There aren’t many easier targets for scorn from music fans than Trey Anastasio. Mention his name or his former band and watch the noses wrinkle. But blaming Anastasio for the legions of hack jambands Phish inspired, the unwashed homeless masses that leeched off his band’s concerts or all those times your older brother forced you to endure his favorite live versions of “David Bowie” and “Stash” is like blaming Kurt Cobain for Bush (the band, not the presidents) or Chuck D. for Flavor of Love.
Obviously improvisational music isn’t everybody’s bag, particularly in the indie scene. But I suspect I wasn’t the only one at Webster Hall on October 8 for whom there are few greater musical rushes than when improvisational music-be it a freestyling emcee, an arty post-rock ensemble, a solo cellist, an acoustic piano trio, or, gasp, a guitarist soloing with a bitching back-up band-is really clicking.
It appears Anastasio has finally found a suitable roster after years of indecision. He’s toured as a power trio, a horn-based octet (later as a dectet), an orchestral album of classical music, the two-guitar sextet 70 Volt Parade, and a summer tour this year with former Phish-mate Mike Gordon and the Benevento/Russo Duo. This lengthy tour-opening performance at Webster Hall found Anastasio in the finest form yet in his solo career, live or in studio.
Backed by functional keyboardist Ray Paczkowski, bassist Tony Hall, equally adept providing the mooring and trading lines with Anastasio, synth-player Christina Durfee and trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick offering backup vocals, the band never flagged or faltered. The inimitable Jeff Sipe on drums separated the band from a competent backup to a dynamic group of the highest order. Though occasionally a bit fill-heavy, Sipe brought the energy that’s been so puzzlingly lacking in Anastasio’s live work as a solo performer.
Perhaps Anastasio was energized by his return to the smaller club setting in which he built his college band into the most fun band in America. Maybe it was playing in his adopted hometown, having relocated from the insulation and adulation of Vermont to the anonymity of the New York City streets. Bright-eyed and enthusiastic, Anastasio led songs like the genre mélange of “Alive Again” into a calypso groove, then a polyrhythmic, multi-layered segment of keys, effected trumpet, guitar and drums, with Hall’s squishy bass as the anchor. And he’s still the best manipulator of onstage loops this side of Andrew Bird, channeling Robert Fripp and Brian Eno in creating a dark pad of eerie, convex loopsmanship at the midpoint of “Plasma.” Once again, he’s using loops to complement the music rather than mask its aimlessness or distract from sloppy playing.
For the last thirty minutes of each ninety-minute set, a tastefully attired string quintet, arranged and conducted by Don Hart, joined the full band for new Anastasio compositions like “Goodbye Head” and the rousing encore “Cincinnati” and the guitarist alone on acoustic for the debut of an orchestral version of Phish nugget “The Divided Sky.” He’s finally figured out how to marry the ballsy rock of his better efforts with his taste for complex instrumental arrangement. Ear candy like the sprightly “Goodbye Head” benefited immensely from the rich instrumental support, and a rip-snorting anthem like “Cincinnati” came as the cherry for those who always wondered what it would sound like for Anastasio to shred over a frantically bowing classical string quintet.
On this night, it quickly became evident that as an artist, Anastasio misses Tom Marshall, his regular songwriting partner and lyricist for Phish, far more than any of his old bandmates. He’s writing all his own lyrics now, and his limitations as a writer are as pronounced as his music compositional skills are seemingly inexhaustible. He’s never tired of writing about the weather, particularly water, wind and the like-mist, snow, liquid, waves. (By my count, ten of twelve songs on Shine, his first album sans Marshall, and eight of eleven songs of the first set maintain these lyrical crutches he’s leaned employed since his Phish days.)
Ultimately, criticizing Anastasio for his lyrics at his concerts is like carping about the quality of lettuce on your Big Mac or the absence of stingrays at a Kansas petting zoo. Lyrics ain’t the draw. Because this tour proves that after a long period of recharging, Anastasio can still shred with the best of them, leading jams into dark places, mellow valley and building solos to head-banging peaks.
Call it nostalgia. Call it cheesy. Call it irrelevant. But one thing Anastasio’s not is hypocritical or pretentious. I can’t think of another musician who takes such visible joy in playing when the music is working. Whether he’s wailing away with floppy-haired head-bobs or divining the proper improvisational channel with slack-jawed concentration, it is undeniably infectious fun watching Trey Anastasio play his guitar. And in a music scene too often obsessed with fashion consciousness over substance, hipper-than-thou cynicism and so many bands that can’t decide where irony stops and sincerity begins, a night with Anastasio was mighty refreshing.
“Goodbye Head” video