Photo: Danny Clinch / Courtesy of Big Hassle

Trey Anastasio Sings Out for Something More in the City of Angels

Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio's return to the prestigious Walt Disney Concert Hall on his solo acoustic tour hits all the right notes.

It’s a special Friday night in Los Angeles here on December 7 as one of America’s most influential guitarists and band leaders is set to play a solo acoustic show at one of the world’s premiere concert halls. Fans are flocking from across the West Coast to see Trey Anastasio from Phish return to Walt Disney Concert Hall for the first time since his debut performance at the prestigious venue in 2012. It was shorty after that transcendent show backed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic that Anastasio was interviewed on NPR and declared the venue to have “the best acoustics ever”.

The “internationally recognized architectural landmark” in downtown LA features a stunning exterior where the main entrance to the venue appears to resemble a psychedelic funhouse of sorts. And as Anastasio and his fans learned in 2012, Walt Disney Concert Hall is indeed “one of the most acoustically sophisticated concert halls in the world”. The one drawback is that no beverages save for bottled water are allowed into the concert hall. But there’s plenty of quality establishments nearby for fans to get their groove on beforehand such as the Dankness Dojo, an aptly named brewpub where Modern Times Brewing serves up heady microbrews and an all-vegetarian menu with a surprisingly savory quality.

Anastasio receives a hero’s welcome when he takes the stage, which is no surprise considering his immense efforts to keep the psychedelic rock counterculture movement going since Phish’s rise from the ashes in 2009 (following a five-year breakup during which the guitarist got clean and sober from substance problems that led to the breakup.) “Secret Smile” is a surprising opener even to Trey himself, a ballad that once got Phish booed off the stage when played in the encore slot at a 2003 show in Camden, New Jersey.

“I wasn’t gonna play this first, but it sounds so good in here, oh my god, I just want to listen to the air, I wanna play something quiet because it sounds so beautiful,” Trey says in humble appreciation of the hall’s amazing acoustics. The song sounds beautiful indeed in this setting and receives only applause at the end. The Phish audience has matured over the years and so has Trey, who sets the tone for the rest of the evening with the acoustic debut of “Set Your Soul Free”. The bluesy rocker debuted by the Trey Anastasio Band in 2017 and then by Phish in 2018 is one of a handful of new songs from the past few years that seem aimed at generating a vibration for higher consciousness and spiritual revolution.

“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,” Trey sings, literally invoking the sense of a spiritual family gathering that has long been a hallmark of Phish shows across the country. Tonight’s show will also include rousing performances of “Everything’s Right” and “Rise/Come Together”, songs debuted in 2017 with inspiring lyrics and melodic jams that feel designed to help combat the psychic negativity from the Trump regime’s foul assault on American democracy.

Trey includes plenty of Phish classics too of course, as well as some coveted deep cuts that rarely appear in Phish set lists such as the instrumental “Inlaw Josie Wales”, the uplifting “If I Could”, the majestic “Mountains of the Mist” and the beautifully introspective “Two Versions of Me”. It was just a month earlier that Phish busted out “If I Could” for the first time in four years during their Halloween run in Las Vegas, much to the delight of all. The sympathetic song about a troubled romance for which there seems to be no solution was also a highlight of the 2012 orchestra show here at Walt Disney Hall, so it seems fitting to hear again tonight.

“Two Versions of Me” has only been played seven times by Phish, making it an extra special treat here. The song feels like it provides a window into Trey’s soul during the 2003 era when it was debuted, which he acknowledges afterward when he comments on the lyric “Two children at play, too busy to see two versions of me.” He speaks of how he and longtime friend/lyricist Tom Marshall wrote the song during the same songwriting trip as “Secret Smile” and how kids grow up all too quickly, which lent the profound feeling of striving to achieve a balance between home life and being on the road with the band.

Each of these songs shimmers with an extra sense of transcendence here in this room and there’s a collective sense of sonic wonder due to the crystal clear acoustics. “This place is miraculous”, Trey declares following his sublime reading of “Mountains of the Mist”. He follows with a story about how Phish recorded their 1994 album Hoist here in LA and then returned on a tour where they wound up getting invited to a “Young Hollywood” party. Trey relates of learning that magazines featuring celebrity photos actually contrive such get-togethers at orchestrated parties, such as this one where the guitarist found himself directed to sit on a couch next to Paris Hilton who wanted nothing to do with him and left. But then her friend Nicole Richie was fine posing with him for pictures.

