Thursday | February 22
Landmark Theatre | Syracuse
Let me preface this review by saying that I love Phish. I have seen many, many shows for many, many years most from within very close proximity. I love Phish and know enough about them to consider myself as knowledgeable and "die-hard" as ANYONE out there. Feel free to challenge me on that one if you'd like.
And I love Trey Anastasio - enough to drive 4 hours in crappy weather to catch his Syracuse show last night. And as a devoted fan who is not afraid to be critical of the things he loves let this honest reviewer tell you - the weather wasn't the only thing crappy in upstate New York last night.
This band and the music they make are just flat out BORING! UNINSPIRED! Not engaging in the least. Last year's show at the Palace Theater in Albany was a mind-expansive experience with some chunky grooves set up by Russ Lawton on drums and Tony Markellis on bass while Trey performed guitar-god wizardry for the better part of an hour and a half. I was expecting the addition of the horn section of Dave "The Truth" Grippo (sax), Jennifer Hartswick (trumpet) and Andy Moroz (trombone) to enhance the foundation. My expectations were not met in the least.
I will not go on and on about all the disappointments from the show, but I feel I must quantify my remarks with some more details. First of all, the playing was very flat. There is no doubt in my mind that all the musicians on stage possess some talent. Maybe it is lack of rehearsal, maybe it is the unfamiliarity with the material, or maybe it is just that this band is not all that good. Whatever it is, the "jams" went absolutely nowhere. For the most part they just seemed to be scratched-record vamping over and over and over. The necessary organs were there for life, but no blood vessels to connect them and therefore no pulse whatsoever.
Another problem was the material itself. Trey seems to be trying very hard to impress an audience that would give a grand "huzzah" for
belching in tune. The repertoire was all over the place and for the most part highlighted areas that seem to be Trey's weaknesses (few may they be, he DOES have weaknesses). One song in the second set had Trey on an acoustic guitar seemingly trying to lead the band in an almost chamber-music-type piece (possibly At the Gazebo). It was symbolic of the evening as it overstepped any of the abilities of the individual members if not the group as a whole and was utterly incoherent.
The evening also had Trey's vocal abilities as it's centerpiece as he
struggled with Dylan, Marley and other disjointed original pieces like Push On Till The Day. Unfortunately Trey's range is not all that impressive and I often had to wince as Trey struggled with the singing duties.
There were some good moments, I will admit. The third tune was a reggae/groove instrumental which was a beautiful feat of songwriting and playing both. This is one of the few songs I thought had some serious opportunities for growth. When the band retreated to the familiar material with Gotta Jiboo it was one of the few times when they were on the same page. The jam in this one was as good as I've heard it, solo work or with Phish, and showed signs of what the potential I thought the band had going into last night's show. It featured the same hard grooving of last year's incarnation while incorporating the horn section quite well.
The new tune Burlap Sacks and Pumps was another killer highlight. The song featured some excellent bass work by Tony and some of the only true interaction between band members as Trey and Tony went back and forth over the song's themes. Definitely a funky good time. Ironically, perhaps the overall highlight was the Bob Marley cover Mellow Mood. I say it's ironic because Trey prefaced the version by apologizing if it was really "rough" because they had only practiced it once, Bob Marley is the best musician ever, yadda yadda yadda... It actually sounded great, Trey finally nailed some vocals and a great trombone solo put it above and beyond the average.
Unfortunately these moments were rare and even when there were other
flashes of brilliance they were on an individual basis only - either the horns were really getting off while Trey seemed to be drifting away aimlessly or Trey was finally getting some of his adrenaline-inducing guitar work while the rest of the band seemed completely out of step. There were several moments when I felt that the band was grooving REALLY well and having Trey there actually was detracting from the direction the music was going in.
My best example of this was Sand which seemed to drag on forever until saved by some really inspired work from the horn section. They really were working the trance-vibe to the hilt with Tony and Russ locked in on the groove. Trey, meanwhile, was preoccupied with silliness on his keyboard and by the time he got on board with his guitar he ruined the mood with screaching and wailing - completely juxtaposing himself and ruining any chance for brilliance. Another example was Dylan's Rainy Day Women which benefitted ZILCH from Trey's presence on stage.
But it didn't seem to matter to the well-sold-out audience, which was
another aggravating thing about my evening. I'm sure many people
disagree with me and will think that last night's show was "musical bliss" but there were moments where the band and Trey were flat-out OFF, no question about it. Yet no matter what he played or how he played it, the audience yelped with delight as loud as when the band was really ON. I just don't understand it. The longer such mediocrity went on, the greater the applause - it has to disobey some fundamental economic principles about supply and demand.
Anyway, I'm a critical sonofabitch, but was turned off enough to consider not going to the Roseland show tonight despite my valiant
efforts to get tickets initially. I may change my mind and give them
another chance, but for those of you who couldn't get tickets, I would try to give you solace knowing that you are not missing all that much. As I've tried to attest to all year long, there is a lot of good music out there that is accessible, cheap and equally, if not more, mind-blowing than what your favorite guitar-god and mine is doing this winter.
That's the view from here,
JamBase NYC Correspondent
Go See Live Music!
