Trey Anastasio releases, I prefer the gentle dark strands of 18 Steps. The songs are full of melancholic remorse and serve as a long lost cousin to some of the work that appeared on Phish’s Billy Breathes and their frontman’s eponymous 2002 release. There is a sense of damaged intimacy lurking under the deep surface of the grooves on the nine-track release, 18 Steps. In the days of LP lore, it would be considered an official 40-minute bit of mellow mood magic. Alas, such is the current nature of Anastasio’s need to continue evolving and absorbing new colors into his creative process, that 18 Steps is a mere bonus disc when one buys Bar 17 online. Hmmmtime for the man to get his confidence and groove back. It was with that introspective thought that I headed north from Phoenix for the second annual Vegoose Festival. My Michael Palinesque journey would end in Austin, Texas and the road trip helped me refocus my muse after a few months at home tending to the needs of [cue theme song] my three sons. Ironically, Anastasio has also spent this year retooling his approach while moving ever onwards.
Orleans Arena – Las Vegas NV 10/27
What’s Done and What’s Left to Be Done
The first sign that things would be on the up-and-up at the late night gig preceding the Vegoose Festival was that I saw David Steinberg aka zzyzx, legendary Phish timer and Jambands.com columnist in the Will Call line. I approached and shared greetings while marveling at his white T-shirt. The artwork on the front was his mathematical formula that graced the 18 Steps CD cover. “NICE shirt, David,” I quipped. “Look at the back,” responded Steinberg with a mischievous spark in his eyes. The back read: “Who’s Trey? I bought this for the math.”
A very 2006ish heavy metal Anastasio version of “Simple Twist Up Dave” (or appropriately enough, “STUD”) opened yet another Vegas run with all of its historical baggage for the man who would be jam king. The thought of pending doom was quickly jettisoned as his current version of post-70 Volt Parade or TAB is streamlined, tight and improvisational. In 2005, the agenda was the rejuvenation of Trey as a guitar hero who could write hook-laden songs; however, Trey led most if not all of the soloing and this was sometimes transcendent and occasionally much too rigid for his players to fly. By the end of the year, the band was focused and playing some of their best music but as January arrived, things appeared a little unsettled after such a heavy transitional period. Not one to take his lumps in the privacy of his abode, Anastasio put aside the questions and tackled several projects while continuing to explore that elusive, new sound.
In late 2006, the entire band has opened up, offering ideas and refreshing tangents, especially bassist Tony Halla willing partner in the proverbial jam zone. The addition of ARU-alumni, Jeff Sipe on drums to replace an ailing Raymond Weber has also helped. Weber was an extremely energetic replacement for the departing Skeeto Valdez but Sipe brings an even more vigorous approach as he serves as an adequate anchor while Anastasio, Hall and longtime TAB keyboardist Ray Paczkowski climb another jam peak.
“Simple Twist Up Dave” was an early highlight of the Halloween Run as its recent transformation into a hard rock beast is well chosen. Another high energy song followedthe ubiquitous “First Tube”which seemed to slam home the theme for the evening: fast, loud and euphoric. Not leaving even a moment for a letdown, Anastasio brought out Robert Randolph, the evening’s opening act. He proceeded to smash into a current TAB blast from the past, “Stone Free.” The smoking version featured Randolph on his pedal steel chasing Hendrix’s ghost around the block numerous times with the Phish guitarist until the wonderful mayhem neatly melted into Round Room’s “46 Days.” [Author’s Note: Yes, I said “the Phish guitarist” in the present tense because a) at Jambands.com we pride ourselves on being the source for The Latest, b) I dig solo Trey so I can pine for the days of future past when one can ride the back of McGrupp’s sweet melody and c) I’m awfully tired of seeing the word “defunct”sounds like a disco term.]
If “Simple Twist Up Dave” was the Download Shit then, “46 Days” was its close cousin. Jason Crosby from Randolph’s band sat in on violin and provided a new texture to the song’s open-ended jam middle section while Randolph and Anastasio rode an intense and choppy wave of dynamic interplay. As if to finally tone things down a bit, the soft, hypnotic groove of “Sweet Dreams Melinda” followed after the Randolph duo left the stage to cheers and grins. “Push on Til the Day” was a real eye opener as Jen Hartswick played a formidable trumpet solo that arced over the sound of a very fast tempo while the whole band took turns during various modulated soloingarguably, this song featured the most unpredictable and challenging work by the sextet (including admirable work by backing vocalist and keyboardist, Christina Durfee).
“What’s Done” off one of the two new releases, Bar 17, features more of Anastasio’s cryptic yet pointed references to a life in transition, while its companion, “Goodbye Head” is a welcome nod to the convoluted, multi-section stylings of his early Phish work. Both appeared as diametrically opposing POVs in a concentrated set of focused force. “Plasma” seamlessly segued from the ether and also served as an accurate audio portrait of TAB, circa 2006 as the elasticity of the band navigating its terrain spoke volumes. “Gotta Jibbo” closed the set with a concentrated hard rock jam at the coda sandwiching with the opening “Simple Twist Up Dave” to form a heavy metal thunder framework. Finally, the always charging thrust of “Mr. Completely” slammed the encore home before “Tuesday” sealed the deal with the band ending on another high energy peak.
Orleans Arena – Las Vegas NV 10/29
Letter to Jimmy Page Reprise
Daylight’s saving time took place on this eve/early morning as Trey Anastasio teamed with Phil Lesh on bass on vocals, Larry Campbell on guitars and mandolin, John Molo on skins, and John Medeski on keyboards to form the festival’s biggest jam supergroup. And two days after Lesh had announced his bout with prostrate cancer and his pending December surgery, the GD ageless giant came out on stage with his bag of shit-eating grins, fills, bombs and svengaliesque ingenious ability to lead his talented charges as they segue from one extreme moment to a completely different sonic palette.
