The release of The Horseshoe Curve comes at a curious time, what with former Phish guitarist/bandleader Trey Anastasio being amidst one of the most challenging phases of his life. Busted for heroin and un-prescribed pills last December, Anastasio finds himself in a probation situation where he’s subject to random drug testing and where one more slip will land him in prison.
This puts the pre-eminent guitar hero of his generation in something of a musical jail cell, unable to hit the road and play this year due to his legal constraints. In a time when he clearly needs to focus on his sobriety, it would therefore be unreasonable to expect Anastasio to be putting out a new album of fresh material. What to do then? Go back and finish up some older stuff that’s been sitting on the shelf.
The album is an instrumental affair featuring the lineup Anastasio took out on the road from 2002-04, with a five-piece horn section complimenting bassist Tony Markellis, drummer Russ Lawton, keyboardist Ray Paczkowski and percussionist Cyro Baptista. The focus is on Anastasio’s skills as big band leader and arranger, rather than guitar hero.
“Sidewalks of San Francisco” establishes the tone of the album, with a jazzy, groovy jam that relies on flute and horns to play the lead melodies. “Sidewalks” blends right into “Olivia,” a more restrained take on basically the same groove. Anastasio contributes a bit of lead guitar toward the end of the track before giving way to the horns.
The album picks up steam with “Burlap Sack & Pumps,” where Anastasio’s arranging skills definitely shine. He plays single-note lines while the brass pump out their own melody in unison, leading into a tight and jazzy funk jam that again features the horns. But it’s nothing new to most of Anastasio’s fans, as the song has been featured on his solo tours since 2001. Some fans may start to wonder if they accidentally inserted a disc from Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe—while it’s safe to say that most of Anastasio’s fans love saxman Karl D for his adventurous and groove-laden jams, it’s not necessarily what they might expect from a Trey Anastasio album.
The highlights of the album are the next two tracks, “The 5th Round” and the title track, both of which are live concert performances. “The 5th Round” starts off with the band already amidst a hot jam, and Anastasio finally cuts loose for the first and only time with the melty lead guitar work he’s known for. He also veers into some Hendrix-like feedback and psychedelia, as the rhythm section grooves out behind him while the horns take a backseat.
The title track continues with an up-tempo, locomotive groove (inspired by a train that passed by the venue at the 2002 Pittsburgh show from which the track is taken). An extended virtuoso flute solo from Russell Remington takes the lead, while Anastasio offers some shimmering rhythm guitar behind it. The flute solo gives way to a jazzy piano solo that the track fades out on. The track is a hot jam that clearly has the crowd grooving out, as their cheering attests. Creating those kind of grooves is Anastasio’s other claim to fame, and this one is clearly a keeper.
“Noodle Rave” starts off as a meandering sort of jam with Anastasio indeed noodling lines behind the horn section. A scorching sax solo picks things up, but the guitar just sort of sits in the background. “Tube Top Tony” and “Porters Pyramids” conclude the album with a jazzy low-key vibe, with Anastasio again sitting back and doing more conducting than playing.
In summary, there’s some good music here for fans of the jazzed, Afro-Cuban funk sound that the Trey Anastasio Band lineup is known for. Orchestrating a 10-piece band into a tight unit is certainly more of a challenge than playing with a quartet, and The Horseshoe Curve highlights Anastasio’s skills in this area.
Fans looking for something Phishier from Anastasio’s recent output will find more satisfaction in the download of his 19 July 2006 Cleveland show from LivePhish.com. The show was the only one released from last summer’s tour with Phish bassist Mike Gordon and the Benevento-Russo Duo, and features a smoking performance from Anastasio that shows he hasn’t lost his taste for tearing it up on lead guitar when he feels inspired to do so.
Anastasio has been searching to find his way since dissolving Phish in 2004; he’s toured with his 70 Volt Parade unit, played shows with Dave Mathews & Friends, and then toured last summer with Gordon and the Benevento-Russo Duo, as well as with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. This year represents a personal hurdle that put music on the backburner for probably the first time in Anastasio’s life. In railroad lingo, a horseshoe curve is a track layout used to reduce the gradient a train must travel uphill. The Horseshoe Curve album clearly represents the same, giving Anastasio a chance to catch his breath and look at the big picture during the uphill personal climb he currently faces.
As to the future, perhaps Anastasio can find inspiration from another of Lesh’s musical pals, Ryan Adams. Adams has conquered some well-documented drug problems of his own, been clean for over a year and is winning rave reviews for his new album and current tour. Adams and Anastasio are both prolific songwriters who enjoy dabbling in a wide variety of musical genres. In 2005, Anastasio’s tour merch featured a T-shirt with his name above a mythical phoenix rising. If fellow Deadhead Adams can come back strong from admittedly nearly killing himself with hard drugs, it bodes well for seeing a phoenix-like rise from Anastasio down the line as well.