Trey Does X

Opening Friday night’s show at Xavier University’s Cintas Center with “Push On ’Til The Day,” former Phisherman Trey Anastasio and his band immediately set the standard for the evening with an extended roller coaster jam. Putting a new gypsy spin on “First Tube,” they stirred up dirty Funk and took the tune to new heights. “First Tube” fell into disrepair in Phish’s hands, turned into a tired, same-y instrumental in their later years. But last night it soared to heights that quartet never imagined. And that was just the second tune. I was pretty impressed.

But here we go … Trey always insists on playing at least one or two ballads, and they’re generally sleepy fare. The less said about them the better, and, mercifully, he only made us suffer through one last night (“Drifting”).

“Night Speaks To A Woman” put Anastasio back where he belongs: in the middle of an erratic funky charge, wailing on his guitar. The song stretched beyond several minutes and went through numerous transitions under a fantastic light show. (That was prob’ly long-time Phish light man Chris Kuroda behind the board. Seriously, I guess I recognize his work. It’s good.) “Night Speaks” was the evening’s first epic jam and it was a righteous one. The high point came when Trey and bass player Tony Hall locked into a funky, face-to-face guitar and bass breakdown. The enthusiastic crowd spontaneously clapped out the rhythm, inserting themselves into the jam. By the end of the extended funky duet the crowd was clapping on the first three beats and all shouting “WOO!” on the fourth. It was a totally unplanned, unscripted moment that elicited broad smiles from everyone onstage.

“Shine” is the title cut from Trey’s last CD, a transparent, inexcusable, over-produced piece of crap. (I’m sorry. I only say that ’cuz I truly LOVE the guy.) To these ears, it was a generic Pop song with a sophomoric chorus and a meandering medium-tempo guitar solo at the end. But it brought the college kids to their feet, almost distracting them from their cell phones for a full minute.

Maybe it’s knowing what Trey’s capable of is what makes this shit totally unbearable to me. An artist has an obligation to grow. And Trey’s stuff has evolved over the years, but I fail to hear where it’s grown. GRANTED, there ARE exceptions. He reflexively expounds in several lengthy jams every night, so we know he’s still got it in him. If he wants to throw in a few ballads, he’s earned the right. But it’s boring, vapid stuff and even the most dedicated noodle dancers soon got tired of it.

Trey seems to know what we came for and he closed out the first set with a rollicking, fuck-it-all ROMP through “Mud City” (which sounds to this writer like an ode to Bonnaroo). “Mud City” is full-bore, half-drunk, Slop-Rock like few other tunes in Trey’s catalog, and tonight he pushed its insane jamming beyond the brink.

Before showtime, I saw a number of Norwood cops busting kids left and right in the Cintas Center parking lot. Though I wonder how many open container and public drinking tickets would have been dispensed if this event were held in brought daylight and the kids were all wearing Bengals t-shirts. To be fair — and knowing the crowd Trey draws — some of the citations were probably written for minor drug violations. But during setbreak, when everyone was set loose into the parking lot without venue security bothering to stamp hands or check tickets upon our return, it was a free for all. After hoisting my cell phone flask in the parking lot, I asked the kids standing ’round the car next to mine, “Does anybody want a shot of Beam?” Phishy flashbacks ensued and new friends were made, as the flask and several joints were passed around. It is the kind of impromptu camaraderie one can always expect to stumble on in the parking lot outside a Trey show. Careful eyes scanned the parking lot for cops, but, perhaps having had enough fun for the night, there were none to be found.

Back inside for the second set.

Dusting off another latter-day Phish tune, Trey opened the second half of the show with “Heavy Things.” Another relatively uninteresting Pop ditty, it nonetheless evoked a roar of recognition from a crowd still stumbling back into the venue to find their seats. A seamless segue into “Mr. Completely” ushered in the clear highlight of the evening. Always a platform for extended jamming, Trey draws out the jam for well over 30 minutes. To some readers that may seem ridiculously long, but this epic performance was incredibly gratifying to witness. Leading his band through a series of spontaneous solos, Trey repeatedly turned to face bassist Tony Hall and the two of them would lock into a funky groove, providing solid support for a free-form jam that at times listed about like a ship on dangerously rough seas. Trey pushed the jam and his bandmates through half an hour of innumerable rhythmic variations and unexpected turns. At one point the jam disintegrated into a pounding drone that made the Velvet Underground sound like a pretty little wind-up jewelry box. This segment alone lasted several minutes, and as laughter bubbled up from his chest, Trey yelled into the mic “Why don’t they play music like this on the radio?!” The jam then dissolved into total dissonance as Trey took off his guitar, waved it around over his head, pounded it on the stage, scraped it against his mic-stand, plopped it down on his stage monitor and back-handed it while strobe lights flashed and the rest of the band joined in the antics.

My sides hurting with laughter, I had to ask myself, “What the fuck is he DOING?” Slinging his ax back over his shoulder, Trey’s persistent guitar wizardry continually pushed the song to greater and greater heights. It was a hilariously rewarding and funkin’ amazing thing to behold, and — a musician myself, and a hyper-critical fan of Phish — one of the moments I live for.

The rest of the second set continued with sparkling, irreverent versions of “Goodbye Head” and “Tuesday.” The latter features one of the most challenging instrumental segments that Anastasio’s penned in years, the kinda stuff that put him on the map back in the day with Phish.

