Whenever I think of Phish singer/guitarist/composer Trey Anastasio's most powerful solo work, my mind always turns to "orchestral funk" -- the term Anthony Keidis used to describe the Talking Heads' large-band era (with Adrian Belew on searing lead guitar) when inducting the art-rock legends into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Trey Anastasio Band, reunited recently after several years of hit-or-miss mainstream rock experiments by Anastasio, hit Stop Making Sense-worthy heights last night by melding a high-energy horn section (which now features two female singers) and driving bass and drums with swirling keyboards and Anastasio's trademark Santana-inspired guitar improvisations.
And it was exactly that danceable last night at the Ogden: Santana-meets-Talking Heads with a touch of complex Frank Zappa weirdness. The first of two sold out shows, Tuesday's three-hour-plus performance by Anastasio and his six-piece band (down a few horns from the outfit's celebrated early '00s run) featured an introductory acoustic set full of warmly welcomed Phish tunes.
The jamband hero showed he's equally adept at big-time rock solos and laying a mean capo. Crowd favorites such as "Theme from the Bottom," "Wolfman's Brother" and "Farmhouse" were abbreviated and stripped down so a smiling Anastasio could strum relatively simple chords, skipping bridges and tackling lead vocal duties while the joyful audience sang the harmonies and call-and-response parts usually handled by his Phish brethren.
Anastasio's version of "Theme from the Bottom" removed the ominous Bartok edge that makes that song special, but "Backwards Down the Numberline" and "Gumbo" provided the Denver crowd with chances to contribute levity and tenderness by singing intermittently odd and sweet lyrics so loud Anastasio could step away from the mike and grin.
"Gumbo" was included in a series of chatty moments Anastasio called, "VH1 Storytellers time," in which the red-haired Vermont musician hilariously detailed secretly stealing irreverent passages from Phish drummer Jon Fishman's journals when they lived together in the mid-'80s.
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Songs like "Tube" (with its lines about pregnant hens and rubber bottles) and "Gumbo" ("The sacrifice jars made bubbles/And spittle is everywhere") provided not only a window into what Anastasio described as "what it looks like inside the mind of Jon Fishman," but also underscored why so many music lovers can't get past Phish's often silly lyrics, sadly missing out on the quartet's sometimes breathtaking compositions and group improvisations.
Whatever your take on Phish, one has to laugh at Anastasio's explanation of Fishman's inspiration around the time he wrote "Tube" and "Gumbo": "He was into wheat grass at the time. I came home and he was giving himself a wheat-grass enema."
Believe it or not, some Phish songs -- with the help of the group's lyricist and friend Tom Marshall -- feature flashes of stunning poetry, like Tuesday night gem "Strange Design." However, newer Phish tunes such as "Joy," which boast lines like "You were the song that my soul understood...when we were young, we thought life was a game," and "Let Me Lie," in which the protagonist takes his shirt off while riding a bike, recall Will Ferrell and Chris Kataan imitating Air Supply on Saturday Night Live.
Whether it's Anastasio's age or his recent -- and long needed -- stint in rehab that veered his songwriting in such a cheesy direction is uncertain, but the gradual emergence of his talented band squelched the audible complaints from the picky Denver audience. One fan up front even yelled out, "This song sucks!" before a sentimental new Anastasio number.
Gladly, in the group's electric (and LOUD) second set, nostalgia and corniness were mostly put to rest with blazing renditions of original Latin-tinged prog-rock tunes like "Last Tube" and "Burlap Sack and Pumps," which Anastasio and company played alongside meandering mid-tempo Phish titles and a slew of impressively chosen covers.
The big, bluesy voice of trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick drew numerous hoots from the Denver audience during "Night Speaks to a Woman" and "Let Me Lie," and her confident rapping on "Clint Eastwood" (yes, the Gorillaz hit) had the whole place bumping.
Like Phish, the Trey Anastasio Band pulled out unexpected and exciting takes on classic rock favorites and contemporary hits. Whereas Phish wows packed arenas by nailing challenging fare like Frank Zappa's "Peaches en Regalia" and Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein," Anastasio and his mates surprised the Denver crowd last night with the mother of all zany-but-daunting covers: Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," complete with Anastasio going all Steve Vai during Satan's solos.
It's moments like that, and the simple, hypnotic rhythms of bassist Tony Markellis and drummer Russ Lawton -- who is Steve Gadd to Fishman's Terry Bozzio -- which truly make Anastasio concerts special. That and the wheat-grass enema humor.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: Having just relocated my family back to Boulder after a year away via an enjoyable 9-to-5, I was beaming when Anastasio sang, "He's got a daytime job/He's doing all right," during Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing." Random Detail: Giving new meaning to the tune, Anastasio's new trombonist/backup-singer Natalie "Chainsaw" Cressman would look great in a "Burlap Sack and Pumps." Or anything. By The Way: Multi-instrumentalist Russell Remington's Coleman Hawkins-esque saxophone solo during "Lawn Boy" fulfilled Anastasio's promise to make that Phish classic sound how it was originally intended: as a "cigar-smoking jazz" rather than "lounge rock."
Trey Anastasio Band 03.01.11 | Ogden Theatre Denver, CO
Farmhouse Wolfman's Brother When The Circus Comes Timber (Jerry) Theme From the Bottom Tube Gumbo The Wedge Joy Backwards Down The Number Line Strange Design Lawn Boy* Let Me Lie ** Heavy Things + Liquid Time + Gotta Jiboo +
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Night Speaks to a Woman Acting the Devil Ooh Child Ocelot Burlap Sack and Pumps Clint Eastwood Last Tube Alaska The Devil Went Down To Georgia Tuesday First Tube
Words to Wanda Magilla Sultans of Swing
Notes *with Tony Markelis and Russ Remmington **with Tony, Markelis, Natalie Cressman, and Jen Hartswick + full band