The pandemic and the impacts of COVID have been seen across the music industry since it began and especially hard hit has been the live music segment, with it being a challenge for both touring acts and venues to get all this right in an uncertain environment.
Maybe nowhere has that been more obvious lately than the Trey Anastasio Band tour, an outfit that, just a few weeks ago, would have looked entirely different. Then came a couple positive tests, and trumpet player Jen Hartswick and drummer Russ Lawton were sidelined, putting the back half of the tour in jeopardy.
Enter Jon Fishman, and you’ve got an unlikely situation that brought together one half of Phish, the band that made both of these men famous, or some might argue vice versa.
Regardless of what brought them together, if you were there to hear their music and absorb it at the Trey Anastasio Band show Friday night at The Anthem, then you’d have to agree there is something still undeniably special about the bonds that served as the foundation for Phish, and that came to life in DC by way of two sets of songs pulled almost entirely from the catalogue of the Vermont-born band that has stood the test of time to span almost 38 years.
Hypnotic, electrifying and with deep, often times dark grooves woven seamlessly tight, TAB delivered what could be considered a performance for the ages on Oct. 1 at The Anthem, one of the area’s most impressive venue achievements, and perhaps the only one fitting for such a crew on such a night.
“They do sound good,” commented one member of the venue staff who, at times, was watching the show like a ticketholder. “He’s good at what he does,” said another. “I’ve never even heard of that band (Phish), but they sure bring in the people,” said a guy working way out at L’Enfant Plaza parking.
And the scene within The Anthem all night: a throng of human beings seemingly locked in a trance, almost synchronized in dance, at least until you got in there for a closer look, which would plunge you into the depths of a realm where no form or style of movement is unacceptable. Phish’s music — often unfairly compared to that of other bands, but undeniably unique — brings out the boogie in just about anyone who hears it.
That was the case October 1, where an eager crowd watched TAB kick off the evening with an epic, psychedelic 15-minute-long version of “Sand,” giving the group the chance to explore the reverberations of the cutting-edge room and feel one another out. After all, this was only the second show for this group, which included Trey and Jon, longtime TAB keyboardist Ray Paczkowski, Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista and, the newest contributor to the band, bassist Dezron Douglas.
Everyone seemed to keep their stare on Trey during the opener, even Fishman — all eyes concentrating, like doctors performing surgery — revealing how much respect he draws while on stage but also an indication of how demanding it is to perform with him. His fellow musicians are always asked to carry a heavy load — tasked with crafting intricate, compelling jams within an unpredictably rapid cascade of notes coming out of a guitar that sounds created by the Gods.
Well, Fishman has been there, done that — he also joined Trey’s Ghost of the Forest tour back in 2019 and visited The Anthem — and Ray has now made music alongside Trey for more than 20 years, and so it was sensible that the band quickly jumped from its opener right into a fresh take on “The Moma Dance,” which with its first few recognizable notes, should have jolted anyone with a stunning reality they could have overlooked during the ambient opener: more Phish songs were definitely on the menu.
Of course, Trey managed to work in some of his originals, and three in a row is what he pulled out to fill the midsection of Set 1, with “Set Your Soul Free,” “Quantegy,” and “About To Run.”
Watch Trey Anastasio Band perform “Set Your Soul Free” live in New Orleans on YouTube:
A TAB live favorite, “Set Your Soul Free” was a chance for Trey to bring his personality to the mic, his voice still sounding some random, friendly, intelligent chap from Vermont, playing songs he wrote for you, backed by his buddies, some of whom are from or have lived in Vermont. And like so many of his songs, and Phish songs, the lyrical component serves as a runway for an incendiary fusion of instrumentation, with Trey’s custom-made “The 4.0/Koa 4” Paul Languedoc guitar in the driver’s seat, and with the improvisation coming in nuanced fashion on stage but translating to so much more out on the floor.
“Quantegy,” released way back in ’98 on Trey’s One Man’s Trash album, manifested as groovier than some could ever have imagined, thanks largely in part to Dezron’s thick, deliberate, creeping bass lines that gave a whole new identity to this track at The Anthem, and it was transformed into an elegant dreamscape thanks to Ray shifting over to what looked like his electric piano.
