Trey Anastasio, Warfield Theatre, San Francisco, CA 12/7 & 12/8
Thursday, December 7
All art needs a frame. Otherwisewhat’s that shit on the wall? – Frank Zappa
Bringing “Buried Alive” out of mothballs is quite a way to start an annual Warfield run. Lugging a few of the Great Country Horn players from the East Coast ain’t bad, either. “Night Speaks to a Woman”long, sleek and warmand “Alive Again”followed into deeper jazz ambience with brass, flute and an engaging Anastasio-led improvisational sequence allowing the musicians an early wide berth. Meanwhile, drummer Jeff Sipe and Jennifer Hartswick on trumpet, GC horn vets Russell Remington and Peter Apfelbaum on saxophones plus trombone player Jeff Cressman played sheets of sounds around the middle of the mix without sabotaging the musical flowa delicate balance, indeed.
And that was just the first three songsa mathematically precise template, to be sure. How to make a diamond-shaped set sandwich? Open with a rarely played Phish instrumental, shadowed by two jazz rock explorations, a new Bar 17 song, “What’s Done,” two Shine tunesthe rolling stone, “Tuesday,” the tone poem, “Wherever You Find It”and close with a TAB instrumental, the exclamation point, “Last Tube.”
If the Halloween performance in Austin was the initial harbinger of where this band could head when improvising then, the Warfield run appeared to be the satisfying result. We got a large streamlined serving of TAB circa 2002 with a bit more room for individual jamming. Anastasio seems to have taken 1999, added a dash of 2001-2003, absorbed 2005 and forged a jam-friendly blend with a healthy dose of hook-laden songs. Yes, the behemoth 25-minute jams have vanished but what has replaced these lengthy passages appear to be a bit more group mind architecture instead of the hundred-story monolith built by a lone tension-and-release avatar blueprint.
Three minutes into “Night Speaks,” the band broke down into a watery groove laid down by Ray Paczkowski on organ with Tony Hall on bass configuring a rather jaunty and taut line to bounce upon. Elsewhere, the aforementioned “Alive Again” had a reworked tone and texture that featured a looser feelopaque, the various lines arced admirably when the horns slid underneath the subtle beat. “Last Tube” raced forward with the most sublimely chaotic improvisation of the night ala Austin’s second set. The interlocking passages worked beautifully because the musicians were switching gears, colors and tones without fearing that the bottom was going to fall out of the conversation. No one talked over each other or interrupteda sweet mix of a weird Robert Altman film scored by Frank Zappa without any lyrics getting in the way of the hedonistic juggernaut.
Set II began audaciously enough with a long and groovalicious horn-driven “Sand.” “Shine” came next and its recent rejuvenation as a live beast continued as the jam refused to die, featuring a relaxed and confident horn section building upon some of Anastasio’s old tricks of lifting a riff up, sculpting it in mid-air and representing the lick at a higher tempoa sweet, unexpected passage. “Dark and Down” gave the set a well-timed and self-reflective breather before the strangely dynamic duo of the intricate puzzle box, “Goodbye Head” fed into the hyper speed machinery of “Mr. Completely,” which completely merged into another impressive horn solo sequence before Hall and Sipe kicked the band into a very heavy groove. Anastasio and Paczkowski exchanged some hard funk before the guitarist led the band on a seamless return to the song’s themeattacking its inner core with a full-throttle hard rock tone.
Two new numbers ensued, “Let Me Lie” and “Dragonfly,” that complement a set well but do not contain any substantial jam possibilitiesmore self-contained matters of taste. “Spin”another Shine standout, however, has really blossomed over the last year and served as a textbook example of how to end a hot setthe song spiraled again and again through many different wormholes like its first set brethren, “Last Tube.” However, this time the band appeared to have learned a few lessons from its own performance as each musician took turns slicing-and-mashing the tenacious melodic hook. Again, “Mr. Completely” telegraphed improvisational ideas that would subconsciously appear in “Spin,” almost as if Anastasio was once again practicing some of Zappa’s conceptual continuity ideas on stagea small but lasting impression from my point of view.
The encores were high-energy peaks. “Mozambique” offered another look at the horns tailing a West African rhythm while “Push On Til the Day” lent itself very well to a major surge in concert-ending momentum. Or so one thought. Not to let the evening end after an occasional revisit to the TABs of yesteryear, Trey Anastasio led the entire percussion and brass playing band through the center of the Warfield crowd, out the front door with audience in tow, along Market Street, around the corner and into the back of the theatre to end a fine evening of jam tangents within a framework.
