Monday, July 07, 2008

Backwards Down the Number Line: A Live Trey Blog

It’s been about one year, three months and 27 days since Trey Anastasio’s last official performance, and we’re ready for a geekout the likes of which have not been seen since Phish busted our “Harpua” way back in the pre-post-jam era of ought three. But, as luck would have it, we’re sitting in a wi-fi accessible field in Rothbury, MI waiting for Big Red himself to take the stage for his first full performance since graduating from drug court earlier this spring. In case you pretended to check out of the Phish scene after the last Trey Anastasio Band gig at Langerado 2007, here’s what you missed: Page put together both a band and a new album, Mike is ready to release his first proper solo release since 2003 and Fishman has been dividing is time between a series of outings with Yonder Mountain String Band, family tour, and, apparently, co-opting Relix’s Rothbury studios for some quality time with an MTV film crew and his can of sugar free Red Bull (now that is post-jam). In terms of Trey, to the best of our knowledge he’s only made five public appearance since Langerado: a guest spot with Dave Matthews Band at SPAC, a surprise gig with Phil Lesh in Glens Falls, a cameo at the Jammys, a sit in with Robert Randolph at Jones Beach and an intimate acoustic set for students in upstate New York’s Road to Recovery program. Oh yeah, and everyone from Rolling Stone to Stereogrum assures us we’re getting a Phish reunion for Hanukkah.

Internet willing, we’re going to spend the next hour or so live blogging during Trey’s set, crossing our fingers for a 3/4ths Phish reunion (both Mike and Fishman also played this weekend) and trying to figure out why I suddenly slip into the second person when I get nervous ‘n excited. Until then, I’m going to continue to roll my eyes while my podcast co-host Benjy tunes his guitar to the tune of “Stash.” Hippie.

4:20: For a “fallen rock star,” people are pretty excited to see Trey. In fact, the minute Trey arrives onsite the rest of the weekend’s performances are almost rendered side-stage attractions (though my friends assure me that if Jennifer Aniston sits in with her current +1 John Mayer, it will be the most trafficked article in Relix history). It’s strange how you don’t appreciate people until they’re gone. But there’s no time for deep thoughts in this Dazed and Confused fantasy, so I assume my prime bouncing position (knees arched, smile turned up).

4:30: “Get Back on the Train” I could probably write a thesis and/or really long PT post on why this song is Trey’s unofficial theme, but I’ll cut things short by saying it was a fitting choice to open his first performance in 15 months.

4:34: “Brian and Robert“ This song has always been one of my favorite latter-day Phish ballads. This afternoon Trey seems to place particular emphasis on the line “All alone the life you lead/A silent diner where you feed/Bow your head pretend to read.” Long gone are the days of silly lyrics and no setlists. Trey has something to say this afternoon.

4:37: “Water in the Sky” Another choice Ghost track. Trey seems to emphasize the song’s bluegrass undertones this afternoon. In fact, this song wouldn’t sound out of place at the quaint, dusty folk fests my parents used to bring me to as a kid. People still scream when Trey sings the line “filter out the everglades,” which makes me smile. It’s nice to know that the Phish language still exists, especially since most of the people sitting in my general vicinity are screaming out of tradition, not memory. The song’s sweet little outro also makes me smile.

4:40: Trey speak: “It feels really good to be here, thanks so much.” Trey looks really healthy---not as skinny and pale as before Coventry.

4:41 “Secret Smile” I never minded this song, but the crowd’s energy dips and my mind begins to wander. Some guy a few rows ahead of me is holding a sign that says, “Mike still says no.” I remember liking “Secret Smile’s” string intro on Undermind, but don’t remember exactly what it sounded like.

4:44 “Driver” I keep thinking Trey is going to bust into “Friend of the Devil,” but he plays “Driver” instead. My first thought is “Phish could make a great kids album when they come back.” I’ve never paid much attention to the line, “I'm moving through this life and I'm thinking about the next/And hoping when I get there I'll be better dressed,” but it’s an interesting statement on growing up and slipping into your adult shows (and clothes). I was watching a Phish DVD the other day and had this strange thought that the worse Trey dresses, the better he performs (Youth Symphony performances not included). But then again, maybe I’m just saying that because the New Yorker in me thought it was a good idea to wear a collared shirt and jeans in 80 degree weather.

4:47 “Inlaw Josie Wales” Trey picks up a different guitar and plays “Inlaw Josie Wales.” I totally forgot about this song, but it’s a nice interlude. For some reason it reminds me of the “media blitz” that surrounded Farmhouse's release, which seems like nothing in an era of reunion rumors and Kanye rants.

