Don't let the critics fool you. I almost did going into the State Theater in downtown Cleveland on Monday night. Trey Anastasio had assembled what he called "The Yoda's of Groove" for a quick romp through the east coast. It was the fifth show of the 10 night tour and I let myself fall vulnerable to what hasn't plagued my mind in
years: THE CORRUPTION OF READING A BAD REVIEW. I had been keeping an eye on setlists as usual, noting the number of repeats from night to night, knowing that this was not a tour in which to see every show. By the fifth show, it seemed like a matter of "what 6 songs in the rotation are they NOT going to play tonight?" Although somewhat predictable already, I was excited for the show nonetheless, but knew that high expectations could've backfired on me and let me down.
I had invited a close friend from the west coast who didn't make the trip but cared enough to forward a disheartening review of a previous show written by a gentleman who claimed to be somewhat of a close-range veteran of Phish. Given that fact, I accepted his view with a fervent curiosity but quickly grewa polluted attitude towards what I might see and hear at the event. I responded to my west coast pal with "Are you doing anything cooler than seeing Trey Anastasio on Monday night?". Of course his answer was "no", but somehow I didn't feel much better.
Now that the show has passed, I know better. I think I have something figured out, for myself anyway. I've just decided to share it this time. Reading on is your business.
Knowing full well that Phish could make even a Jim Nabors song sound cool, hearing Trey and his current line-up reach the same levels of energy, inspiration and cohesiveness was out of range, but not out of question on a different plane. That was the key. A different plane.
As a musician, I have always been interested in what aspects of music move me to feel what I do. Other than the notes themselves, what is it about music that takes me places in my soul? Is it the desperation and tension of the vocals in "Wilson" that stomps my feet, the whail of YEM's "The Note" that exhales me from it's lung, or is it the liquid thumping bottom of a hot "2001" that grooves my size 33 waist as if laden with hula hoops? On a cold Monday night in Cleveland, it was the notes they weren't playing. It was the air in between the notes where I found my bliss.
Trey Anastasio is taking his biggest phans on a ride into his world, void of the collective feeling that is Phish. This was his show and people were there to see him. Given his musical past, he could've easily plowed his way through any selection of songs to satisfy the hungry crowd, but this isn't the reason he's touring. Just like all of us, he is yearning for something more than the norm. Longing to grow and develop his craft, he has joined the ranks of these fine groove-master musicians to know what it really means to Surrender To The Air.
The first several songs had none of what Trey has spent the last 18 years doing: Playing sick riffs and dominating jams. The music was focused on simple song structures that could've been layered with the typical badass textures, loops and hooks we all love so well, but
instead were met with patience and discipline. He and his fellow Burlington natives showed excellent restraint and poise, letting the simple melodies speak for themselves with profound tightness and skillful execution. There were many familar elements in the show: A nod to Phish (the Bathtub Gin sing-a-long), a revue of his influences (The Band, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, etc), and the subtle humor (the Sh-sh-ing during the spaced out portion of Windora Bug) which was well-received by the revved up crowd.
There were plenty of moments where the groove was downright void of the looping layers we've come to enjoy. There were also moments where the notes were simple yet shockingly powerful, such as the 1st set romp of "First Tube" which hit me harder than any of the versions Phish has played in my presence. This is a song that defines complexity within simplicity. By no means an intricate composition like some of Trey and Phish's early work, it was a snowball of energy that just rolled uphill, increasing momentum by pushing against the gravity of it's boundaries. Later, in the second set, "Sand" was
equally as fierce, though much longer (over 20 minutes). As I watched as Tony and Russ play the same exact thing for 22 straight minutes like human metronomes I thought to myself "my god, these guys have been playing same notes for over 20 minutes, each one like it was their last". Eyes closed and swaying, they practically sacrificed
consciousness and let the groove play them for the good of the song to see where it would take them.
At the time I was equating the version of "Sand" to the light bulbs inside of a tv set. The logical brain could easily assume that when all three light bulbs inside are glowing at full strength, the result would be a black screen. But the result is bright white. When Trey and his stage mates hit that point of the song where all of them were so immersed in the groove and jamming at the song's peak, the music seemed like a beautiful bright silence despite the fact that the sound was near-deafening. They were at that point in the jam where the song just floats effortlessly being guided by a collective force. The song ended and people roared with delight, but the song was still playing itself somewhere and I believe it still is, waiting until the next time to be channeled again.
Other moments of the show, like the gorgeous "Waves" took on a life of it's own, thanks too a brief explanation of it's origin by Trey. He explained that it was written on a boat far away from shore, out of the sight of land. I closed my eyes and listened, putting myself on the bow of a boat, letting the rocking motion of waves provide a rhythm to his new song which bore a sweet resemblance to "The Inlaw Josie Wales".
I thought back to the sub-par review I read and could've agreed to a point out of convenience, but I made the choice to see it differently. I wasn't there to see Phish. I thought of the Jazz Mandolin Project, Pork Tornado, Oysterhead, and Mike's bluegrass efforts and realized what a diverse family of music this band has brought us. I walked out of the show completely amazed and refreshed because I wanted too.
Trey Anastasio has nothing to prove by going on this tour. This is a
post-graduate Trey we're seeing. The songs were beautifully simple, melodic and airy, leaving a lot to the imagination if you let them do so.
If the guys in that band are the "Yoda's of Groove", then Trey has earned his title as a Jedi and the force is very strong within.
Thanks for reading, and keep on sharing in the groove.