Photo: Danny Clinch / Courtesy of Big Hassle Media

Trey Anastasio Band Bring Spirit Family Together in the City of Angels

It's Trey Anastasio Band's newer songs that most energize their audience, which a testament to the creative wave that Anastasio has been riding for the past few years.

It’s a Friday evening in Los Angeles here on January 17 and there’s a lively gathering of music fans from all over California at Southland Beer, just down the street from the venerable Wiltern Theater. The Trey Anastasio Band is back in town for a two-night stand and the Phish guitarist’s fans are meeting up for craft beer libations to celebrate Trey’s overdue return to the Golden State.

Phish bypassed the west coast for the second time in three years in 2019, leaving California fans fiending for a fix of the jamrock quartet’s musical magic. Trey did however deliver a special California treat in 2019 when his new Ghosts of the Forest project closed a two-week tour with shows at the Los Angeles Greek Theater and Berkeley Greek Theater last April. The unique band was like a cross between Trey Anastasio Band and Phish (with drummer Jon Fishman on board) playing all new songs Trey had written with a decidedly spiritual theme, honoring a dear friend who had passed on before his time due to cancer.

The Ghosts of the Forest tour was a hit and a number of the songs soon made their way into the Trey Anastasio Band and Phish repertoires. With a number of newer songs featuring lyrics in a more socially conscious direction becoming vibrant jam vehicles in recent years, Trey and Phish have continued to demonstrate their career-long devotion to pushing the boundaries with new music rather than just relying on older classics as so many bands do. Fans are therefore eager to see which Ghosts of the Forest tunes might pop up here at the Wiltern this weekend, along with their standard enthusiasm for sharing in a groove with their favorite guitarist and bandleader.

img-6503Photo by Rene Huemer

The bluesy “Burn That Bridge” is an early highlight of Friday’s show, mixing things up with a swinging flashback to Trey’s Hands on a Hardbody musical that many fans in attendance caught during its debut run at the La Jolla Playhouse near San Diego in 2012. “The Landlady” provides a pleasant surprise for those looking for a bustout, not played by Trey Anastasio Band since the end of 2006. The Latin jazz style number typically functions as a bridge section in Phish’s “Punch You in the Eye” and is rarely played on its own. It’s a crowd-pleaser here as the band gets extra jazzy with the polyrhythmic percussion and horns lifting the tune higher.

The energy in the room surges on “Everything’s Right”, an uplifting tune debuted in early 2017 which showed that Trey and songwriting partner Tom Marshall have very much been paying attention to what’s going on in the world. The song aims to put a darkness before the dawn type spin on this world gone mad as Trey, trombonist Natalie Cressman and trumpeter Jennifer Hartwswick sing, This world, this world, this crazy world I know, It turns, it turns, and the long night’s over and the sun’s coming up…The band gets into a tight slinky groove here, with Trey laying down some hot bluesy leads to push the jam forward and conjure a groovy dance party.

The new “Sigma Oasis” keeps the positivity flowing with another melodic groove and more metaphysical vibes as Trey sings of feeling weightless and taking to the air. The groovy goodness continues on “Liquid Time”, a dynamic song with a bit of a “Sultans of Swing” vibe. This trio of tunes really highlights what a strong collective entity the band is, with eight musicians skillfully blending their parts into one seamless unit. There’s bassist Tony Markellis, drummer Russ Lawton and percussionist Cyro Baptista laying down the tight grooves, accented by the three piece horn section of Cressman, Hartswick and saxophonist James Casey, plus keyboardist Ray Paczkowski adding complementary melodies behind Trey’s guitar.

The instrumental “Olivia” shifts gears with a jazzy funky jam led by Paczkowski’s electric organ that sounds like it could be the theme song for a ’70s cop show. “Money, Love and Change” is an older tune that sometimes starts to feel played out, but here the band gets into a mesmerizing bluesy funky groove to close out the set with a blast.

img-6504Trey Anastasio (Photo by Rene Huemer)

The vibrant “No Men in No Man’s Land” launches the second set with a fresh flourish as the funky dance party starts right back up. Still relatively new to the Trey Anastasio Band repertoire after being debuted by Phish in 2015, it’s another tune with an insightful edge as Trey sings, And the truth will rise above, And fiction lies beneath, And though the lies may bite, The truth has all the teeth.” The deep blues power of “About to Run” from Ghosts of the Forest has quickly become a fan favorite and strikes a chord here. The song seems to share some musical DNA with Jimi Hendrix’s “Hear My Train a Comin”, both in its structure and with the incendiary lead guitar it inspires. Trey rips face-melting hot riffage here and the crowd is loving every moment.

The shimmering “Shine” from Trey’s 2005 album of the same name keeps the uplifting vibe flowing with the ladies providing angelic harmonies and dazzling horn lines as the band rocks out on the melodic mid-tempo groove. “Heavy Things” keeps the good times rolling with its bouncy vibe and infectious melody that’s been a keeper since 1999, before the band gets back to jamming on “Simple Twist Up Dave”. This is one of those tunes that doesn’t seem to have much meaning at all, but it’s a perennial jam vehicle that always provides an energetic ride as is the case with “Mr. Completely” later in the set.

img-6505James Casey, Jennifer Hartswick, Trey Anastasio, Natalie Cressman (Photo by Rene Huemer)

A poignant moment occurs with “A Life Beyond the Dream” from Ghosts of the Forest, a somber ballad that Trey spins in a cathartic direction when he sings, Don’t give up hope, keep dreaming, keep on dreaming…It’s almost feels like being in church, with a sacred vibe before Trey leads a big guitar crescendo. The diverse encore sequence features a solo acoustic birthday dedication of the heartfelt “Backwards Down the Number Line” from Trey to his longtime friend Steve “The Dude of Life” Pollak. The audience sings along on the chorus, as they do again on the satirical “Sleeping Monkey”. The horn section then returns sans instruments to join Trey for a gospel acapella version of “The Parting Glass” that again makes the Wiltern feel like a sacred temple.

