TREY ANASTASIO @ BOETTCHER CONCERT HALL | 2.28.12
The soft, beautiful and, at times, elegant side of Phish's musical catalogue shone last night as frontman and songwriter Trey Anastasio took the stage at the Boettcher Concert Hall backed by the 65-piece Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Outside, fans dressed in suits, ties and flat-brimmed baseball caps mingled with friends over cocktails and joints until the ushers rang their bells signaling the fifteen-minute warning. Slowly the crowd climbed the various staircases to their seats in the beautiful auditorium.
As you'd expect from a symphony hall, every noise is detectable. After Anastasio took the stage to ear-piercing whoops from the crowd, it got so quiet that you could hear chairs creaking on stage and Anastasio stepping on one of four pedals he had in his array -- itself a major departure for a man who layers loud effects over his playing during Phish's electric concerts.
Denver is stop three on a four-city tour for Anastasio, who has been playing occasional one-off shows with symphony orchestras for the past ten years or so. The song selection hasn't changed from night to night, and is mostly a blend of Anastasio's highly composed, highly technical epics with other sweet, slow tunes that often are overpowered with the energy and crowd of an electric show.
Songs like "Let Me Lie" became tender ballads, with the sweeping fills of the orchestra adding to the emotion behind Anastasio's wispy and heartfelt words. "Water in the Sky" was given the full Nashville treatment, with Anastasio slowing the country-ish tune down to a mosey on the acoustic guitar backed by a brushed snare drum and the entire string section. The only thing missing were the Jordanaires singing background and Lloyd Green on pedal steel guitar.
"Brian and Robert" went from being a sweet, calming pause of a song during a wild three-hour plus Phish concert to a beautiful ballad that belonged in the ending credits of an Oscar-nominated drama. And "If I Could" sandwiched between two half-hour long numbers in the second set was nearly as beautiful as the album version with Allison Krauss singing backup.
But what was most impressive to hear with the full symphony were the takes on the beloved Phish masterpieces. "Divided Sky" felt natural being played by the massive orchestra. Though anastasio's guitar work is still central to the song, his role was much more subdued in this setting, letting the orchestra outline and expose melodies that get lost when it's just the four members of Phish playing the song.
Anastasio reworked the songs "My Friend, My Friend" and "Guyute" into one piece several years ago, debuting the reworked version with a youth orchestra. Recordings have circulated since, but they did no justice to how amazing the music is played by a live orchestra. The violins and flutes created floating melodies that told the story of Guyute the ugly pig's journey in place of the lyrics that usually accompany the music. In another time, the song would have made the perfect musical backdrop for a demented mouse's acid trip ala Disney's Fantasia.
"Stash" closed out the first set with a taste of Phish's humor and levity thrown in by the crowd for good measure. Though no doubt warned about it, the orchestra still seemed surprised by the perfectly timed synchronized clapping by the audience as well as the sing-along "maybe so, maybe not" lines at the end. The crowd sounded great, though, and it put a huge smile on Anastasio's face.
Second set opened with a thirty-minute "Time Turns Elastic", Anastasio's most recent attempt at longform songwriting. The song was written initially with a symphony orchestra in mind, and was scaled back for Phish's 2009 release, Joy. Unfortunately, the song has taken some time to latch onto fans, and the song has become a bathroom break tune in the three years Phish has been playing it live.
But filled out with an orchestra, the song's true form emerges. Although still somewhat overdone, "Time Turns Elastic" has room to stretch out and breathe with an orchestra playing the melodies instead of the song relying on Anastasio to carry it. But despite being a pretty song, it still seemed to drag through the first section, livening up only after a brief archtop jazz guitar interlude from Anastasio.
"You Enjoy Myself," a number that many consider to be the epitome of Phish due to its heavily composed first section and free-form jamming second half, closed out the second set. Though it was a half-step slower than most versions, the buildup of the first section was bolstered by the wall of sound of the twelve sections of the orchestra and the eventual buildup screams of the crowd before dropping into what can only be described as orchestra funk. Muted horns played dirty funk lines over the disco-sweet string parts and the lead trombone player got a huge round of applause after taking over the role of Mike Gordon's bass solo. Though one or two people stood up to dance, most people opted for the funk-out-in-your-seat approach.
Anastasio closed out the show appropriately with two numbers, starting by giving "Golden Slumbers" a most proper treatment. After all, if you've got a full orchestra behind you it would be a shame to not cover at least one late-era Beatles tune. The night closed out with Anastasio sitting down on acoustic guitar one more time for a tear-jerkingly gorgeous version of "Inlaw Josie Wales" backed elegantly by the strings.
Page down for the setlist and critic's notebook
Trey Anastasio and Colorado Symphony Orchestra conducted by Scott Dunn Boettcher Concert Hall - 2/28/12 Denver, Colorado
Set I First Tube Divided Sky Brian and Robert Goodbye Head Guyute Let me Lie Stash
Set II Time Turns Elastic If I Could You Enjoy Myself
Golden Slumbers (medley) Inlaw Josie Wales
Personal Bias: Can your favorite guitarist lead an orchestra? I didn't think so.
Random detail: Saw two different ushers tumble down the aisle stairs after the lights went out.
By the Way: Lots of talk about summer Phish tour during setbreak, including word of another run at Dick's, depending on who you talk to. (Editor: Phish just announced summer tour dates moments ago, and no Colorado date was listed -- although more dates are slated to be announced.)
Page down for Phish's 2012 summer tour dates
Phish 2012 Summer Tour
06/7 Worcester, MA DCU Center 06/8 Worcester, MA DCU Center 06/7-10 Manchester, TN Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival 06/15 Atlantic City, NJ Bader Field 06/16 Atlantic City, NJ Bader Field 06/17 Atlantic City, NJ Bader Field 06/19 Portsmouth, VA nTelos Pavilion at Harbor Center 06/20 Portsmouth, VA nTelos Pavilion at Harbor Center 06/22 Cincinnati, OH Riverbend Music Center 06/23 Pittsburgh, PA First Niagara Pavilion 06/24 Cleveland, OH Blossom Music Center 06/28 Noblesville, IN Klipsch Music Center 06/29 Noblesville, IN Klipsch Music Center 06/30 East Troy, WI Alpine Valley Music Center 07/01 East Troy, WI Alpine Valley Music Center 07/03 Wantagh, NY Nikon at Jones Beach Theatre 07/04 Wantagh, NY Nikon at Jones Beach Theatre 07/06 Saratoga Springs, NY Saratoga Performing Arts Center 07/07 Saratoga Springs, NY Saratoga Performing Arts Center 07/08 Saratoga Springs, NY Saratoga Performing Arts Center
More dates to be announced
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.