Confession: I don’t have the stomach for jam bands anymore. Growing up and going to college outside of Burlington, Vermont makes this a hard thing to confess. I gave up smoking weed before leaving VT for Maine, so that might have something to do with it. Mostly, though, my musical palate has changed. I care dearly about the song these days — its form, lyrics, movements, key changes, and so on. Jam band music is less about the song and more about the in-the-moment performance. That’s cool, but the way I feel about extended jams is the way the writer Norman Maclean (A River Runs Through It) felt about the novel; that is, it’s too breezy. Cut the fat and get on to the next song.
Last night’s Trey Anastasio Band concert at Portland’s State Theater was a test of this leaner approach I have to music these days. This was the fourth time I’ve attended a Trey sans Phish performance (my first coming in 2002 when I still donned my college Birkenstocks), and my appreciation for the songs and jams has dwindled slightly with each show. But last night, I have to say, I found that Trey himself seems to be less interested in windy jams and more interested in pushing the boundaries of pop music.
As a rhythm section man, I’m going to give the bass and drums their beautiful due up front. Russ Lawton (drums) and Tony Markellis (bass) hold it down with the best of them. There’s nothing flashy. No noodling bass solo played with a pick. No Neil Pert gratuitous drum fill that goes on for twenty-eight measures. These guys ground the ten minute plus jams without coming off as boring. Tony Markellis put on a clinic that I wish all bass players were forced to attend. His lines are sharp, melodic, and simple. And he repeats them with hypnotic force. If it weren’t for this tasteful rhythm section, the music might have gone off the rails and landed in the tie-dyed wearing, hippy dancing crowd seriously harshing their mellow.
With that established, however, I’m not going to lie, about two songs into the show, I thought about walking out. They opened with “Cayman Review” and “Alive Again” off Trey’s 2002 solo album Trey Anastasio (Elektra Entertainment). These are catchy songs, but I was overwhelmed by a rush of deja vu. The bad kind. I looked down to make sure I wasn’t wearing Birkenstocks. The songs meandered. I was even saddened to hear that the horn line to the chorus of “Alive Again” had been muted and no longer resembled the great hook it was in 2002. But I was there with friends and needed to stick out the concert for their sake, even if it meant zeroing in on the rhythm section for a couple of hours.
Then the horn section bitch slapped me for even thinking about leaving. A few songs into the first set, James Casey (most notably of Lettuce) reached into the crowd and grabbed us all by the collective throat. It was the first new sound I heard come out of the Trey Anastasio Machine in years. Holy shit. Casey’s playing is fierce and undaunted. His solo was one of the few moments of the night where I yearned for more bars. I wanted to yell, “Jam, man. Come on, jam.” But, thankfully, for my pride’s sake, I didn’t yell anything other than a few whoops. The other members of the horn section, Jennifer Hartswick on trumpet and Natalie Cressman on trombone, were solid on their respective instruments. And, of course, Jennifer Hartswick has serious vocal chops and proved it on a beautiful version of “Drifting” and on the cover the Gorillaz’s “Clint Eastwood.”
At the center of the entire show, as you would imagine, was Trey. The signature sound of Trey’s guitar tone was the backdrop to much of my early twenties for better or worse. Mostly for better. His solos early in the first set last night were slow, predictable, and, dare I say, boring. But as the show progressed, his playing became more melodic. He started playing fewer notes. He became more dynamic. Maybe James Casey grabbed him by the throat, too. Whatever it was, by the end of the first set, and well into the second set, Trey’s playing was refined and as good as I’ve ever heard it. It was also refreshing to hear Trey on his Fender Jaguar guitar. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him on any other guitar than his signature Languedoc custom guitar or his Martin acoustic. The Jaguar was punchy–more garage rock than buttery psychedelic rock. Thank you, Trey. Keep pushing the sound.
Here’s what annoys me about some Phish fans: they hate change. I can’t imagine being an artist trying to continually grow and being expected to always sound the same and deliver the same product. If an artist is going to be backed into a corner, I guess Phish isn’t a bad corner to be backed into, but what I saw last night was someone trying to push against the mold he’s been cast in. The jams weren’t out of hand. The rhythm section and horn section were tasteful and calculated. (Did I mention James Casey?) Even when they played Phish’s “First Tube,” the playing wasn’t Phish, it was the Trey Anastasio Band.
Last night was a pleasant surprise for this writer and musician now averse to jam bands. I was glad to hear Trey growing, bringing on new musicians, and honing his live-performance songs. The State Theater might have smelled as heady and yeasty as a Phish show, but the band on stage was something more refined.