Trey Anastasio and Classic TAB, Palace Theatre, Albany, NY- 10/18
The return of the classic Trey Anastasio band lineup on a brief tour amidst the announcement afterglow of the first Phish shows in nearly five years appeared anticlimactic. Almost like he was circumventing that inevitable feeling, the Phish frontman chose to focus his solo shows on upbeat material that emphasized the thrill of the live experience itself, rather than any explicit exploratory improvisation. This wasn't a bad thing after all, as Anastasio had not toured since December 2006, and the sobriety attained during that hiatus appears to have sharpened his guitar chops, focused his mind, and reignited the simple thrill of playing music. Yes, the overriding gigantic conceptual continuity that pulls the thread through his career a la his influential hero, Frank Zappa, isn't quite back yet, but darned if he isn't having fun in the meantime.
TAB features the return of Tony Markellis on bass, Russ Lawton on drums and Ray Paczkowski on keyboards, and along with Anastasio, they form a tight quartet that can trade solos, off-the-cuff ideas, and restrained noodlery with telepathic panache. The absence of horns, which later augmented this "Classic" lineup in the early 00’s, and backup singers, specifically Jennifer Hartswick, the dynamic horn player and Trey foil, also meant that elements were missing, but again that wasn’t really the point of a return to the stage for this lineup, anyway. Instead, Anastasio chose three old friends to shake the dust from his solo canon while pointing the spotlight directly on the excellent material created by this original lineup, a few choice Phish songs, and a new song or three.
"Sand" began the first set in Albany, and immediately placed the band in a loose, funky groove that arced up ever so slightly before returning back to earth. The piece was a nod to those early Trey solo shows in 1999, and while one wasn’t transported to another time, the journey wasn’t exactly unpleasant either. "Drifting" followed and continued down the path of cautious exploration without too much self-indulgent sonic trajectories while a new song, "Peggy," served as a welcome nod to the fact that while Trey may not be active on stage, or a studio, he certainly seems to always work on his craft, nonetheless. Anastasio wrote this number with lyricists Tom Marshall and Scott Herman, and the piece features a more mature outlook with a warm, playful hook and delivery.
Post-"Peggy," Anastasio took the opportunity to thank the upstate New York people. The guitarist said that when he arrived in the area-specifically nearby Saratoga Springs-he knew no one, and soon had around 100 friends who were most gracious and helpful. This was his first show back in this area post-rehab, and he was also grateful to see so many of those new friends here at the show in Albany. As these things bound to happen, as well, old friends were also in the stately venue where Phish played in the early 90s, and later during Trey solo runs. Marshall and Herman were in seats on the main floor, as were numerous other Phish friends and employees, including tape archivist Kevin Shapiro, along with the usual squadron of Phish fans-young, old, and Wook.
Anastasio warmly informed the crowd that "any new songs you hear tonight, or with that other band, you damn well better know they were written in your backyard." Two more Classic TAB-era songs followed Anastasio’s rehab homecoming speech-"Cayman Review" and "Burlap Sack and Pumps"-and the latter served as the exhilarating peak of the set with each member getting a chance to render their unique chops within the TAB frame.
Then came the moment when the tentative nature of the set, and the fun-of-it-all morphed it something much more substantial. "Push on ‘Til the Day" featured Trey as a raging guitar hero in quick-fingered gunslinger mode, willing to pull TAB towards the outer regions of the jam until the band and audience were completely joined together as one unified body. If it momentarily felt like old times, it should be noted that Anastasio also recognized that spirit as suddenly he bounced up and down for the first time in the show, peeling chords carefully from his guitar until he just let loose, and the band was right there with him-note for note. THAT moment of exuberant epiphany more than anything else in the evening served as a possible prelude for Phish to come.
The second set began with two of the aforementioned new songs created in the large backyard which extended from Albany to Saratoga Springs-"Valentine" and "Alaska"-and are pleasant reminders of Anastasio’s ability to match wit with melody. "Simple Twist Up Dave" followed and featured the underrated yet always stellar work of Ray Paczkowski as he wove his own tapestry atop the funky and taut rhythmic beast.
"Let Me Lie" contained prophetic autobiographical references that seemed to speak to the upstate New York experience, although it was written before the incident of late 2006, which prompted his move to the area. "Gotta Jibbo" had been raved about after earlier shows on this eight-date Northern Exposure tour through the northeast region, and it didn’t disappoint in Albany. Paczkowski, again, took the song apart and shifted gears numerous times, while his band mates played with improvisatory confidence, following Anastasio’s lead, but not afraid to pitch ideas into the mix.
"The Way I Feel" closed the electric portion of the set with a very slow, jazzy, and decidedly cool tempo, which again featured the subtle dynamics of the entire quartet. One was left feeling that Classic TAB was not just a smart choice for Anastasio’s return to multiple tour dates, but the continuation of a long-delayed conversation. Albany served as another relaxing home for that musical talk, and worked more than it failed.
Anastasio brought out his acoustic-and, also, considering the presence of two of his more prolific songwriting partners, Tom Marshall and Scott Herman-gave the crowd four classic songs from that "other band," which taken as a whole served as a warm statement of purpose that, in the end, the songs he has written with others here, there, and everywhere still sound relevant in late 2008 despite an economic meltdown, and other near-apocalyptic happenings which normally suck the joy right out of life. Not tonight.
"Brian and Robert" was always a pleasant set changeup amidst the madness that was a Phish show, and the closing trio of "Back on the Train>Farmhouse," and "Bathtub Gin," had the entire theatre singing along, and reveling in the moment. There seemed to be a sort of shared knowledge that "hey, man, it’s great to have a chance to see Phish in 2009, but it’s cool just to have this cat back again in any form."
And that was the feeling I thought I had forgotten as I left the theatre with famous, infamous, new and old Trey and Phish fans, scrubbed and unwashed, heady and uberhetty after the closing chords of a powerful "Bug" swooped down from the ceiling, through the crowd, and back up on stage to finish the music for the evening-man, it was great to hear these songs again, and some new tunes after what appeared to be five years, instead of two, but the nagging thought returned soon enough in this long series of thoughts: "Yes, but will it be even better to hear how the "other band" takes this lost and forgotten energy and transforms it into something special and fresh for the future? Can IT happen, again?" Well, Albany served warning that Anastasio is on the road to finding out.