Trey Anastasio Debuts Ghosts Of The Forest In Portland: Recap, Setlist, Audio, Videos & Photos
Words and Images by: Robert Ker
Ghosts Of The Forest :: 04.04.19
State Theatre :: Portland, ME
State Theatre :: Portland, ME
When some people have a midlife crisis, they buy a motorcycle. For Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, now 54-years-old, over a decade sober and having recently buried a close childhood friend, it means pulling together companions from throughout his life and doing what he’s always done: putting his head down, creating art, and sharing it with his devoted audience. It’s been an unusually fruitful time even for someone as prolific as Trey; in the past six months, he has now twice performed full albums worth of mostly top-shelf new material.
The first, of course, was Phish’s Kasvot Växt set on Halloween 2018. And now, with a new band of old friends, he unveiled Ghosts Of The Forest, which is at once the band itself and the album — a suite of songs inspired primarily by the time he spent with his friend of 40 years Chris Cottrell in his final days. This motivation is similar to that which birthed his 2016 song “Miss You,” which was written after his sister passed away, but fans put off by the directness of that song’s lyrics (understandable, when heard in a set full of absurdist Phish tunes) may find greater connection with the Ghosts Of The Forest songs, as Trey used his profound experience with Cottrell to mine his familiar themes, such as the sensation of existing in a transient state, be it dreaming, flying, floating or experiencing ghosts, as well as exploring the dualities between light and dark, life and death, asleep and awake.
To bring these songs to life, he recruited Phish drummer Jon Fishman and a handful of Trey Anastasio Band players, including bassist Tony Markellis, keyboardist Ray Paczkowski and vocalist Jennifer Hartswick. Finally, he added to the mix singer Celisse Henderson (who sang with Phish during their 2016 Ziggy Stardust set), and stirred it into a TAB-like sound infused in gospel and blues traditions, but buoyed by Fishman’s bubbling rhythms and deep pocket. They performed in front of an elegant stage production that featured small, folded designs that resembled paper airplanes, arranged in swirling patterns and broken up by tree-like columns of LED lights. According to a recent Rolling Stone interview, designer Abigail Holmes, whose work includes Talking Heads’ famed Stop Making Sense, deserves credit.
The setlist itself was difficult to parse (until the Live Phish posting the next morning), as nobody in the audience had heard the music before, and the repertoire went far deeper than the announced track listing for the album — due next Friday, April 12 — but the first three songs, at least, fell in line with that track listing: the single that is available to hear online “Ghosts Of The Forest,” a soulful number with several acrobatic changes “Drift While You’re Sleeping,” and a slower, bluesy track “Friends.” The latter song boasted the first of many scorching solos; according to Trey, he and Cottrell used to play Jimi Hendrix together at obscene volumes, and this music is partly an homage to that. On “Friends,” the solo began by sounding similar to the one in Phish’s “Sleeping Monkey,” before branching out and building into something epic.
After that, they diverged from the album and played a song colored by classic rock tricks and a sprightly little surf-rock lick that the crowd loved, and “Halfway Home,” a midtempo number anchored by a psychedelic solo that shifted from downcast to upbeat — although the song itself didn’t feel as fully formed as some of the others. “If Again,” a sensational acoustic composition followed, which was highlighted by delectable interplay between Trey’s finger-picking and Fishman’s skittering rhythms.
“In Long Lines” was one of the stronger songs, rife with lyrics that balanced extremely personal details of Trey’s experience with Cottrell with haunting, impressionistic imagery that seemed to evoke the passage through life and into death. This theme continued into “There’s A Path Above,” a shuffling, midtempo tune that seemed to bid Cottrell farewell with the lyric, “If you want to fly, let go.” This gave way to “About To Run,” which seemed to deal with Trey’s thoughts in the aftermath, ruminating on regrets and the “noose around my neck” as Trey’s silhouette appeared in the LED lights behind him, ominous and ghostlike. It was pretty heavy stuff.
From there, it became impossible to determine what songs were being played, based on the information at the time. “The Green Truth” sounded very similar to “Proud Mary.” “Beneath A Sea Of Stars,” the longest song on the album, emerged as what sounded like a suite of ideas, before melting into “Mint Siren Dream,” which featured Trey singing without his guitar as the backing singers accompanied him and Paczkowski played descending keyboard lines.
The heavy “Ruby Waves” was the only older song of the night (although you’d have to be deeply invested in Trey’s oeuvre to pick it out from one performance in 2008). “Wider” was a clear highlight of the evening. It seems to nick a melody from Phish’s “Shade” and apply it to a choppy funk that featured clavinet and tight interplay between Fishman and Markellis (it was fun to hear the Phish and Trey Anastasio Band rhythm sections married in such a way — one can only imagine how it felt to Trey). The last few songs, including the conclusion of “Beneath A Sea Of Stars,” brought the set to a close on an uplifting note.
The encore consisted of an acoustic song about the brevity of life — perhaps the most “midlife crisis” of songs — and a number titled “Pieces In The Machine,” which reflects on how we’re all connected, another pet theme of Trey in recent years even if it’s a more engaging metaphor than “Soul Planet.” Indeed, the most impactful part of the encore was Trey’s speech, in which he referenced everything from Amy’s Farm to Oysterhead in describing how he came to meet his band mates, and also how some people in the crowd have been with him for longer than some of his personal friends.
It very much seems that the book his daughter gave him for Christmas, which detailed the lives of his fans as they grew alongside the band, had a profound effect on him. He rather touchingly considers his relationship with his audience to be as personal and important as any relationship in his life, a river of affection that genuinely flows both ways. A few of the Ghosts Of The Forest songs, particularly those near the end of the set, are marked by sentiment and the sometimes-saccharine uplift that has put some fans off in recent years, but he balances that out with songs about darkness, despair, and anger to paint a full picture of the range of human experience in this brief time we have on Earth. Clearly, Trey’s going through some shit.
Full Show Audio Taped by Ted Gakidis/Shared by Jam.Buzz
Fan-Shot Videos Captured by Gregory Marcus
Ghosts Of The Forest
Beneath A Sea Of Stars Part 3 (Blue)
Pieces In The Machine
Trey Anastasio at State Theatre
- What Made Me Think
- Ghosts of the Forest
- Drift While You're Sleeping
- Sightless Escape
- Halfway Home
- If Again
- In Long Lines
- There's a Path Above
- About to Run
- The Green Truth
- Beneath a Sea of Stars
- Mint Siren Dream
- Stumble Into Flight
- Ruby Waves
- Shadows Thrown by Fire
- A Life Beyond the Dream
- In This Bubble
- Beneath a Sea of Stars
- Brief Time
- Pieces in the Machine