Trey Anastasio Band tours seem to give the red-headed virtuoso a way to stay musically active and keep his chops up while challenging himself in a different way.
If it seems like Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio just can’t stand still, it’s probably because he’s one of those musicians who just has to keep busy because his devotion to the musical muses demands it. This has been a boon for fans who can never get enough live music as Anastasio’s musical wheel keeps turning. They’d prefer Phish year round since the influential jamrock band has been at the top of their game in recent years, but they’ll follow Anastasio’s exploits in any format offered. They just call him Trey, though, since their musical bond makes him seem like an old friend, even if they’ve never had the chance to meet.
A Broadway musical with music written by Trey? Check. See Hands on a Hardbody from 2012. Orchestra shows with grand orchestral performances of Phish classics? Tickets sell out quickly and leave fans with even greater appreciation of Trey’s vast musical prowess. Trey playing guitar with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead for their 50th anniversary “Fare Thee Well” shows this past summer? The shows were met with historic demand and permanently cemented the counterculture bond between the two bands. Trey Anastasio Band (TAB) performances with a horn section that last just as long as Phish shows? A popular “offseason” pursuit.
Fans might not travel as far or as often for TAB shows, since the setlists don’t vary much and the shows don’t generally feature the same level of mind-melting improv jams that made Phish famous, but there’s an extremely high level of musicianship at work and plenty of good time grooves to be had. TAB tours seem to give the red-headed virtuoso a way to stay musically active and keep his chops up while challenging himself in a different way, without the nightly pressure of living up to the expectations associated with being the de facto musical leaders of the 21st century psychedelic counterculture.
The fall TAB tour comes on the heels of a stupendous summer Phish tour where the band debuted a slew of new songs with several hailed as instant classics, a rare feat for a band 32 years into their career. Fan debate over which shows of the tour were the best has been challenging, since there were so many top shelf performances. In this sense -- being at the top of their game over three decades in -- Phish is charting into a bold new frontier for a rock ‘n’ roll band. Which makes it all the more worth watching everything their bandleader does.
The latest move is Paper Wheels, a new TAB album actually recorded in 2014. The album isn’t being hailed in quite the same way as the new Phish material, but it’s all part of the process that apparently enables Anastasio to be the prolific creative genius that he is. Like Phish, TAB isn’t just pushing the new album on tour. The band plays some new songs here and there of course, but it’s more of an excuse to hit the road like a band of gypsies going down the highway having fun making music with friends (a fitting sentiment from Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”, which Phish covered in Denver in 2013.)
The TAB tour path stopped in Las Vegas on Halloween 2015, a seeming nod to the instantly legendary events that went down at the Phish show there exactly one year prior (when the band returned to Sin City for the first time in a decade and blew collective minds with a musical costume of incendiary new material based around a 1964 Disney album of sound effects and spoken word about a haunted house.) There was no musical costume set this time, though the show did feature superb renditions of repertoire covers like “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “Ooh Child”, among others.
It was just a few days later when fans packed the Wiltern Theater in LA’s mid-city Koreatown district for another marathon show. Trey and the band got right down to business by opening with “Sand”, a Phish favorite first debuted by TAB in 1999, which has anchored the repertoire of both bands ever since. With its monster groove and cutting edge spiritual lyrics that indict the ills of the modern society’s paradigm of greed and avarice, “Sand” has served as a zeitgeist tune of the 21st century: "If you can heal the symptoms but not affect the cause, then you can’t heal the symptoms", Anastasio sings in some of the deepest lyrics of his vast repertoire. The Wiltern dropped instantly into dance party with a vengeance mode, if unexpectedly early.
“Gotta Jibboo” and “First Tube” also joined both the TAB and Phish repertoires in 1999, co-written with longtime TAB drummer Russ Lawton and bassist Tony Markellis, and remain anchors, as well. The infectiously groovy “Jibboo” would close the first set with one of the night’s most dynamic jams as the band first took it down low into an ambient psychedelia. From the balcony one could see a female fan in the center of the venue start to gyrate in almost orgiastic fashion as the tempo picked up. Trey seemed to lock in and feed off her energy as the jam built explosively while he shredded a solo that seemed to tap back into the opening “Sand” jam. Keyboardist Ray Paczkowski contributed some multi-dimensional work here to elevate the sublime quality of the jam, showing how well he and Trey have gelled over the years.
The first set also featured fresh covers of Bob Marley’s “Soul Rebel” and Crosby Stills and Nash’s “49 Bye Bye”, as well as the bluesy TAB rarity “Dark and Down”. The diversity here demonstrated once again what an incredible musical chameleon Trey Anastasio is. “Soul Rebel” spotlighted his spiritual persona as a “soul adventurer”, while the CSN tune highlighted great vocal harmonies with trumpeter Jen Hartswick and trombonist Natalie Cressman (as did “Pigtail”.) The deep psychedelic blues of “Dark and Down” displayed Trey’s heavy Jimi Hendrix influence on a tune that recalls Jimi’s work with Band of Gypsys.
The second set was structured in similar fashion with a charged “First Tube” opener and jam staples like “Money Love and Change” and “Burlap Sacks and Pumps”, mixed in with material from the new album and some more fresh covers. The new “Sometime After Sunset” was prototype upbeat melodic rock featuring some sweet licks by Trey, while “1977” featured Cressman winning hearts and minds with her sexy Spanish vocals and some spaghetti western-style horns from she and Hartswick and saxman James Casey. “The Song” was another promising tune from the new album, co-written with Trey’s longtime cohort Steve Pollak, aka “The Dude of Life”. The mid-tempo melodic tune highlighted the band’s harmonies with some deeper introspections about the eternal spiritual life of music. The jam didn’t soar as much as some might have hoped, but it certainly showed potential.
Hartswick starred on a now staple cover of Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood” as the band grooved behind her sassy vocals about the future coming on. This led into one of the night’s top jams in “Mr. Completely”, with the whole band cutting loose for a fiery performance. Lawton was killing the drums here as he and Markellis laid down a fierce groove for Trey to shred on while the horns accented in all the right places. Hartswick then starred again on vocals for an epic “Dazed and Confused” set closer that spotlighted Trey’s status as a guitar hero for the ages, as he ripped molten hot leads straight out of 1969.
Trey has spoken in the past about how a good show for him is all about the energy. TAB fans were heard in both Vegas and LA proclaiming how they really enjoyed seeing how much fun Trey was clearly having onstage. That energy has been an ongoing hallmark of both TAB and Phish shows in recent years, with both bands finding a new lease on life since the guitarist kicked his well-chronicled drug problems and found a way to rise into the light and get high on just music. He’s even spoken of having an eye on 2030, revealing a big picture view and appreciation of Phish’s increasingly historic career arc. It all means the counterculture improv music scene should be in good shape for the foreseeable future, which is great news in a tumultuous era when the world needs as much positive energy as it can get.