4:50 “Farmhouse” The afternoon’s biggest cheer so far. Trey replicates Mike and Page’s backing vocals by singing the song’s chorus a few extra times. Sure it’s no “Harry Hood,” but I love this song in all its Bob Marley glory. Trey has come a long way as a vocalist since he wrote his first real ballad for Rift. He used to sing softy to show emotion, but now he knows how to use his voice as an instrument. Maybe something good came out of his strange forte into Shine-y pop/rock after all.

4:53 “Let Me Lie” I guess we all knew we’d get at least a few solo cuts and, after 23 minutes of pure Phish, I can’t really complain. The “leave me way up here” line also makes sense given Trey’s introspective mood this afternoon. It is also a sign of just how personal his songs became during his darkest days post-Phish---though that line about him taking his shirt off and riding his bike still kind of freaks me out in that “I just walked in on my older relative in the bathroom” kind of way. His voice is also starting to crack, a sign he’s been off the road for a while and/or not used to singing this much..

4:56 “Sample in a Jar” The crowd erupts and the guy standing next to me screams “here we go.” In 1994 this was Phish’s sellout song, but now we greet it like an old friend. Time is a funny thing. After a tentative beginning, Trey shifts into full rock-star mode and powers through the song’s last few verses. The crowd erupts again and my screen starts to melt. But that could be because someone shot me with a bubble gun. Can’t a blogger catch a break? I thought hippies were peaceful.

5:00 Trey Speak Two: Oddly enough there is a town near Rothbury called Whitehall. Nodding to his arrest in Whitehall, NY, Trey says, “I’m happy to be back in Michigan. I woke up in the car on my way here and the sign read Whitehall and it was a very scary moment. I had no idea I was going to wake up 18 months later back in Whitehall, but I’m happy to be here.” There is an awkward moment of silence which Trey laughs off by saying, “most of you probably don’t know what that means, but this song is for the people of Whitehall…”

5:01 “Mountains in the Mist” Another great ballad chosen for lines like:

"several times, unconsciously/I've stumbled upon the path,” “I guess I'm just an obstacle/A thing to overcome”

"the moment seems to hang and float/Before me with no end’ 'till I'm released, awaken beast/I'm on the road again.”

"A fleck of dust up in the sky/Where tiny clouds go sailing by/Pull me down today”

I’ve never taken the line “but now I’m soaring far too high” as a direct reference to the members of Phish, but it makes sense in retrospect.

5:05 “Wading in the Velvet Sea” Not sure why Trey feels it necessary to play a song he wrote for Page, but I’m not going to complain. My friend makes a now obligatory comment about crying at Coventry.

5:08 "Sleep Again" Win Butler once sang, "sleeping is giving in, so lift those heavy eyelids." It would be the ultimate post-jam segue if Trey did a medley of those songs

5:11 “Waste” A classic from Phish’s most mature album. Someone screams when he sings the word “outlaw” and a beach ball goes flying across our patch of grass, but my mind drifts to the first time I heard this song back in high school. I was in English class and I heard the song’s refrain outside my window during a boring class on the fundamentals of grammar and spelling that, in retrospect, I probably should have paid better attention to. It still makes me smile all these years later.

5:15 We temporally interrupt this moment of introspection to bring you Mike Gordon. He arrives onstage wearing his purple pants from the Jammys and carrying a headless electric bass. Someone screams “stop beating around the bush.” Trey says he and Mike are going to play two new Trey/Tom originals and jokes “if only we could find a drummer and keyboard player.” As if to prove that Phish will not be a nostalgia act, he then says, “but it’s got to start with the songs, so you can be our test audience.”

5:18 “Backwards Down the Number Line” The first new Phish song since 2004? Tom mailed Trey this song on his birthday and it might be the most Phish sounding song I’ve heard since “Grind”: quirky lyrics about friendship, obtuse references to growing up in New Jersey and a cool breakdown that will no doubt be stretched out when/if this song sees the light of day. The line “all my friends come backwards down the number line” is prime fodder for lot shirts and future Facebook status updates. In fact, I’m going to beat the rush and change my status to “Mike Greenhaus is going backwards down the number line” right now! Trey says he taught both these of these songs to Mike five minutes before their show.