The only other taste of pure Trey, “About to Run” let Trey show off the “wicked sustain” in his newest guitar, as he set himself up to shred isolated, piercing riffs over the audience, which couldn’t get enough of it.
Stream the Trey Anastasio Band’s 2020 live album Burn It Down via Spotify:
Plunging back into the Phish song book, Trey and company would never turn back from it, and they closed out the set with a marvelously perilous “Carini,” one of the more dire tracks but one that absolutely fit the sound of these five musicians, who produced sounds ranging from distorted anger to subliminal ecstasy as this song spiraled out of control by its design.
The second set — all Phish tunes — was a mix from the past two decades, what you might call their modern era, and somehow this somewhat random selection did sweet justice in highlighting the otherworldly skillset of the men assembled on the stage with Mr. Anastasio, whom many consider to be one of the best electric guitar players living on the planet.
“Everything’s Right,” released on 2020’s Sigma Oasis, embarked on a smooth, euphoric ride, allowing Trey’s vocals to naturally fit in to this composition as it worked toward much-needed message of reassurance within in its chorus: “Everything’s right, so just hold tight.”
Also embedded within this one were Trey’s mind-boggling, tangential explorations of cosmic sounds, but also an unforgettable, beautiful flow from the piano and keys as Ray masterfully controlled numerous instruments. Up in the back, where you could hardly see him in his curious, magical nook, Fishman would occasionally make his presence felt via timely contact on the wood blocks and his collection of other targets.
The unbelievable jamming continued into “Death Don’t Wait Very Long,” which—despite being a track Phish performed as the fake Scandinavian band Kasvot Växt for the 2018 live recorded Halloween show—boiled up in awesome fashion with its old-school Phish groove and peculiar estimates on life and, well, death. If he hadn’t already, Dezron could to some degree be felt stealing the show: his funky, perfectly timed grabs producing head-bobbing, foot-stomping crowd wide, while Trey soared into a tornado of blues and inspected every millimeter of that ebony fingerboard.
Here’s where Cyro, also concealed by all his tools, shined too. Literally grabbing anything he could get his hands on, the 70-year-old veteran used everything from a harmonica to homemade percussion devices like a bow-and-arrow and some sort of fluorescent tube to add not just exotic sounds, but color and character as well.
And mirroring Trey’s scratchy radio persona down the song’s backstretch, Jon gave this song a more audible Phish identity, creating a give-and-take between the two familiar voices that almost seemed playful in the midst of a monster delivery.
After a polished, pristine version of the 2000 album title track “Farmhouse,” Trey led the squad back into another incredible jam in “No Men In No Man’s Land,” from 2016’s Big Boat. This track was quick in just about every direction and its groove was wide as could be, capturing what is clearly a connection between Trey and Dezron cultivated in just a few months’ time. And the synergy between Trey and Jon? Powerful indeed, as the two made eye contact and with a quick expression ended this magnificent ordeal on a dime.
Wrapping up the set with more recent Phish favorite “Blaze On,” which might carry a whole new meaning in a city like DC these days, TAB finished what felt more like an entire second concert before scurrying back out for an encore that surprised with “Wolfman’s Brother,” a Phish classic from 1994’s Hoist that still hits with the same charm it did in that window some might call the band’s “MTV era.”
To end the night, Trey — who celebrated his 57th birthday the day prior to this show — reached back into Sigma Oasis, performing an uplifting, enamoring version of “A Life Beyond The Dream,” a track that speaks from the bandmembers’ seasoned perspective on life (Trey).
Have a look at Trey Anastasio’s guitar setup he’s been using this year via this official video on YouTube:
While this song in particular might have been missing the support of Hartswick, the horns section and those additional background vocals, the message of this song certainly wasn’t diminished, and it was the intent of these words to send people home, their spirits lifted: “Don’t give up hope, don’t give up hope, keep dreaming. Keep on dreaming.”
The Moma Dance
Set Your Soul Free
About To Run
Death Don’t Hurt Very Long
No Men in No Man’s Land
A Life Beyond The Dream
Here are images of Trey Anastasio Band performing at The Anthem on Oct. 1, 2021. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.