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Clean as a whistle: Trey Anastasio.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Big Red Rides Again

By Josh Potter

Trey Anastasio and Classic TAB

Palace Theatre, Oct. 18

 

Just four months ago, Phish front man Trey Anastasio graduated from New York State Drug Court, thus ending his 14-month mandated residence in Saratoga Springs, stemming from a 2006 arrest in Whitehall. Just five months from now, Phish will reconvene for a three-night run in Hampton, Va., thus ending what has been for Phish fans an excruciating 1,663-day hiatus. To say that Anastasio’s return to the area at this point in time—clean, healthy, and legally unencumbered—is merely significant would be a monumental understatement. A few songs into Saturday’s sold-out show (the second of a nearly sold-out tour), the iconic redhead said just as much. Highlighting the many “good sides” of what constituted the darkest era in Phish lore, he thanked everyone in the area for “taking care of [him]” and making him “feel so incredibly welcome.” Just as the band’s 2004 farewell festival at Coventry, Vt., gave Anastasio forum to recognize the Northeast Kingdom as a source of inspiration to Phish’s early years, he assured the Capital Region crowd that much of the music they’d be hearing that night and with the “other band”(!) had been penned in their backyard.

Anastasio’s return has been nothing short of mythic, and Saturday’s performance can be read as almost straight autobiography. His quartet, billed as Classic TAB, are a stripped-down version of the horn-laden “dectet” with whom he toured to the height of post-Phish excess. While rock history has seen rehab/revival manifest in half-nostalgic blowouts (minus the blow), Anastasio’s has been a modest return to roots. Having scrapped the role of maestro, which he used to literally conduct the TAB army, Anastasio has turned generous and patient in both his playing and persona, thus returning an element of democracy to TAB. In the show opening “Sand,” his patience even felt a bit tentative. With “Drifting,” though—a bucolic tune that rests on Saratoga bassist Tony Markellis’ insistent line—the lyric “the fog has lifted” opened a door for Anastasio’s shimmering guitar work. And when the line “since you rescued me/the whole world is there to see” came, it took on a brand new resonance.

As a guitarist known for oblique compositions and cryptic forays in improvisation, Anastasio instead relied on surpisingly simple motifs. Laying out at the outset, he let a song late in the first set simmer to B.B. King velocity. Adding increasingly beefy blues tropes, Anastasio then pushed the theme past all lamentation to a Lazarus-raising climax. The pairing of restraint with uninhibited soloing struck a happy balance throughout the show, on the one hand affirming that Anastasio had not sacrificed his chops (as some addicts do) when he sacrificed his chemical vice, and on the other, catering to those in the crowd who might have lacked the stamina required to appreciate Phish’s more elliptical improvisations. That said, this restraint might have come as something of a tease to those who expected the string-theoretical CERN lab that Anastasio conjures with Phish. True, there were moments, as in the second set Phish staple “Gotta Jibboo,” where, despite the prodding interplay of Ray Paczkowski’s clavinet to Anastasio’s Jedi knight-style wrangling of effects, the groove remained decidedly three-dimensional.

Just as every solo project will be read in relation to the performer’s primary gig, it remained important to remember just which quartet was performing under the Palace’s kaleidoscopic light display. TAB were best when revisiting originals like “Cayman Review,” “Burlap Sack and Pumps,” and “Push on ’Til the Day.” Despite his healthy-sounding voice, some of Anastasio’s newer originals suffered from the saccharine touch of middle-age; the second set opener took an almost Randy Newman-esque ap proach to psychedelia, standing as a reminder that Anastasio’s strength has always been in illustrating images like “catacombs of light” with his guitar, rather than singing about them.

Taking Anastasio’s modest return to its logical end, the second set closed with a four-song mini-set of Phish classics, performed solo and acoustic. With clear autobiographical continuity, he sang, “If you’re just staring at your walls, then this one is for you,” in the tune “Brian and Robert,” before the almost heavy-handed “Back on the Train.” The homey “Farmhouse” signaled the return, before “Bathtub Gin” heralded a new era of tomfoolery where “we’re all in this together [again] and we love to take a bath.”

Phishheads love to talk of the glory days when collective attention between band and audience bordered on telepathy, but when Anastasio exited the stage with the entire crowd singing the falsetto hook to “Bathtub Gin,” it was enough to give an old-timer shivers. For five minutes, as the band regrouped before their encore, the crowd carried the tune in seamless segue to the show-closing “Bug.” As Anastasio launched his final meteoric solo, not only was the recovery metaphor stitched closed, but in its blinding wake a whole community has become reinvigorated.


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