5:21: “Alaska” Another new original whose intro kind of sounds like “Clone.” Like “Backwards Down the Number Line,” it sounds very Phishy, which reminds me just how un-Phishy Trey’s recent solo work actually sounds. The word “eskimo” in particular is such a Phish-sounding lyric that I’m surprised it’s never popped up in a Trey/Tom song before. Trey says, “take it Cactus” before Mike’s bass solo. People already seem to favor “Alaska” over “Number Line,” but that’s just because it feels new and fresh compared to its six minute older brother.

5:26 “Chalkdust” A great crowd pleaser featuring the afternoon’s only real “jam.” Mike and Trey offer a dual guitar/bass solo not unlike the Allman Brothers Band twin guitar peaks. Mike’s sleeveless t-shirt and purple pants also affirm my abovementioned fashion statement.

After the show, we all run over to see Mike’s new band on one of Rothbury’s smaller stages. He plays a bunch of great new songs and covers a number by “Ya Mar” authors the Mustangs. While weighing the pros-and-cons of paying $5 for a piece of matzah pizza, I see Trey pop out of the wings and move a bit closer to the stage and a bit closer to erasing all my journalistic integrity. It looks like Trey left his electric guitar on the east coast, so Mike’s great new band jams for a bit while they round up a backup axe. Mike has never looked so charismatic onstage and his bass is sounding more pronounced then ever. He talks about love for a minute, before saying, “I love my new band and I love my old band too.” Trey finally finds a guitar and takes the stage for a jam with Mike’s band. They then bust into a tight version of “Meat” that remains loose and funky, and Jon Fishman makes his way onstage for the song’s final jam segment. Mike proceeds to introduce his bandmates and special guests, before turning to Fishman and screaming “Fish” into the microphone. Though still missing a page, the group runs through a version of the Beatles’ “She Said She Said” that’s tight enough to ensure that my text message inbox fills to capacity. As if retain a spec of my New York indie-cred, I pull up the Brooklyn Vegan on my laptop, before shutting down and running to Gov’t Mule in hopes of another Phishy cameo.

Well that’s it. Looks like the internet prevented me from posting this as Phish was almost reuniting, but those were my “in the moment” thoughts. Hopefully I’ll figure out how to actually live blog before Trey finds a drummer and keyboardist to play “Backwards Down the Number Line” with him and Mike.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

After the Goldrush Revisited

I interviewed a musician yesterday who admitted that he has a hard time listing to his own music because "he wishes he could go back and tweak certain parts of his songs." As a 'writer,' I often feel the same way and wish I could make subtle changes to my articles and blogs after the fact. With that in mind, I'm probably only happen with a small fraction of my work, but I am proud of After the Goldrush and hope to make it an annual state of the union. Since I'm about to publish After the Goldrush Part II, I figured I'd revisit the inaugural installment from 2007.

So, to be perfectly honest, I’m pretty disappointed David Bowie didn’t play with Arcade Fire at Radio City Music Hall as had been heavily rumored in the weeks leading up the first annual High Line Music Festival. Not because I needed to see David Bowie (I saw him a few years back and his live show is as outdated as a pair of old bell bottoms) or because Arcade Fire needed a sit-in to save its show (frankly there were so many people onstage, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed he was up there), but because I haven’t called a David Bowie set-closer since Phish played Hampton in 2004. And, once you’re caught in the fast moving current of underground music, three years can feel like a lifetime.

Above: Win Butler, the Exeter Days

That being said, after a few days of not so silent deliberation, I’m proud to move Arcade Fire’s recent string of New York shows into the mini-pantheon that houses my ten favorite live performances (peace out “Piper” from Oswego ’99, you’ve been downgraded to number 11). It feels like hyperbole, but, in all honestly, like the Grateful Dead, Phish, and Radiohead before them, without much pomp and circumstance, Arcade Fire has changed the essence of what the live performance can and should be all about. If a Grateful Dead/Phish show is all about space and a Radiohead performance is all about atmosphere, then an Arcade Fire concert is most certainly all about intensity: the barrage of onstage musicians, the pulsating drum beats, the death-laced lyrics and, especially, the giant, Springsteen-like grandeur of guitarist/frontman Win Butler.