The full band then caps the show with the inspiring “Rise/Come Together”, a rocking number for spiritual revolution since 2017 that just feels like a soundtrack for the political revolution (especially with the unofficial yet pro-style video that Phish fan Kelly D. Morris put together as a sequel to her popular video for Phish’s “More”.)

Saturday, 18 January

One night later, most of the same audience is back at the Wiltern since they know Trey is going to deliver a completely different setlist than the night before. The playful “Blaze On” is a crowd-pleasing opener, with the horns boosting the Phish song to an even more festive vibe as Trey digs in on some melty riffage to show he’s ready to rock. Another song from the Hands on a Hardbody musical pops up with the rarely played “My Problem Right There”, an endearingly satirical tune that pokes fun at the protagonist’s problems of “brains, women and sleep”.

The set features more Phishy goodness with the sharp bluesy funk of “Camel Walk” and the slippery groove of “Undermind”, sandwiched around the blissful “Drifting” that’s lifted higher by the angelic harmonies of Cressman and Hartswick. The brand new “All Pretending” sounds like it came from a similar mold as the previous night’s “Sigma Oasis”, with a solid mid-tempo groove and strong harmonies in the chorus. The instrumental “Sidewalks of San Francisco” brings back the groovy ’70s cop show vibe, even featuring what sounds like a tease of the theme from the old SWAT television show.

The band delivers an electrifying version of “Set Your Soul Free” to close the set in style, launching into an energetic groove on one of Trey’s most inspiring new tunes of recent years. The soulful harmonies from Cressman, Hartswick and Casey really power the vibe higher as they join Trey in singing, “Burn it down, burn it down, Set your soul free, We’re all here together, In a spirit family, Everybody’s dancing, Everyone can see, Burn it down, burn it down, Set your soul free…”

The lyrics about a spirit family speak directly to the sense of how Phish shows have long felt like tribal gatherings of like minded intrepid souls, with most fans making lifelong friends in the Phish community that feel like genuine blood brothers and soul sisters. Many fans have even given up on trying to date outside the Phish pool as it were, since being into this band really is a lifestyle unto itself. From the importance of certain holidays and scheduling vacations around summer tour, to the continually fulfilling exploration of the band’s unparalleled body of live recordings over more than three decades, Phish is a band that rewards the deep devotion of its dedicated fanbase in a way few other artists can rival.

img-6506Trey Anastasio Band @ The Wiltern Theater (Photo by Rene Huemer)

Trey tears into the fretboard with some of his hottest licks of the weekend, then pulls back for some simmering bluesy exploration as the band digs deep into the infectious groove. The full majesty of the octet is again on display here with the tight horn lines, the dynamic percussion and the big groove that the band rocks out on to bring the set to a sensational conclusion.

The second set opens in stellar fashion with “Sightless Escape”, one of the most compelling songs from Trey’s <em>Ghosts of the Forest</em> project that’s still being worked into the repertoire. The upbeat tune features downright mystical lyrics as Trey sings, “We’re carried along on an astral tide, The bigger reason I can’t see, But there’s a light that’s guiding me” over a dynamic groove that turns into a psychedelic launchpad that seems ripe to become a prime jam vehicle. Trey tears up the outro as the ladies enhance the vibe with their majestic harmonies on the line about that mystical guiding light.

The song’s conclusion turns on a dime into the fan favorite “Sand” for a crowd-pleasing combo that really fires up the spirit family dance party. The perennial groove monster is enhanced further here by Cyro Baptista’s timely use of chimes and bells to make it sound like a freight train is steaming through. Bassist Tony Markellis — once referred to by Trey as the Yoda of the bass — lays down the infectious groove with zen like precision as Trey explores the jam space from deep bluesy psychedelia to fiery molten lava riffage.

The upbeat “Valentine” keeps the energetic vibes flowing with a showcase for Cressman and Hartwsick’s harmonies and horns, before the melancholy “Friend” brings things down for another cathartic moment from <em>Ghosts of the Forest</em>. The jazzy jam on “Burlap Sack and Pumps” spotlights James Casey, who throws down a great baritone sax solo as Trey urges him on with psychedelic chords not unlike how he spurs Phish bandmate Page McConnell’s keyboard solos during “Maze”. That Phishy flavor soon appears again with the blissful funk of “Gotta Jibboo”, leading into the hard rock crunch of “46 Days” as the set continues with an impressive sonic diversity.

“Plasma” provides another jazzy bluesy highlight where Cressman stretches out on an exquisite trombone solo. The band then wraps the set in grand fashion with the ever-electrifying “First Tube”. A fan favorite since 1999, the instrumental jam features a galactic cowboys riding off into the sunset vibe over a monster groove that’s driven higher by the horns, Baptista’s bells & whistles, and Trey’s fiery guitar. The light show goes into overdrive here too with a spinning disco ball and maximum psychedelia turning the Wiltern into an interdimensional portal to a higher vibration. When Trey raises his guitar like a lightsaber to conjure the psychedelic feedback that ends the song, it feels like the Force has been brought into balance.

It’s been a superb two-night run showcasing what a diverse songwriter and skillful bandleader Trey is, on top of his prodigious guitar skills. Throughout the weekend, it’s the newer songs that seem to most energize the audience, a testament to the creative wave that Trey has been riding for the past few years. As fans exit the Wiltern out into the Los Angeles evening, there’s a collective feeling that 2020 will be a big year for the spirit family.

LE print by Tyler Stout