It’s now been four years since Phish’s triumphant return as a touring and recording unit. One happy byproduct of that is the balance the band members have struck between feeding the Phish beast – happily, and with no obvious lack of passion – and preserving creativity and energy with various side projects.
“Side project” itself may be an outdated term. It’s still accurate to call Phish’s preservation a priority for Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Page McConnell and Jon Fishman, but if they’re not actually saying so, the tacit understanding among the Phish campers these days seems to be that Phish can thrive – at least as a pleasant approximation of what it was in its mid-90s heyday – without being the priority.
Anastasio’s eponymously-named unit, sometimes called TAB, may be the most slyly innovative of all the Phish asides. It’s a composition-centric horde of ace players that take more than a little from the big-band-small-voices-intertwining concept of, say, a King Sunny Ade, whom Anastasio has frequently cited as an influence.
What you don’t get with TAB is Phish freewheeling, everything’s-on-the-table spirit of adventure – TAB shows, if anything, are quite predictable in both setlist and execution. But what you do get with TAB is an utterly pleasant, thoroughly musical experience. The fruits of Anastasio’s compositional jones fleshed out with horns, percussion and a big, big sound. It’s a band that, because of its size and approach, has no shortage of secret weapons.
Port Chester’s Capitol Theater has particular significance for TAB, which attempted to play there in 2008 before the then-inactive venue was deemed unsuitable for a rock concert. Then came Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, which forced two rounds of rescheduling. Finally, TAB settled in for two nights at the Cap in mid-January, greeted as heroes on January 23 by an adoring crowd. (Many in the audience had been in the venue for hours already thanks to forward-thinking management’s choice to bring concertgoers in out of the cold.)
It was a giddy, chatty, saucy night. Anastasio’s solo records, as an oeuvre, are a mixed bag, but what he’s accomplished with 2012’s Traveler is what sounds like progress. The same moody, psychedelic textures and free-associative lyrics and themes that have long defined Anastasio as a songwriter, singer, and player now feature a range of other ingredients from spooky art-pop to trippy beats that open up the sound like an expansion of concentric circles, enveloping more and different flavors as they go.
“Land of Nod”, which turned up in the second set, is one of the better expressions of current Trey. The track’s heavily atmospheric sound demands much of the band’s rhythm and auxiliary players – particularly keyboardist Ray Paczkowski, coursing away on clavinet – without collapsing into a formless trip-hop-style jam that in another era of Phish might be called “ambient.”
It’s hard to say whether Anastasio is really committed to that type of exploration – the show always veered back toward hippy-pop pleasantries like “Pigtail” and “Let Me Lie” before things got too weird. However, it’s been a nice surprise for observers who didn’t think Anastasio, thirty years into his composing career, had new arrows in his quiver.
All in all, you don’t attend a TAB show to have your mind blown – or to see a surfeit of Trey shredding, though you do get that, too. You see TAB for how professional, upbeat, and inviting it all is. You revel in the smaller details, King Sunny-style. There’s Natalie Cressman, blasting away on trombone in the stead her father, Jeff, once occupied with Trey, serving up billowy brass notes that seem much, much bigger than her slender frame. There’s the unflappable Paczkowski, who knows the Trey territory well enough that he’ll just as soon lock up tight with drummer Russ Lawton and bassist Tony Markellis and let Trey and the horn players run wild as he colors, shades, and pushes Anastasio in different directions. And there’s on-again, off-again TAB member Cyro Baptista, by now a legend of percussion, who can blend seamlessly into the rhythm core only to be seen slapping scuba-diving flippers together shortly thereafter.
Above all though, this version of TAB – there have been several throughout the dozen-or-so years of its existence – thrives on the special chemistry between Anastasio and Jennifer Hartswick, nominally the trumpet player and a vocalist, but as essential to the soulful nature of this band as Anastasio himself. Hartswick has can’t-look-away charisma, whether she’s blowing buoyant notes, grooving away as a backup singer, or stepping out to lead the ensemble. When it came time for her nightly strut through Gorillaz’s “Clint Eastwood” – surprisingly, one of this band’s most impressively realized covers – she was electrifying, chewing through passages as the band grooved behind her in unsubtle admiration.
Anastasio gets his licks in, no question. Second-set opener “Sand”, long a staple of both Phish and TAB, featured looping-delay guitar pyrotechnics aplenty, while “Push On Til The Day” found the hirsute frontman all but running in place, possessed by closing the jam’s intensity. But Anastasio’s greatest accomplishment with TAB lies in how Trey-centric a vehicle it is. It’s an ensemble piece that never feels completely about him. Long may it groove.