But, unlike the Grateful Dead, Phish, and Radiohead, I still vividly remember a time before Arcade Fire existed and I’m still struggling to figure out how a band can alter the pulse of popular music in less time than it took George W. Bush to screw up his first presidential term. Arcade Fire entered my world less than two years into their existence, in 2004, when my friend Dan saw them in at Arlene’s Grocery (a tiny club whose capacity is only 90 people larger than the group’s roster), and I checked them out for myself about a year later. I liked them enough, especially their cover of the Springsteen rarity “Jersey Girls,” but always figured their hype would eventually outweigh their music. But, in the intervening eighteen months, something incredible happened: Arcade Fire disappeared, created a dark, haunting second album and blossomed from a band you “should check out’ to a band you “needed to see”…multi-times…in a row…in different cities…on the same tour…after careful studying annotated fan-sites like Bono began playing their Funeral album before his concerts, Trey Anastasio was spotted side-stage at Central Park and, on near consecutive visits, Arcade Fire brought out the New York art community’s two most important Davids (Bowie and Byrne). They underplayed their biggest markets, hid from the media, while allowing A-list celebrities to sell their brand, and, on both Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, I found myself dancing--- err sweating--- through enough shirts at their shows to drive my dry cleaning bill into the triple digits. The music felt good, the energy felt big and the band/audience interaction felt intimate. In a lot of ways, it felt like a Phish show, only with less glowsticks and more hair gel.

Which begs the questions: who is Win Butler, why did Trey pass him his torch, and how the hell do I get in touch with him so I can forward my dry cleaning bills?

And, after some stealth research, this is what I found: Long before he saved indie-rock, or even forged a French-Canadian accent, Win Butler, or Edwin Farnham Butler III as he was known in his prep-school days, attended New Hampshire’s Phillip Exeter Academy with one of my closest childhood friends. He grew up in Texas, not Montreal, where his father worked for Halliburton, and used his mammoth size to score a spot on the varsity basketball team (thus making Butler the coolest thing to not come out of Canada since Levon Helm). According to my friend’s yearbook, he sat at the cool-kids’ table and helped establish an Exeter tradition called Winter Thaw (think A Separate Peace set during Spring Break). From an early age he had both impeccable taste in music (his yearbook cites both Bono and Morrissey) and an excellent command of the English language (an early poem reads: “let me hold you silent dream, before his place wipes me clean”). He played a variety of dorm room jam sessions with Arcade Fire co-founder Josh Deu and Arcade Fire’s current keyboardist, his brother Will. The group’s name is taken from a fire which took place at the local Exeter video arcade or, as my friend describes it, the biggest thing to happen in Andover, NH, since the College Board released its official guide to the SAT. Clearly, Win Butler had something special from the beginning, a charm, a charisma, though one wonders if he’d have the same level of success if he stuck with his original prep-school jamband, Willy Wanker and the Chocolate Factories.

As the story goes, after spending a year studying poetry and art at Sarah Lawrence College, Win Butler dropped out of school and began slinging wooden clogs in Boston (heady). Soon after, he joined Deu at MontrĂ©al’s McGill University, met his future wife, a Haitian-born singer named RĂ©gine, and changed the face of popular music while I was still figuring out how to change my own sheets (ah freshman year). His story reminds me of another former prep-school hippie, or hip school preppie, who graduated from Taft in the early-1980s and spent the rest of that decade working his way through the northeast’s maze of clubs and keg parties. Like Butler, his family came from a decidedly square background (lest we forget Ernest Anastasio II helped write the SAT) and, I suspect, much like Butler, Ernest “Trey” Anastasio III had at a young age, a charm, a charisma, which allowed him to do something different, something special.

I’ll admit it: I didn’t find Phish during the “Nectar’s-era,” “the Big Ball-era” or even the “Clifford Ball-era,” but, instead, during the high-school yearbook era, which roughly stretched from the release of Billy Breathes until the start of Phish’s first hiatus (was there ever a song more custom designed for yearbook pages than “Chalk Dust Torture.?”) Now, my high-school alma mater is known for many things: the place Barbara Bush spent her pre-teen years, an average SAT score which is easily divisible by the number 1400 and an alumni board filled with names that end in suffixes like Esq., MD and III. But, the one thing my prep-school isn’t exactly known for is its command of the jamband alphabet (indeed, our jam-rock education seemed to stop at the letter d with the discovery of Dispatch and Dave Matthews). The first person in my prep-school class to find the Vermont Quartet, as far as I can remember, was a girl named Sarah, who, in retrospect, probably found Phish through her slightly older brother. She’d talk about the mid-1990s Phish shows I missed (Big Birch ’94, Great Woods ’95) and I wasn’t surprised when I saw her in the hallway the first time I caught Phish at Madison Square Garden. We both kind of looked at each other from a distance and grinned, as if to say ‘what are you doing here.’ Some questions don’t need to be answered.

