Photo by Jonathan Rabhan
Forgive Trey Anastasio for having fun on his summer break. He’s gathered some friends for a cross-country trip, spread his effervescence and gamboled like a copper-topped Johnny Appleseed for the new millennium. In an ever-evolving quest to keep things fresh, Trey just added another chapter in the long and storied history of himself.

His odyssey saw the conquering of a new sound, new songs, and an already-recorded new album. Traces of his old life still remain, though only in fragments. Like a caterpillar to a butterfly, Anastasio’s body of work has morphed into a beautiful array of colors. Giving him a boost is a famously tight rhythm combo replete with a nasty horn section as its star attraction. Think of it as a travelling rock n’ roll big band and you only get half the picture. Where Duke Ellington had grace and precision, this band has verve and groove.

The formidable task this past winter seemed to be just getting through the show each night. The challenge this time is keeping it novel without the huge canon. Take this tour for what it is: a more complete band with more rehearsal time and little set-list variation. So yes, they know the songs, but they also know how to nail them. The biggest improvement of all, though, is that now they have swagger.

The doubters have to realize that a solo tour of nearly all original material, without album support, is a feat reserved for only the mightiest of rock stars; no matter what his bread-and-butter band has for a following. People won’t go if they can’t have a good time, and Anastasio made no bones about his plans for shaking booties. He has assembled a group that can forge the funk and goad the groove; they want to invite you to their party and make you dance.

With the near porno-funk of “Burlap Sack and Pumps,” the band emerged from the shadows with guns-a-blazing. Starting it off with a vintage-blues lead-in, leaning heavily on the wah-pedal for effect, Trey not only forced asses out of seats, he even had the event staff bopping, allowing minor infractions to slide.

Meandering in and out of the reggae/hat dance-bop of “Actin’ the Devil,” space was provided for trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick to boast of her chops with confidence. And the deep-funk trenches that keyboardist Ray Paczkowski digs are no surprise; they were always a mighty pillar for his former Viperhouse.

The pulsating drive of “Last Tube” evoked a “Peter Gunn Theme” tied up in Anastasio’s trademark guitar loops. Trudging into the jumpy jazz of “Flock of Words,” its laborious jam was shocked to life by saxophonist, and long-time Anastasio collaborator, Dave “The Truth” Grippo. Picking things up with “Cayman Review” and its hand-jive boogie, though, Trey brought things back together just in the nick of time, introducing everyone to easy “Louise.”

Drummer Russ Lawton, it should be noted, was an absolute killer, on the prowl for a meaty groove. He continually dragged his kill down for Anastasio to shred open with piercing claws. How this band manages to be so loose and tight at the same time is beyond comprehension. “Moesha” dropped the hammer on set one and found Anastasio blasting away with a legitimate radio hit. The sunny yin-yang lyrics coupled with infectious dance rhythms will make this one impossible for people to ignore.

“Money, Love and Change” popped the cork on the second half as the song’s bubbly style found fresh legs. Borrowing its tempo from Stevie Wonder, Trey showed true maestro qualities as he solicited band-wide solos. A decade or more has passed since Anastasio had the opportunity to fiddle with a horn section and map its charts. Back then he was able to make believers of his charting ability, but this summer has superbly proven that his capabilities stretch far beyond guitar and drums.

After much deliberation and a heartfelt greeting, “Plasma” found its way around a dirge with wallowing horns. An interpretive, mirror-dance by Trey and Hartswick was ignited by a can-can routine and bumper butts; the invisible sword fight wisely deflected attention from the Men- Without-Hats-like flute number. The hard-rocking psychedelics of “Mister Completely” marked the only solo-Anastasio-published song that was played. Ripped from 1999s One Man’s Trash, this distant-metal piece hearkened to a few Revolver-era Beatles riffs.

As Tony Markellis mounted an upright bass for “At the Gazebo” the soft and brassy overture allowed Anastasio a slot to take a well-deserved break and work his acoustic. The cornerstone of the set, though, was a politically Zappafied “Sand,” that provided Trey with a dark soapbox against Chuck Heston and gun control. It also signaled the only Phish tune of the evening so far.

The encore felt more like a mini-third set when Phish bassist Mike Gordon graced the stage as Anastasio’s sole cohort. After a stunningly beautiful “Mountains in the Mist,” the jaunty driving song, “Back on the Train” found the duo in top form as they blazed through its mid-section with country gusto and gutbucket blues. But it was the third and final song, “Bathtub Gin,” that found the crowd in a collective gasp. It wasn’t long, though, as they helped the guitarists out with what is customarily Anastasio’s guitar build-up. Sensing he mightn’t accomplish the feat with a simple acoustic, the crowd sang the “do-do-dos” in perfect time, eliciting a complete stoppage of instruments. When all was said and done, Trey Anastasio had played for nearly four hours.

While Gordon’s appearance helped phans cope with the disbelief of Phish’s hiatus, Anastasio should be roundly applauded for the effort he has put into creating a brand-new band. This one-man musical wrecking crew kept his legendary stage calisthenics at an all-time high, and led his charges into a very worthy battle this summer. As a few empty seats will attest, he hasn’t sold everyone on himself, but just wait until that album comes out and he pulls off another tour again. It’s blasphemous to even think, but if Phish never got back together, Trey could easily make his way with this band.

Scott Caffrey
JamBase | Long Island
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[Published on: 8/8/01]

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