Words by Dennis Cook :: Images by: Susan J. Weiand
Trey Anastasio & The 70 Volt Parade :: 12.02.05 :: The Warfield :: San Francisco, CA
I had all of about seven feet between a legend and me. Call him something else if you want, but his mythology precedes him. And you could feel the viscous Trey-love pouring from the faithful surrounding me. Just before the lights went down, I could see in their eyes they expected tonight to out-rock all the nights that came before. Strangely, despite where I was standing, I've never been part of this club. Phish just plain missed me. I had other things to do, and they always seemed, even in their earliest days, to have an overabundance of support and hardly needed mine. Loads of respect for 'em, but not a lot of enthusiasm. So, this abject expectation of peak experience is actually kind of odd to me. Even with bands I hold dear, I never walk in with anything but an open mind. Magic can never be assumed in my book. Yet, on every side of me, people were primed for launch. The thing for me is either the drug works or it doesn't. If you just convince yourself it's having this spectacular effect then what you have is a placebo. So, the question with Trey is this: What's the potency of what he's selling these days?
Trey Anastasio :: 12.02 :: SF
Bobbing and dipping as the pre-recorded intro recording played, Trey Anastasio buzzed with the exact same expectation. It's admirable that he goes into his performances believing that power and glory are waiting to unfold. It's sure as hell intoxicating, and even a skeptic like myself was feeling a slight tingle in my frontal lobe as they launched into "Push On 'Til The Day." Following the acoustic flurry of the opener, the fan-freakin-tastic (though quite out of place) Hackensaw Boys, it was clear the evening was to be charged by a crackling, slightly off-kilter energy.
70 Volt Parade :: 12.02 :: SF
Right away, the crotch-level pump of rhythm team Tony Hall (bass) and Raymond Webert (drums), both also in Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk, grabbed our limbs and shook them like a meth-addled go-go dancer. It isn't what I expected, though I don't think I had anything but a vague idea of where Anastasio's muse had taken him lately. I'd been seriously impressed by his earlier solo band with Cyro Baptista and the large horn section, which had a '50s big band meets psychedelic rock thing happening. 70 Volt Parade embraces clean, somewhat spare arrangements with serious low-end chug. This approach works fine with the material from Anastasio's latest hyper pop album, Shine. It's when they stretched out, explored without a map, that the ensemble faltered.
The band takes all their cues from Anastasio, who is so thoroughly the alpha male it's kind of stifling. As he meandered in one of many pointless jams late in "Night Speaks To A Woman," I was struck by what lengths fame and history allow someone to noodle. A less well-known artist would find the crowd wandering off if they took to the same confused wandering. When he left the script of actual compositions, it was clear he's not sure what to do with all this freedom he's wrestled loose in the past year. That confusion seeps into the playing of the other players in the band, who shined in moments but are clearly focused on pleasing Anastasio before serving a greater musical purpose.
Ray Paczkowski :: 12.02 :: SF
That taint of ego infused the whole show. I know so little about the man that I could only judge the music based on what I was hearing, and if the newer stuff has any personality, it's his. Unfortunately, in a world where My Morning Jacket and the Mars Volta are blowing minds nightly, it's hard to regard Trey as anything but what he is presently - a middle-of-the-road legend coasting on his rep while trying to get into the mainstream. It's like watching a kid who never gets over wanting his or her parent's approval. He wants the WORLD to know his name. The gigantic, and in many respects unprecedented, success he experienced with Phish didn't fill some hole inside him, and there's something sad about music consciously designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
The songs from Shine are in a word, god-awful. "Sweet Dreams Melinda," "Come As Melody," and the title tune were all trotted out. They lack darkness, menace, some hint of anything besides comfort and light, delivered with a boatload of Hallmark clichés. But that ol' yin-yang has it right – things are unbalanced when there's an absence of one side of the eternal equation.
