And the cries rang out: “MORE JAMS!” Not just on Phish tour any more; now Trey Anastasio’s solo project elicits the same pleas from his legions of fans. So when he started trotting out an hour of solo acoustic, mostly Phish tunes for the first set of his 2011 tour, many fans called it a snoozefest. Most might’ve been satiated if only the electric, full-band portion of the show featured more lengthy excursions à la TAB tours of old, when a 45-minute “Night Speaks To A Woman” was always on the table. Silly me, I left my stopwatch in my other pants and managed to have a fantastic time at The Riv Sunday night, despite the suffocating heat in the balcony.
The impetus behind the acoustic set became clear very quickly: Trey just wants us to sing his songs to him. It’s tougher to hear the audience from the stage with all those electric instruments blaring out of the monitors, after all. Sure, tunes like “Theme From The Bottom” and “Kill Devil Falls” make no sense on acoustic guitar, particularly because Trey didn’t seem to have a firm handle on how to finish them by himself anyway. He just wants to see what the audience does. He’s hoping we’ll burst into spontaneous balanced harmony on “Halley’s Comet” and whistle in unison on “Dirt”, but of course, everybody pretty much belts out the main melody, on pitch to varying degrees. Sunday’s set featured none of the really left-field choices from earlier in the tour; so be it. But “The Wedge” was pretty cool.
When the ladies (Jennifer Hartswick and Natalie “Chainsaw” Cressman) came out to help Trey on vocals, the show immediately picked up momentum. This was the most beautiful “Let Me Lie” I’ve ever heard. The full band emerged for “Heavy Things”, drummer Russ Lawton wielding brushes to keep the acoustic motif going, and then “Liquid Time”. The elusive, Dire Straits-esque piece is one that Phishheads are dying to hear Trey’s main band play in all its glory, but this acoustic arrangement seemed very natural for the essence of the tune. Red picked up his electric for one jam to end the set, “Push On ‘Til The Day”, and we were blasted with over-cranked volume. Based purely on the kinetic energy bombarding us from the stage, this version smoked.
The sound slowly improved beginning with the second set (but never came anywhere near perfection); you could barely hear Ray Paczkowski’s organ at first, but thankfully Trey attacked “Gotta Jibboo” mercilessly, announcing to the room that this was his band, his show. Bolstered by a rock solid rhythm section, nimble horns and a showcase keyboardist in his own right, the band lives and dies by the guitar, and tonight it lived.
There was nothing so unusual that it could go down as legendary, just razor-sharp playing by Trey all night. Stylistically, he conjured up memories of the winter ’06 tour and maybe even the best nights of 70 Volt Parade, raunchy and guttural and moody. In between jams, we were treated to the full crazy quilt of covers TAB is whipping out these days, from the acoustic rendering of Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” to Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood” and Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” in the electric set. Even Bob Marley’s “Small Axe”, a TAB staple, made an appearance, and they encored with “Sultans Of Swing”. Hey, there was even a Phish cover: “Ocelot”, far more interesting with horns and Trey’s bluesy shredding than any Phish version.
Other highlights came unexpectedly with a new speedy arrangement of “Burlap Sack & Pumps”, forceful and urgent but still full of swing, and “Ether Sunday”, which seemed to have a more punchy dynamic, although it could be just that I hadn’t heard it in many years. The best all-out jam came in “Money, Love & Change”; no surprise there, although “Night Speaks” may have left a bit to be desired. “First Tube” raged to close the set, kinda short but the pre-jam stabs of intensity are so much more frightening with the horns, and even though the jam was more happy than harrowing, the release was felt by all.
The improv is more contained this year than on Trey’s 2010 tour, but not by a lot. Jen has improved significantly on vocals (even her rapping was not terrible, from what I could make out), and the horn section as a whole has gotten more precise. But it’s basically that same giddy, smiling guitar player up there enjoying life and rockin’ out, a methadone fix to stave off withdrawal until summer tour.