Ghosts of the Forest Conduct Electric Sky Church at the Berkeley Greek Theater
Trey Anastasio puts together a unique band for a special tour in tribute to a departed friend and delivers a mystical experience that demonstrates the true spiritual power of rock 'n' roll.
It's Saturday night in the People's Republic of Berkeley here on April 20 and various forces have aligned to make it a special evening to remember. This calendar date has become a holy holiday in the national cannabis community, with the legend of "4:20" allegedly originating right here in the Bay Area when students known as "the Waldos" at San Rafael High School would meet at that designated time in the early '70s to enjoy a puff of the sweet leaf after school. April 20 has grown to become a coveted concert celebration date for the rock 'n' roll crowd, in which tonight's headliner Trey Anastasio looms large.
The Phish guitarist is no stranger to such celebrations of higher consciousness, even in the wake of his sobriety that's powered Phish's resurgence since rising like a phoenix in 2009 from the ashes of a five-year breakup. A memorable three-night stand here at the Berkeley Greek Theater in August 2010 helped cement the fact that Phish was back at the height of their powers. That weekend generated such demand that the Greek wound up getting packed beyond capacity as a number of ticketless fans were able to pay off side gatekeepers or hop fences to make their way into the coveted shows.
Rumor suggests Phish was banned from the Greek after that, with subsequent multi-night Bay Area visits repeatedly taking place at San Francisco's similar sized Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. But Anastasio and Phish drummer Jon Fishman are back at the Greek tonight with Trey's new Ghosts of the Forests project utilizing the historic venue for the finale of a nine-show tour. It's a special project for which Trey wrote a batch of new material in tribute to a longtime friend and "blood brother" who passed away from cancer last year.
"He was my tether to childhood and to a life before Phish happened," Trey explained to Rolling Stone of his friend Chris Cottrell, adding that he sat with him during his final days with his acoustic guitar playing music for him. Trey was then moved to create an album he thought his friend would appreciate with an emphasis on psychedelic guitar excursions, ambitious arrangements and deeply personal lyrics. After going through a period of self-doubt in which he wavered on whether to release the album, Trey moved forward and put together a unique band that blends half of Phish with Trey Anastasio Band (TAB) members Tony Markellis on bass, Ray Paczkowski on keys, and Jennifer Hartswick on vocals. He also added one more vocalist in Celisse Henderson, familiar to Phish fans from a stellar performance as part of the team for Phish's sensational Halloween 2016 performance of David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
But with this being the Bay Area, Ghosts of the Forest aren't even the only big show of the day. While many fans line up well ahead of gate time to get the best seats (and the limited edition show print by famed artist Chuck Sperry), others are making it a doubleheader by first attending the Phil Lesh & Friends matinee in the beach park at Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael. With a lineup featuring Al Schnier from moe. and Luther Dickinson from North Mississippi All-Stars on guitars, the 79-year-old Lesh offers fans his own rocking 4/20 bash to make a full day of it. The same lineup also played the previous night in Terrapin's Grate Room, meaning that some fans arrived at the Greek after having caught four sets of Phil & Friends over the previous 24 hours.
This mid-April week is also the 20-year anniversary of the historic harmonic convergence in which Lesh chose to feature Trey and Phish keyboardist Page McConnell as bandmates for his comeback shows from the liver transplant surgery that gave him a new lease on life, so it feels like an extra special alignment to be able to catch both Phil and Trey in action on the same day. In synchronistic fashion, Uncle Phil cuts his fans loose a little earlier than advertised so that they can get to the Greek in just enough time to be able to score the gorgeous Sperry print before the limited edition of 600 sells out.
Trey rarely employs an opening band, but tonight he's chosen to curate an opening act with rising buzzband Khruangbin (whom he was apparently turned on to by one of his daughters.) The trio delivers a groovy set to get the festivities started, playing through the sunset as a warm sunny afternoon slips into a chilly evening. But fans who are adventurous enough to roam up top to the Greek's lawn are rewarded with some extended sunshine time as Khruangbin plays, as well as a fantastic view of the San Francisco skyline across the Bay.
Many fans have avoided getting too familiar with the new Ghosts of the Forest material so that the show can be more of a surprise experience, maybe just listening to one of the previous shows and spinning the album that was released on April 12 a few times. This proves a rewarding experience as there's some familiarity with a handful of tunes, while there are also a number of revelatory moments to ignite the soul. The title track kicks off the show with a Pink Floyd sort of vibe that sets the stage for a multi-dimensional experience, with stage production provided by designer Abigail Holmes (who has worked with David Byrne and the Talking Heads.)
"Drift While You're Sleeping" is an early highlight with a multi-faceted tune that starts bluesy, moves into a reggae-tinged section, then continues to build into an uplifting melodic groove with a spiritual vibe as Trey sings lyrics such as "It's love, it always was and always will be love… and we move through stormy weather, we know that our days our few, and we dream and we struggle together and love will carry us through…"
The harmonies from Hartswick and Henderson add a compelling gospel vibe here and throughout the show, lending the songs a deeper level of soul that sounds so good. The show becomes an emotional roller coaster ride, with melancholy ballads like "Friend" followed by soaring jam vehicles like "Sightless Escape". This one finds Markellis and Fishman laying down a tight groove as Trey and the ladies sing of how "There's a light that's guiding me" to launch a funky psychedelic jam that sounds like an instant classic.
Trey rips off some heavy trills while Paczkowski throws down deep funk organ/synth action as the syncopated groove grows. The instrumental quartet gets deep into the groove here, catching fire on a jam that's easy to envision becoming a Phish fan favorite this summer. The ladies take the vibe further still with their accents, spurring Trey to rip off some Hendrix-style licks before Henderson stars with some empowering vocals at the end of the smoking jam to conclude the song with an emphatic finish as the whole band stops on a dime while she sings "There's a light!"
