Friday, January 27, 2006

Not So Gay for Trey

Trey Anastasio and 70 Volt Parade, Roseland Ballroom, New York, NY-11/08
Mike Greenhaus

At the end of the day, it’s his tone which defines him. It’s what drew fans into his world in the first place and, among other things, what keeps them coming back fifteen months post-Phish, six days since Shine. In an often-tangled web of Gamehendge narration, parking lot politics and general post-Phish confusion, it’s easy to lose sight of Trey Anastasio, the guitarist. Perhaps that’s why he pulled the plug on Phish in the first place, as a way to scale the scene back to a man, his guitar and their combined tone. And, from a certain vantage point, Anastasio has returned: he’s prolific, vibrant and once again making that awkwardly endearing “O Face” that eluded him during Phish’s final days. But, even after the soul searching mission that brought him coast-to-coast and back to his newly-adopted New York home, the one thing Anastasio hasn’t found is his voice. At least not yet.

It was obvious before he offered his first note, and, in certain ways, even before opening- act The Wood Brothers offered their short, sweet, but equally confusing, set. Returning to a venue which holds as important a place as any in Pharmer’s Almanac mythology, Anastasio found himself surrounded by familiar faces. With the exception of a few confused, but well meaning, industry folks (a choice quip: “Wow, I didn’t know Trey was such a good guitarist”), Phish-alumni accounted for Roseland’s entire audience: not the Adult Alternative Radio crowd that heard Shine in September or the boomers that stumbled upon his video on VH1. And, within that general grouping, Anastasio found himself playing to a specific sub-set of Phish followers, fans who have stuck with him and, presumably, followed his work with 70 Volt Parade and/or heard his hot-off-the press new album. They came for all reasons but, most of all, they came to hear Trey who, despite his new pop polish, still sounds like Trey, at least in terms of his tone.

But, besides that, everything else has changed. Long gone are the days of statisticians, Veggie-burrito vendors (they’re on STS9 tour in case your hungry) and, while it’s not his fault, the carefree 1990s when riding around in a giant hotdog could be considered some sort of generational symbol. Instead, Anastasio has built himself a Dave Matthews-style jamband, custom designed to expand on a well-crafted song’s calculated structure. As a Band, 70 Volt Parade has grown remarkably since its last official visit in May. The simple addition of Tony Hall, combined with a few months of rigorous rehearsal and roadwork, has turned Anastasio’s backing unit from a group of studio musicians into a well-oiled band, albeit one designed to emphasize its paid employer. From “Air Said to Me’s” bright opening, Anastasio wailed and “O-Faced” like he was 27 again, on the eve of his first upgrade from the now-defunct Academy to Roseland. Only a bizzarro 27, which found Anastasio following his peers (Blues Traveler, the Spin Doctors, Joan Osborne and Matthews) into the mainstream and embracing rock-radio’s Damm Yankees- like allure.

In 1992, Anastasio aspired to be Frank Zappa, a freaked-out composer in the body of a caffeinated suburbanite. Now, Anastasio aspires to be Eric Clapton, a guitarist’s guitarist who can be dropped into almost any setting, be it pop or blues, and sound like Clapton. Like any classic-rocker, Anastasio’s setlist covers a breadth of material from throughout his career: new 70 Volt Parade numbers, Trey Anastasio Band originals, on certain nights stray Oysterhead cuts, appropriately chosen covers and Phish songs like “46 Days.” He still jams, but differently, focusing less on space and more on his easily assessable asset, the guitar-solo. In fact, one could make a concrete argument that “Shine’s” extended outro is not a jam as it’s defined in the sequel to the book which begot this magazine, but, instead, “pop-rock and fine one at that.” (Budnick pg. 39)

Not that that’s a bad thing. As the evening unfolded, moments of brilliance began to emerge. During an extended, somewhat metal-like “Money, Love and Change,” Anastasio approached the gritty, rock-heavy sound he alluded to in an interview attached to Shine’s DVD component. A few songs later, on the newly arranged Trey Anastasio Band anthem “Push on ‘Til the Day,” 70 Volt Parade shifted into jazz-funk, with Medeski-style keyboardist Ray Paczkowski swimming in the free space that defines his true love, Vorcza. Speaking of Paczkowski, the onetime Milkman has blossomed into 70 Volt Parade’s secret weapon, helping Anastasio lift off during an extended workout based around legitimate powerhouse “Night Speaks to a Women” and smoothing over some of the evening’s more awkward transitions. In fact, from a visual standpoint, 70 Volt Parade seems organized by level of success. Sitting all the way stage-left is Paczkowski, who has rightly earned his place as Anastasio’s chief sideman, enhancing each of his projects, from Dave and Friends to last winter’s moe. Tsunami Benefit. A few feet away is T. Hall, a New Orleans-schooled musician whose onstage interaction with Anastasio feels natural, if not somewhat adulterous. Like Mike Gordon, Hall understands both the complex, lead bass melodies of funk and the subtle, understated beauty of bluegrass (he has, after all, clocked in time for Emmylou Harris). His time in Dave and Friends places him on a more equal footing with his employer, to the point where Anastasio looks to him for the occasional lead or fraternal fist pump. Next up is Skeeto Valdez, whose Detroit-rawk was all but lost during the abovementioned “Night Speaks to a Woman”---and who will most likely be replaced sooner rather than later with a dress wearing drummer anyway.