Anastasio, Webert, Hall :: 12.02 :: SF
It makes sense that a performer with multiple millions might write music like this. His lifestyle insulates him from hardship outside of his personal demons, but want and challenges are essential. We need to wrestle our demons from time to time so we can heal into a stronger, wiser person. If you keep them outside the mansion gate, you never engage them in a way that lets you grow. It's not uncommon amongst the strata of popular musicians he's itching to join. Tom Petty, Sarah McLachlan, and their ilk all have a similar sheltered gloss. It's pretty, like chrome, but lacks any real depth. This is the music BMW SUV drivers listen to on the way to Pilates classes and Whole Foods runs. Deep it ain't.
None of this is to say he's not also pretty brilliant musically at times. His guitar dexterity is often thrilling, especially when the whole enterprise is pouring on coal and heading down a steep grade. Anastasio and 70 Volt Parade play big, big, big (when they aren't mired in the smallness of Shine). It has the enormity of Led Zeppelin or stadium-era Cure. Surrounded by mostly gifted players (there's one exception), he harnesses more energy, in moments, than almost any single human being I've ever encountered. Combine that with his enormous likeability, and you've got some serious chemistry. Call it ultra-charisma.
70 Volt Parade :: 12.02 :: SF
But charisma and unbridled enthusiasm can't erase all sins. One thing standing on his own has done is expose his voice to greater scrutiny, and it's not much of a voice. By the third tune, I was gritting my teeth. He regularly runs out of breath, his phrasing is fractured, he forgets words as often as he remembers them, and he tries for registers that serve only to crack and strain his pipes. There's a very narrow range in which he's comfortable, which surfaced during the quite nice three-song acoustic section. Maybe because of the intimacy, it was the best he sounded all night. I'm vaguely astonished that someone with his bread didn't hire a vocal coach ages ago. If Phil Lesh can humble himself enough to become a student again, there's no excuse. Sure, dig the passion he belts it out with, but that alone cannot disguise a serious want in this music.
The inarguable standout in 70 Volt Parade is Jennifer Hartswick, a dynamo in every respect. Singing, blowing gutsy, imaginative trumpet and tuba, or just grooving with an earthy presence, Hartswick is a delight, pure and simple. Her longtime pal Christina Durfee provided the perfect songbird accent to these very boyish tunes. A feminine presence in this setting is always welcome in my book, especially when it oozes talent and charm like this pair. Rounding out the band are Ray Paczkowski (keys), Russell Remington (saxophone, flute), and Les Hall (keys, guitar). Hall is the weak link here. His playing might be described as so subtle as to be absent much of the time. I kept trying to figure out what he was adding to the mix and frequently found myself scratching my head. I suppose it could have been the house mix, but especially when both he and Anastasio were on guitars, it was impossible to pick up his contribution.
Jennifer Hartswick :: 12.02 :: SF
The "surprise" of the evening came after the acoustic numbers when Grateful Dead alumni Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman joined in on percussion. I caught myself smiling more than the just-alright performances warranted, but like the Phish fans that simply glow being in Trey's presence, I have my own nostalgia monkey to mind where the Dead are concerned. Mickey did the Mickey thing on "Iko Iko" and then banged pleasantly on myriad hollow objects for "Casey Jones" and "Eyes of the World," which had the strangest, best jam of the night (though in fairness, it too never built to anything but a confused muddle). I'll argue with anyone that Kreutzman is one of the most unsung drummers in rock history, second only to Ringo Starr in getting shortchanged for his brilliance within a band of much larger personalities. It makes me grin to see his graceful hands swim through the music. On all three tunes, he summoned images of water flowing freely in my mind. Cool.
So, back to the original question – How good is this new drug Trey is offering? Not that good really. When the first things that come to mind about a band are stamina and confidence, not emotional content or musical inspiration, it's not a positive sign. They play well, and someone totally unfamiliar with either Phish or the whole jam subculture could find their way into it pretty easily. Those people might also be Counting Crows or Coldplay fans. Without the nostalgia factor (which is HUGE), it's hard to know if the seats would be filled. The room seemed full of people ready for a fix of something they had long ago. For sure, they want to believe it's the same high, and they might be pretty defensive if you try to tell them it's a sugar pill. But listening with honest ears, what I heard was a professional, slightly self-indulgent band working through material of highly varied quality. Given the abundance of "dealers" with more potent stuff out there today, it's hard to imagine returning to Trey and his merry band again.
Trey Anastasio :: 12.02 :: SF
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