In Other Trey News:
Friday | February 23
Roseland Ballroom | New York City
OK, OK, so I decided to what-the-hell my Friday away, wait in line and go to the show. I mean, how in hell could I skip this show at Roseland Ballroom a short train ride away from my own pillow and a venue which is a very large part of my personal history. Hell, I
think I've seen every Phish show ever played at Roseland and I wasn't going to let that string get interrupted on a technicality. So,
I get inside, prime spot right up front, right under Trey, open ears,
Mozambique starts the show. Good song, butchered badly once
again. Still, energy from the stage seems good and the version
was much more inspired than it was at the Landmark. The Way I
Feel has a good groove to it, but nothing more. Waiting and
waiting again, band's on stage, but not engaging me. Burlap Sack
and Pumps - very Greyboy grooving. Great song. Syracuse version was better, but this song represents what's good about this band. They've played it every show on the tour - this is a good thing.
Gotta Jibboo. The crowd finally shows some life - "hey, we
recognize this one!" The band entrenches itself in the "jam" region
of this song and again I am waiting, waiting, waiting. Perhaps the
slowest developing jam of all time? Same riff over and over and
over in a "daddy, are we there yet" drive through Kansas. Finally,
Trey wakes up and graces us with some of that sick guitar-fueled
jamming we've been waiting for. It is short but sweet but took way
too long to get going.
I am still unimpressed by the foray into classical music of At The
Barbecue/At The Gazebo. Just sounds completely off, out of
place. This is music better left to a different breed of musician.
First set left almost an identical feeling as the Syracuse show.
Moments? Yes. An overall experience? No.
Second set got a little tighter, band seemed to improve as a function of time. Sand ended up really well, but getting to that point was another trip back across flat Kansas a la Jibboo. But up until Ooh Child I would give the show the Aaron's-a-critical-bastard thumbs down. Better than Syracuse, but still...
But you've heard me bitch, let me comment on the highlights.
Ooh Child. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this song during the 1999 tour and was hoping to hear it again. I will admit
that the part where they were just "covering" was a but rough and Trey's vocals were wavering cringingly. But at the end of the song, a slow, beautiful groove developed. Delicate, gorgeous noodling from Trey over an almost silent accompaniment from the band. I was waiting for it to explode like a Slave To The Traffic Light
might, but it just continued for several wonderful minutes of sexy whispering. I hadn't been expecting such texture and subtlety from
this band but there it was, soft wind tickling the tiny hairs inside
Next up was Happiness In My Pants. The band was whittled to
just a trio with Russ on drums, Tony on stand-up and Trey sitting with the acoustic guitar. Personally, I think Trey is so much better playing the Languedoc that his acoustic playing seems a bit bush-league (there are few, if any, rock guitar players better than Trey, there are many, many, many acoustic guitar player that have that advantage - you can look it up!). But this song was as good as that ability got and was a refreshing, funky, acoustic tune. Towards the end of the song Trey entertained with his wit as he teased with his rhythm section. "Tony is the groovingest... er... most grooving... is groovingest a word? GROOVIEST! [wild applause, goofy grin]" Tony and Russ both took their rock-steady solos which ended up being the same backing riffs they were already playing. The joke was evident and I appreciated the intended or not semi-self-defacement the band as a whole was giving itself. The band can lay down a good groove, that is undisputed. But it doesn't appear it can do much else, or for that matter, want to.
Then Trey thanked the audience and began to babble about appreciating the support for this tour and for all the years in the past, etc. And then Trey broke down in tears on stage. Bizarre, touching, melodramatic, surprising... he fought them back and finished up the song.
And then he rewarded us two-fold. First he brought out Mr. Page McConnell to accompany on the next tune (and the encores). Second, the next tune was First Tube. Let me summarize first by saying that this was SO much better than anything they had played in the previous show and 3/4 that it seemed almost unfair to me. It was one of those "this alone is worth the price of admission, everything else is just bonus" type of moments. If you had gone to a show, say, like in Syracuse, where they didn't play First Tube you weren't ever getting the Trey vehicle out of 2nd gear, couldn't see what it could do and getting nowhere really slowly.
I will admit that Page's presence on stage was more of a nice gesture for all involved than a musically enhancing experience. I only say this because he was relegated to manipulating Trey's keyboard thingamajig which could never unleash Page in the fullest. Make no bones about it, First Tube was sick because Trey was able, for the first time in 2 nights, to just rip it up, unleash the hounds and machine gun us to death. The beginning was rough, working the horns in as well as Page. But when Trey took over, the song just built and built and for what seemed like an eternity, he elevated the solo and his body to that high we know he can reach. It was exhasuting and amazing just standing under Anastasio, locking in on his eyes and his fingers and dancing hard enough to match every god-forsaken lick.
The encore lapsed back into the funky aspect of what the band has to offer and riding the high from the set-closer seemed to step it up
a notch. Noodle Dance Rave was a groovy, highly danceable number. It was one of the "I wish the whole show was more like this" numbers like Burlap Sacks. Funky good time with plenty of potential for growth from the horns as well as extended work by Trey. Will It Go Round In Circles ended the show as it had the night before and was another rare occasion for the band to actually "jam out." It seemed to be more coherent and tight than it was at the Landmark - maybe because I was in better spirits at show's
end in New York ;).
The show gets a marginal thumbs up from me. I still find plenty of lackluster work that may eventually fade away as the band spends more time together. Of course, the tour will be over in a week. If you are going to any more shows, pray that they play Ooh Child
and First Tube - these made it for me.
That's the view from here,