Which leads to the major problem with 70 Volt Parade, stage-right. While the addition of backing vocalists does help flesh out Anastasio’s jams, and provides a beautiful JGB-quality to his increasingly prevalent ballads, the guitarist hasn’t quite figured out how best to utilize them. At timer, like on “Air Said to Me,” they dance in place like the Black Crowes’ oft-forgotten female chorus, while, as jam-time approaches, they slip offstage as if to prepare for a costume change. Ironically, Anastasio actually already figured out the answer to his dilemma in 70 Volt Parade’s precursor---when Jen Hartswick served as both a vocalist and trumpeter---but that’s besides the point. Likewise, Anastasio’s lyrics are still embarrassing childlike---but not in that fun “Fee” like way---and his vocal layerings only makes the chorus of “Wherever You Find It” that much creepier (“You’re Never Alone/I’ll Follow You Home”).

Then there is Les Hall, a musical prodigy of sorts, whose haircut seems to define the laws or physics and whose improvisational style simply doesn’t fit with even Anastasio’s more restrained compositions. As guitar-looper Howie Day’s foil, Hall’s busy technique provided a comfortable. ambient cushion of sound. Yet, with Anastasio, he is neither an accompanist nor a lead instrumentalist. While at times his guitar complemented Anastasio, such as on “Come as Melody,” in general, Hall didn’t challenge his bandmate, instead providing yet another plane for Anastasio to solo over. His cigarette-smoking persona also seemed somewhat off putting, as if Keith Richards had schooled him at the art of rock-attitude, not style.

But, like it or not, all of these notes for future growth slipped away for 30-minutes as Anastasio picked up his bar stool and revisited his past---a set break from reality if you will. Like so many nights on his current tour, the most memorable moments arrived during this stripped down, Phish-heavy solo set. As an acoustic guitarist, Anastasio is tame, at best, yet his songs are still strong enough---or at least evoke strong enough memories---to echo throughout Roseland’s box shaped room as if it held an arena capacity. In Phish’s heyday, Anastasio seemed to model himself after Jerry Garcia, at least in terms of his stage banter, preferring to speak through his songs and a complex mythology of fictional, somewhat biblical characters. Since cracking open Phish’s carefully guarded persona at Coventry, Anastasio has instead spoken like Dave Mathews, often inaudible, but humble and direct. Alone, naked and powerful enough to make an entire room answer his echo, Anastasio found a new smile, not a photogenic “O Face” but a general sense of accomplishment and personal success. During “Loving Cup,”--- a number Anastasio has aligned so closely with his own voice it’s hard to convince newcomers it’s not a Phish original---he smiled with a giddy, three-dimensional glee that personified the song’s famous chorus. His playing was effortless: Anastasio is a great rock star because he is able to bridle his audience’s energy to enhance his playing, a skill which is much harder than it seems. Placed between old chestnuts, the seldom played Phish number “Never” and the new “Invisible” seemed frail, further proof that the acoustic Phish section is based on memory, not melody. “Sample in a Jar” contained the evening’s thesis: “You tricked me like the others/And now I don't belong/The simple smiles and good times seem all wrong.”

Anastasio shifted back to the present briefly during his second set with 70 Volt Parade which featured an energetic “Simple Twist Up Dave” and a musically supreme segue between “Mr. Completely” and “Spin.” Fueled by the crowd’s energy, the jam was tight and sonically forceful. It even contained a moment of brilliance from L. Hall who shifted to acoustic piano to touch up the song’s groovy outro. But, even with the volume cranked up to eleven, 70 Volt Parade didn’t create as much noise as his audience did just a few moments later when a newly portly Page McConnell moved behind Paczkowski’s keyboard, singing Anastasio’s words as if they were his own. With the exception of the latter day jam-vehicle “Waves,” Anastasio and McConnell chose numbers which, in another time and place, should have been legitimate pop hits, and which still succeeded in leaving their mark on countless High School yearbook pages over the years: “Strange Design” and “Waste.” Even pop songwriting requires both heart and skill.

The duo’s interaction seemed natural, if not somewhat Dave and Tim-esque. McConnell returned alongside John Medeski and TAB-alumni Peter Apfelbaum for another solo-Anastasio number since embedded into the Phish catalogue, “First Tube,” rearranged for an arsenal of keyboardists and Hall’s Dumpsterfunk bass bombs. For a moment, Anastasio flirted with a happy balance between his past and future.

Not that any of this really mattered at the time, because, like Garcia and Santana before him, Anastasio’s tone has the uncanny ability to put listeners in a certain mood, to create a certain party. As audience members sipped overpriced drinks, flirted with increasingly well-dressed girls and reminisced all the way back to SPAC (’04), it was easy to remember a time when Anastasio’s tone sounded pure. It’s those Summer of Love-style riffs that charted Phish’s rise from Roseland to IT, and which, if applied right, will allow him to rebuild his career, almost anyway he wants.

Trey Anastasio will no doubt do great things. But, unfortunately, he’s just not sure what to do just yet.

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