After graduation, I attended a heady college, stored the Pharmer’s Almanac under my pillow and gradually found the other bands now stuffed together in the favorites section of my MySpace page. I remember bumping into Sarah the summer after our freshman year of college at an early Berkfest, right before moe.’s main stage set. I wanted to tell her about all the new bands I’d found in the intervening year, how Phish led me to moe. and moe. led to String Cheese and String Cheese led to me to the Berkshires, but, instead, we both kind smiled with that familiar grin. Around the same time I also heard her older brother overdosed near the end of his senior year of college---the first person I lost on the long journey from high-school to Coventry. I saw Sarah a few times on Phish’s final tour in 2004 and then again at a Flaming Lips show at Webster Hall, but, as I began to see more and more music, I began to see her less and less.

In retrospect, it feels pretty silly to equate the act of discovering new music to adventurers flocking west for the first time. But, like those settlers, after a band’s time has come and gone…after the hype…after the gold rush, all that’s left is some good music and a hopeful search for the next big thing (and, of course, a web of poorly updated fan-sites).

It’s eerily fitting that as one of my high-school peers ascends to international fame, my high-school hero finds himself court-ordered to live in my college town, to eat at my college coffee shop (“large, no sugar”), shop at my college record shop (“new vinyl player”) and not? drink at my college bar (sorry DAs). After Coventry, my friend and colleague Jesse equated the end of Phish to the proposed final chapter of the Superman saga, when, instead of being gunned down in a Sopranos-style shooting, Clark Kent met his final fate by simply become human. And, if the simple thought of Trey Anastasio wandering through my old college town isn’t enough anymore to make me quit my job at Relix, grow out my latent Jew fro and signup for another four years at Skidmore, it’s certainly enough to remind me that at the end of day, rock-stars are nothing more than normal, talented people with something special.

I guess part of me wishes I saw Arcade Fire at Arlene’s Grocery that night in 2004, before David Bowie sat-in and the gold rush really set-in. But, at the same time, I wonder if that experience would have changed the memory I have of hearing my favorite Arcade Fire song, “Haiti,” for the first time, if that nugget of music would have felt as fresh and original. I tried to remember the first time I heard Arcade Fire at Radio City last week, but I couldn’t focus on my memories. The music felt too good, and the only thing I could think about was how expensive their dry cleaning bill must be each night (I guess you need a Halliburton inheritance to clean ten outfits each night).

Like a not as deep as it sounds scene from Garden State, as I left the show, I saw Sarah in the corner of my eye, talking with a group of friends near Radio City’s marquee. She looked just as I remembered her, perhaps a bit older, cleaner, and all around more “indie-rockafied.” I thought about walking over to her, wondering where she was going, remembering where she had been, but, instead, I stepped into the subway, knowing we’d meet again, sometime after the gold rush.

I was lyin' in a burned out basement
With a full moon in my eyes
I was hopin' for a replacement
When the sun burst through the skies
There was a band playin' in my head
And I felt like getting high
Thinkin' about what a friend had said,
I was hopin' it was a lie
Thinkin' about what a friend had said,
I was hopin' it was a lie
-Neil Young, “After the Gold Rush”

Relix Associate Editor/ Senior Editor Mike Greenhaus wishes Arcade Fire were around ten years ago so he could have quoted them on his high-school yearbook page.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


OBV. MGMT were Phish kidz back in the day....Andrew even has Mike Gordon's purple pants!

Relix Ink Blots: Steel Train

We recently launched our very own Relix HD TV series to complement our web of niche-friendly magazines and podcasts (like this new episode here). My dear friend Regan (of Rob and Regan, not Ronald Reagan) filmed some pretty sweat videos down at Bonnaroo, including Bela Fleck, Larry Campbell and our current favorite arena-rockers (is it too soon to say that?) My Morning Jacket. But, my favorite clip has to be of my good friends and fellow neurotic Jews Steel Train. As some of you may recall, I recently spent a few days in a van with these guys, driving through the south from Langerado to SXSW, trying to see how long five curly-haired Jewish hippie-types and an African-American could go without either reenacting My Cousin Vinnie by way of Bonnaroo or delving into the world's longest game of Jewish geography (Jack and I went to the same summer camp, who knew?). Turns out we not only survived, but I made a big enough splash to get name-checked in Steel Train's Relix HD debut. I'd prefer a shout out when Steel Train plays Conan on July 7, but I'll take it! Until then, I'll get Evan and Jack do the joking:

Bonnaroo Ink Blot Test with Steel Train from Relix on Vimeo.