Phish classics such as “Free”, “The Wedge”, “Prince Caspian”, and “Limb by Limb” all sparkle with the resplendent acoustics, with the latter tune conjuring a mass sing along by necessity since the song has multiple interweaving vocal parts. When the audience sings out the repeated “Take me far away” line at Trey’s prompting, the concert hall seems like it could lift off and fly into space. Another highlight occurs after some fans up close request songs that are difficult to play, with Trey laughing them off saying “You wanna see me struggle”. He decides to take a stab at “Mercury” though, an epic prog-rock flavored tune from 2015 that has quickly grown into a fan favorite. He nails the song and forms a great combo as he segues the final line, “The net’s unbreakable, don’t worry about falling” right into “Rise/Come Together” where he sings of how “We’re gonna break down the walls one day and come together…”

A vibrant rendition of the classic “Wolfman’s Brother” is preceded by a tale from its recording on the Hoist album where the band was able to call in a special guest. “We started coming up with these grandiose ideas like we do”, Trey explains with an amusing anecdote on how the Hoist album cover didn’t turn out like the band imagined, as well as the idea to ask Rose Stone from Sly and the Family Stone to contribute some backing vocals to the funky number. This led to her coming down to the studio where “she came in and gave us a soul lesson”. That deep soul has inhabited “Wolfman’s Brother” ever since, with fans boosting the cosmic soul vibe here with more vocal support on the outro chorus.

More sing-along fun soon follows during “Blaze On”, a playfully anthemic number where the audience helps Trey sing out the end of “When I screw up once, I do it two more times!” Trey segues on a dime from this newer fan favorite into one of Phish’s most enduring classics with “Bathtub Gin”, which is greeted with instant appreciation. The most emphatic audience participation of the evening occurs here as fans sing along on the song’s endearingly cartoonish melody, then clap in unison to keep the beat going even after Trey puts down his guitar to signal the end of the set.

The sentimental “Waste” opens a triple encore sequence with a heartfelt ode that may have been written with romantic thoughts in mind, but seems to have evolved over the years into a love song between Phish and their devoted fan base. Trey follows with the newest fan favorite in “Say It to Me S.A.N.T.O.S” from Phish’s 2018 Halloween performance as Kasvot Vaxt, a fictional Scandinavian band they made up as a prank in order to debut new songs under cover. Kasvot songs like “S.A.N.T.O.S.” and “Turtle in the Clouds” seem to take on a deeper sonic gravitas in the acoustic format, revealing a crafty extra layer to the compositions. The song sends a spark across the hall here, with fans relishing in singing out the “Hi-Ho Hi-Ho Hi-Ho” chorus as many flashback to the Halloween performance.

It feels like there’s only one song that can cap this show the right way at the end of such a tumultuous 2018 and so it is as Trey delivers “More”. The instant classic anthem from Phish’s 2016 Big Boat album seems to epitomize an effort to write new songs with more of a spiritual and socially conscious theme to help transcend dark times. The infectious song ripples with an empowering vibe that can’t be denied as Trey sings, “I’m vibrating with love and light, Pulsating with love and light , In a world gone mad, a world gone mad, There must be something more than this…” The song’s big ringing chords sound fabulous here at Walt Disney Hall and it feels like everyone present is focusing their spiritual energy on manifesting a more harmonious world.

“In ‘More,’ I hear an earnest anthem about taking personal inspiration and turning it outward like a light in the darkness. When life is at its most difficult, there is beauty that transcends the madness. By connecting to each other, and by letting our spirits rise even when our hearts are heavy, we can ride out any storm together in this big boat,” wrote fan and filmmaker Kelly D. Morris in explaining the “More” video she put together that has become a sensation with the Phish fan base.

Songs like “More”, “Everything’s Right” and “Rise/Come Together” show Trey continuing to grow and mature as an artist, which lends Phish an even deeper spiritual integrity. No longer definable as a mere jam-rock pied piper as some have described him in earlier times, these inspiring songs show Trey evolving into a voice of a generation type of artist approaching the level of influential counterculture legends like Bob Dylan and John Lennon.

With the turbulent challenges of the Trump era’s greed and avarice to face, the modern music scene can use as many inspiring new songs as it can get. The willingness to embrace the challenge of writing songs from a more socially conscious perspective during this critical time for humanity (and doing it in the context of such infectious hooks) shows Trey continuing to evolve as one of the boldest and most important musicians of modern times.