Both sets were miraculously done with nary a moment’s respite as the band chugged, stumbled and, also, quite clearly played some of Vegas’s best improvisatory music. Anastasio was in a very high gear as he abandoned some of his prior restraint with the PL&F outfit and chose to soar on virtually every song producing some exhilarating sequences that provoked Lesh to continually change his “merge with this freeway off ramp” line of thinking. I was in the Phil Zone, as it were, and I took enormous pleasure out of the interplay between Anastasio, Lesh and Campbell as Molo meticulously weaved and hammered in the engine room while Medeski played some purely ecstatic runs on keys. Anastasio was consistently urging Medeski to turn yet another strange corner of sound and for the most part this dialogue amongst old friends worked very well.
The setlist for the four-hour, two set affair doesn’t lie. It was a crazy mixture of primal Dead, solo Trey, beautiful Garcia balladry and a “Ghost>Cryptical Envelopment>Other Ones” opener that had collective jaws scraping the Orleans floor. Great gobs of missed lyrics and cues, shameless wanking and monster chord changes were hurled around the arena but, in the end, that’s the eternal hook: it was a late night rock n’ roll party in VEGAS, BABY! and the train moved so bloody fast down the infinite track from one bit of glorious without-a-net madness to another, featuring comically in-and-out of kilter “Dark Star” segues and “46 Days/Plasma” hard rock funk fests that everyone had that dazed and satisfied look of “WOWthat was fucking sick.” The eye popping encore choice weirdnesscourtesy of Leshalso achieved orbit: “Viola Lee Blues>Here Comes Sunshine>Shine” was just exactly perfect for the balance of toxic power.
Stubbs BBQ, Austin, TX 10/31
Along with the potato, Guinness and Bono, the Irish eventually brought over their silly Halloween festivities to America
Hey, I’m Irish so I can bag on my peeps. Enough about my heritage. Halloween is longtime Phish and Trey Anastasio road manager, Brad Sand’s birthday and whereas, in the past, Anastasio and his band members donned some fairly legendary musical costumes from the Beatles to Velvet Underground, tonight was all about the crazy ass non-stop improv. Wait. Wasn’t that the Lesh gig on 10/29? Another one? Yes and Yes.
After two late gigs of various peaks and valleys with a cumulative positive afterglow, I journeyed to Austin, Texas to catch Trey’s Halloween gig. Austin is refreshingly alternative, trendy and filled with folks that are what the prehistoric hipsters once called “good people.” Stubbs is an outdooruhamphitheatre/restaurant/bar/dirt field/old school Trey locale/intimate and relaxing joint after two nights in a 10,000 seat arena. If 10/27 was about the new and improved TAB playing its way through the changes, and 10/29 as the dream supergroup with a fantastic setlist played in a challenging and eccentric whimsy-o-thon, then Halloween was all about the alleged long lost sense of humorous fun that were always a part of classic Phish i.e. the totally whacked out “dance contest” Nectar’s gig – 6/19/88 featuring the fifth runnerup known as “Fish and his date.”
The first set at Stubbs was fairly standard and typical of late model TAB with a nice, round selection including melodic melancholy on “Dark and Down” and a surprising “Heavy Things,” torrid jam rawk on “First Tube” and “Simple Twist Up Dave,” and a barrelhouse version of “Money Love and Change” which rattled the dust off my shoes. During intermission, a clothing/foot apparel alteration of a different fabric commenced. Ye olde costume contest began and a cat dressed as Fishman in his infamous dress won.
The second was not standard unless, of course, this was Fall 1997 and Phish was making their rounds with four-song skull fuck sets. Instead of brain cell-killing ambient cow funk wormhole via porno ecstasy, this second set delivered a cosmic envelope-pushing sequence (hell, they burned the whole envelope) that serves as one of Anastasio’s most inspired and defiantly improvisational sets of the year, thus far. Russell Remmington, Fernando Castillo, Carlos Sosa and Raul Vallejo sat in on horns on “Mud City” and “Bar City>Mud City” while Tony Hall’s Dumpstaphunk band mate, Ivan Neville played keyboards next to Ray Paczkowski. “Plasma” was sandwiched between the “Mud City” sandwiches and featured Remmington on saxophone while Hartswick was a clear standout with a wonderful trumpet runonto the notebook for my most engaging notes of the satisfying Halloween run:
“No Quarter” solo sequence jam teasesespecially from Trey, intentional or notduring “Plasma”“Mud City” contains fairly loose and intense interplay between Trey, Tony Hall and the hornsback and forth they improvise, forcing the horns into an elastic pattern of point/counterpointbeautiful extended jam out of “Bar 17”’s theme as a staccato jam curls into interstellar spaceTrey and Tony Hall push the rhythm up into the heavy metal zoneharsh, damaging, perfectNeville and Hartswick dovetail through the mix and waltz to their own tune in-and-around the melody (uberjam?)improv instructions from Trey before he and Tony Hall take over Jeff Sipe’s drum kitIvan Neville ends the superjam with an epic funky solo that closes “Mud City.” Clock reads 10:22PM. Curfew is at 10:30. Brad Sands shows Trey his watch downstage right and Trey and the band RUN (!) to their places in the funniest thing I’ve seen at a show in a long, long time. Trey then proceeds to play the fastest version of “Push On Til the Day” ever and Sands, calm and bemused, stands offstage. Treyin a pure bit of classic schtickthen plays the ending at least six or seven times, each with its own Lord of the RingsReturn of the King false ending.
Watershed 2006 show ends. To my knowledge, no fines were levied. Cheers.
Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com. Randy Ray is stored in a hermetically safe environment at Dr. Budnick Sanitarium in an undisclosed location.