Special mention must be made of Trey’s current band. Drummer Jeff Sipe is an old friend of Trey’s who used to play with Colonel Bruce Hampton and The Aquarium Rescue Unit. Keyboardist Ray Paczkowski has been with Trey for a few years now, and his organ and clavinet work are stellar. Bass player Tony Hall mugged it up for the people in the first few rows and his rabid playing kept even the longest jams from ever falling into repetition or the slightest redundancy. In addition to the core group, Trey’s band also featured vocalists Jennifer Hartswick and Christina Durfee. Hartswick, who has also been with Trey off and on for several years, added spirited harmony vocals to almost every tune and her invaluable trumpet contributions supplied an edgy sheen to the band’s sound. By night’s end, even Durfee got in on the jamming, conjuring a swirling cloud of noise out of a tiny keyboard during the marathon show closer “Come As Melody.” It is the exemplary playing of this ensemble that boosts Trey high into the stratosphere, at times even into territory uncharted by his more famous “old” band.

Late in the second set, Trey finally nailed it. Ironically, the muse is captured during “Ether Sunday,” a lazy, lilting melody that is equal parts Steely Dan and Bob Marley, and not an extended jam at all. The crowd granted their hero a few minutes of hushed silence as the tune grooved along barely above a whisper. Hartswick took a trumpet solo that was sparse but emotional, economically doling out bare, bittersweet notes until unexpectedly building to an exhilarating climax. The song’s final chorus was almost buried under the crowd’s rousing response to what would be the last of the evening’s excellent trumpet solos from Hartswick.

The evening ends on a high note, when Trey and the band returned to the stage to open one last can of whoop ass, encoring with “Dragonfly.”

With Phish, it could be theorized, Trey Anastasio found himself in the unlikely position of wishing for less success. That band’s following, infamy and reputation grew to such huge proportions that it began to negatively affect the quality of their performances. At the peak of their success, if not necessarily at the top of their game, they disbanded and walked away from it all (twice). On a night like last night, playing in a half-full college basketball arena to an audience containing a large number of inattentive, self-absorbed college kids who seemed more interested in taking pictures of themselves in the front rows than they were in his performance, I wonder if Trey ever has second thoughts.

The recording studio was never the setting for his best work, and album sales rarely registered a blip on the marketplace. Without the marquee appeal of “Phish” to sell tickets, Trey Anastasio chooses to carve out a new trail into the unknown. And, as a result, must be coming to terms with his fate of playing in smaller venues to smaller crowds. I myself hadn’t seen Trey in a venue this small for many years. And from my standpoint that alone made it worth the price of admission — to see a true guitar master at work, up close and personal. When he lets go and wails, it’s apparent that there are few guitarists as good . A lost art, most would agree, expansive improvisational guitar playing is his forte and no one comes anywhere near him in this field. There’s some Neo-Prog bands out there with some incredible guitarists, for sure. Great pickers of every stripe permeate the Jam Band scene. But even with his shortcomings as a songwriter, Trey Anastasio is still challenging himself, pushing himself and his band to at-times-hilarious extremes, and whipping up — night after night — the most consistently rewarding, continually surprising, and just plain sickest guitar jams around. His crown is secure. — Ric Hickey

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3 Comments on “Trey Does X”

  1. SAM Says:

    Longtime Phish/Trey fan here. I respectfully disagree with the mostly glowing review above. Trey is lost and out of touch with his fans. Overall, his song selection — mostly mediocre cast-offs (Mud City, Heavy Things, Shine, Dragonfly) and burned out cinders (Push on Til the Day, First Tube), not to mention a shortage of his most promising new material from Bar 17 — made for a tedious, tawdry night that left no room for more thought provoking material and kept me looking at my watch.

    To make matters worse, I brought a friend along for his first live experience of Trey after several years of acclimating him via live recordings. In his own words: “Hell, if he didn’t have that keyboardist, this shit would wear thin even faster than it does!”

    Granted, while the first set was more or less a self-indulgent throwaway as I heard it (at least 30 mins of dull, two-chord jamming), the second set actually had much better pacing of material, more tension and release, and more complex song structures. Of these, the most satisfying was Goodbye, Head, which finally showed off Trey’s well-earned reputation as a COMPOSER, not a ROCK STAR. (I had been telling my friend — longtime Zappa fan — how much Frank Zappa had influenced Trey. So, finally, in the middle of the second set, I could thrust my hand out toward the stage and say: “Now THAT’s what I’m talkin’ about!”

    On our way home, my friend said: “Well. . .it’s not that it was bad, but it was like he was trying too hard, trampling over the other players, not leaving enough space in the sound. . .” Then I said: “It lacked soul.” And he chimed right in: “Yeah, no soul, man.”

    So my conclusion is that furious, extended jamming on two chords that go nowhere is not the hallmark of a genius but a hack. I won’t pretend to have psychoanalytic insight into what has happened to Trey’s fountain of inspiration. But I do suggest (if he were someone directly in contact with him were to read this) that he take off a few years or whatever it takes and get reacquainted with his Muse.

  2. The King Says:

    I hate Phish and their spoiled, dirty hippie following. I also detest Howard Dean, Ben and Jerrys, and pretty much anything from Vermont.

  3. JP Says:

    I just wanted to thank Ric for his thorough review of the show. Thank you, I havn’t read a review like that in I don’t know how long, I felt like I was there. Sam made some good points as well. I’ts tough to hear about Trey fallin’ off, Phish was an amazing band, a definite one and only. I dont’ know about “The King”, sounds like he had a bad trip. Ha Ha Ha.

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