The song's conclusion conjures a huge cheer and the vibe is now starting to feel somewhat similar to that Ziggy Stardust Halloween set, with Henderson and Hartswick's harmony vocals adding a classic rock zeitgeist to make the fresh new material feel somehow familiar. This is one of Trey's most uncanny talents -- the ability to make classic songs sound fresh as well as to continue writing strong new material in his 50s that resonates with fans just as he did in his earlier years. The connection between Phish and their dedicated fans just keeps on growing as Trey's songwriting matures, enabling everyone to grow together while also letting the fans know they have a powerful rock 'n' roll avatar on their side.
The spiritual vibe continues on "In Long Lines" with piano melodies and harmony vocals boosting a bluesy vibe into the uplifting "There's a Path Above". The sound shifts into a bright ascending major key mode with the ladies singing "If you wanna fly let go", before a sparkling jam as Trey picks nimble melodies over a percolating beat from Fishman. "About to Run" shifts the mood again into a heavy blues recalling Jimi Hendrix' Band of Gypsys, which Trey cited in interviews as a favorite that he and Cottrell would frequently crank up during their outings over the years. There's also a lyrical vibe that seems to dip into Phish's "Story of the Ghost" as Trey sings "Sometimes the ghost is quiet, but the ghost is always there and it seems no matter how far I go, he goes with me…"
A centerpiece of the show occurs with "Beneath a Sea of Stars Part 1 & 2", a majestic tune that paints a dazzling sonic landscape. The song starts soft with a meditative trance vibe as Trey and the ladies sing, "We're all here together and the weather's fine, dancing in a dream and the weather's fine… and the waves are crashing… and we're free of time..." The band lays back in a jazzy fashion as Trey's guitar lines conjure a transcendental realm where all spirit family can gather in peace and everlasting harmony. The sound of radio static suggests the journey of the soul from this world to the higher frequency of the next, as Ghosts of the Forest lead a sacred journey through time and space that gets downright mystical.
The transitional journey continues as Trey delivers compelling lyrics that seem to mix some of Robert Hunter's seminal Grateful Dead stylings with J.R.R. Tolkien's vision of Bilbo & Frodo Baggins sailing off to the Grey Havens with the elves at the end of Lord of the Rings: "Misty ships on the horizon line, And the golden dome is waking, Morning birds arch in magnetic parade, And the dawn is slowly breaking, Vapor splits into yellow light, The air is burning rapture, Phantasm rings of golden heat, In red hypnotic pastures, High up on the mountaintop, the silver smoke is rising, High up on the mountaintop, It twists and turns and drifts toward the sea… I'm wide awake, and the ghosts are out to greet me…"
The ladies' angelic harmonies make it feel like rock n' roll church is in session as Ghosts of the Forest lead a transformative journey of the soul, indeed invoking Jimi Hendrix' concept of using rock music to deliver an experience he called "electric sky church". The brief "Mint Siren Dream" provides a stirring coda to "Beneath the Sea of Stars", before the band shifts gears again into a feel good dance groove with "Stumble Into Flight" as Trey sings "We're all here tonight, so let's set it off… in the end, we will all be light…"
The groovy jam leads into another one of the evening's peak moments in "Ruby Waves", an uplifting song that carries the show higher still with empowering lyrics over an infectious groove as Trey sings lines like "All the stars are handles on doors, if I could touch 'em with my fingers they'd open up" and "When I die I'll turn into a tiny ball of energy, And I'll go flipping and floating up into the sky, And bounce off the stars like a pinball machine…" The theme of transcending this mortal coil has permeated the show with a Buddhist type philosophy suggesting that there is indeed so much more to existence in the space-time continuum than just our current earthwalk. The band builds a smoking jam over a hot groove as Trey weaves liquid melodies until he's melting face with smoldering riffage that makes it feel like the Greek might lift off and soar into the heavens.
The Hendrix vibe feels present again and it's interesting to note that at age 54, Trey has now spent twice as long on Earth as Jimi did and is he ever making the most of it. The fresh cuts keep on coming when the band moves into the mesmerizing slow burn of "Wider", with a drippy funk groove that finds the congregation collectively swaying in a most pleasant mood as Trey and the ladies sing of how they're going to get wider when they die.
The set dips back into an existential melancholy with "A Life Beyond the Dream", yet there's still an optimistic vibe of catharsis as Trey implores listeners "Don't give up hope, keep on dreaming" and rips another hot solo to emphasize the point. A brief groovy interlude follows with the bouncy funk of "In This Bubble", before the band returns to "Beneath a Sea of Stars Part 3" to wrap the set with a big finale of cosmic funk fusion. Fishman lays down a flurry of jazzy beats while Paczkowski dials up some deep electric organ recalling the Mile Davis "Bitches Brew" era, before Trey starts cutting loose over the dynamic groove. The hot jam peaks and then slips into a reprise of the heavenly Part 2, as Trey sings meditatively, "I'm wide awake and the ghosts are out to greet me" before the ladies come back in with the "Get in, get out" mantra from the show's opening song to bring the set full circle.
"Thanks everybody, for being here with us tonight… and to everyone who supported us during this attempt to play new music and move forward, and it really means so much to us," Trey says during the encore with a clear sincerity that's reflected right back by the adoring audience that's been thrilled to witness such a special performance. The Phish 3.0 era keeps on giving as Trey Anastasio continues to crank out high quality new material at a rate that is arguably unprecedented for a musician of his age. In a world gone mad that stands on the edge between a dystopian nightmare and a potential new golden age, Trey continues to breath fresh vibrancy into the rock 'n' roll counterculture just when it's needed most.