Friday, December 8
Let the Music be your Master. – Robert Plant
Conceptual continuity is alive again, indeedor is the very nature of the definition of continuity’ making the concept’ somehow thematically immortal? Thoughts to ponder as Trey leads the band on a return exodus from the front doors, inside the entrance and back on stage after last night’s post-encore exit with another percussion and brass jam. 15-minute “Stash” with horns triggers a flurry of flopping arms and digits as text messages dart out of the theatre, up to a satellite feed and down to the teeming hordes of a still very much alive PHISH Nation. “Simple Twist Up Dave” featured a wonderful circular riff by Anastasio during the song’s midsection as the band grinded out a silky groovePaczkowski underscored the riff while the horns shot colors over Hall and Sipe in the engine room. The one-two punch of “Stash” and “STUD” managed to top the previous night’s “Buried Alive”/“Night Speaks” tandem by a slight margin as clever setlist placement once again played a substantial role.
“A Case of Ice and Snow”a song I ironically thought he played the night beforemade an appearance as yesterday mixed with tomorrow to create tonight or something time out of mind like that. And similar to the apt placement of “What’s Done” from the previous evening, the song served to melt the fiery euphoria, painting scenario along the roada moody tempo with strong, linear Anastasio guitar leads and no horns. “Sleep Again”one of the best autobiographical pieces on _Shine_followed and served as a succinct introspective and confessional set motif: when it passes, you will breathe again hold onyou will live again. If Trey had a message during this song sequence it appeared that one could survive the darkness, rejuvenated albeit altered in some fundamental way. Paczkowski was especially potent on piano near the coda as an extended solo put an end to the refreshing navel-gazing imagery.
“Money, Love and Change” brought the extroverted party atmosphere back in a very heavy fashion. Anastasio created layers of wah wah and distortion while Paczkowski, again, stood out with some great clavinet funk before a towering passage of TREY as Guitar Hero delivered a definitive set peakALL tension and release, which give the San Fran natives and visiting out-of-town hippies a chance to go a bit jungle boogie apeshit.
“We’re going to play a song that requires five horns and one of them is a flute,” explained Anastasio. “We don’t have our flute tonight so, I’m going to attempt to whistle the flute part.” A lengthy and spectacular “Cincinnati” brought the set to an inspired close with good humor and quirky surrender to the air’ theatrics. In an ambient and brass dominant version, he did, indeed, serve as lead whistler during the intro before all hell broke loose in a quite enjoyable wayAnastasio spun a delay loop passage, took a hard rock solo, peeled off a riff for Paczkowski, Hall and Sipe to follow while the horns soloed; the guitarist sent multiple hand signals to the brass section, guiding the improvisation in a cool Cliff Notes version of the prior evening’s legacy.
Eventually, the entire band was improvising in a tight ball of friction with the rhythm section anchoring the cantankerous beat while Hartswick, Apfelbaum and Remington tossed off several particularly engaging trumpet and sax sequencesTinkers to Evers to Chance and back again and again until the first set party finally ended on a very high guitar, bass and drums note. Somehow, “Cincinnati” easily articulated the eclectic amalgamation of all previous versions of Anastasio’s solo projects, effectively sealing the deal on the conceptual continuity theory I had floating around inside my mind.
“First Tube” opened the second set with the same confident forward abandon that had ended the initial set. This 20-minute version featured Anastasio digital delay loops, escalating riffs, Tony Hall laying down a pretty thick groove while Paczkowski roamed the keys with thoughtful abandon and the horns adding nuanced texture before the song neatly segued into a rocking “Mud City” with solid Paczkowski flourishes and a tight horn section to shake the fog from warped brains. “The Way I Feel” decreased the vibe again with a slow, chunky stroll through a somnambulist’s waking dream, circling back and forth over a gentle themethe song inverted all of the energy being spent to search for new improvisatory terrain; instead, the music appeared to play the band and it offered yet another insightful look into a very good group willing to take creative risks.
And an even more patient and snaky crawl came when Trey took center stage on acoustic and ran through “Inlaw Josie Wales,” “Invisible,” and “Love That Breaks All Lines”perhaps the only bit of 2005 acknowledged on either night and a welcome addition to the set after the proceedings had been on such a major improvisatory roll. None of these laidback songs prepared the crowd for the breakout of “Sultans of Swing” which appeared as a great surprise and almost a death metal stomper after four mellow songs. Anastasio handled the intricate Mark Knopfler phrasings quite wellvocally and musicallyand the set ended dramatically in what appeared to be a short, lazy Sunday afternoon stroll through elegant and serene nodsville.
Alas, tricked again into a quick assessment of a show. Four encoresfive (!) if you count the closing percussion jam, which would make this an official third setfollowed and ran the hard funk energy gamut with a Phish sandwich of Farmhouse’s “Gotta Jibboo,” leading to “Last Tube,” the rollercoaster ride by request from bassist Tony Hall, followed by the seminal Bar 17 title track and a rousing version of Round Room’s hard rock favorite, “46 Days.” Both shows featured as wide a view of the Anastasio realm as one could ask for at this point in historynestled neatly before the five night Northeast run leading up to New Year’s Eve in Atlantic City. What does the new year bring? Hopefully, continuous diversity, focused evolution and challenging multi-night runs like the shows witnessed at the Warfield Theatre in late fall 2006.
- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com.