Trey Anastasio Band
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Trey Anastasio last performed on the First Avenue stage 21 years ago. The Phish frontman returned with a six-piece backing band to make up for his long absence with a three-hour, two-set performance on Tuesday night. The sold-out club was packed full of dedicated fans who received a generous set featuring a well-paced mix of solo songs, Phish staples, and surprising covers.
Against a colorful backdrop of tranquil blue waves crashing, the group took quickly to the stage and got the night going with "Cayman Review," which had a jazzy, New Orleans vibe to it due to the stellar three-piece horn section composed of Natalie Cressman (trombone/keys), Jennifer Hartswick (trumpet), and James Casey (sax). Their vibrant additions consistently gave the songs a stylish edge, while also boldly setting the material apart from the distinctive jam band sound of Phish. "Gotta Jibboo" kept the strong start going, with Trey's nonsensical lyrics serving as mere placeholders that eventually gave way to an expansive guitar solo atop the track's funky beat generated by drummer Russ Lawton and bassist Tony Markellis.
Any three-hour performance is going to have highs and lows, especially when you're dealing with music that is so unrestrained and improvisational. The slower material seemed that much more tepid when compared to the tracks that truly caught fire, so melancholy songs like "Gone," "Valentine," and "Pulsing Days" paled in comparison to the ripping, horn-laden instrumental "Magilla" and a scorching, guitar-driven take on "Dark and Down," which Trey simply owned as the horn trio ceded the stage to the band leader's wildly expressive solo.
After thanking the vocal, supportive crowd, Trey remarked how the last time he played First Avenue was in 1992. "That's crazy," Anastasio remarked wistfully. "Are Trip Shakespeare still playing? Tell them I said 'Hi,' and I still can't get that one song out of my head -- 'He played guitar like a natural disaster.'" (I'm not sure how many people in the crowd recognized the affectionate reference to Trip Shakespeare's "Toolmaster of Brainerd.")
The salsa-flavored instrumental "Mozambique" kept things lively, while the upstairs of the club got down to the funk-fueled jam "Money Love and Change." Keyboardist Ray Paczkowski ignited a strong version of "Pigtail" that flowed well into a smooth, soulful rendition of "Night Speaks to a Woman." The first set then came to a rousing finish as Trey donned an acoustic guitar and Cressman took over vocals in Spanish for the Latin-fueled pulse of "1977."
The group built on that energy during "Push On 'Til the Day," which featured a blazing guitar solo from Trey, who was clearly lost in the spirit of the song. He spun around wildly in time to the track's vibrant rhythms while being perfectly framed by the series of spotlights that were rightfully shining on him as he took the song to the stratosphere. He was still feeling the flow as the band left the stage as the first set ended, bouncing excitedly like a child on Christmas morning.
After a half-hour break, the band returned, and it didn't take them long to recapture the magic from earlier, as Trey took over on a jaunty version of "Curlews Call" featuring a vigorous guitar solo that immediately brought back the energy from the end of the first set. The crowd roared upon hearing the first funky notes of "Sand," and the sprawling version truly took flight, as the lights from the spinning disco ball stylishly colored the room like it was a hippie prom. Anastasio's simmering guitar riffs gradually blossomed into a thing of beauty as the band kept up with him with a pulsing arrangement that complemented his soaring riffs.
After such a high (pardon the pun) as that, the set naturally took a bit of a dip in energy, with the Russian-flavored beat of "Land of Nod" and a somber run through of "Greyhound Rising." (Although it was a sly gesture from Trey to play the latter number in an old Greyhound bus station.) The free-jazz freakout of "Burlap Sack and Pumps" emphatically got the set back on track, as Trey played a cool call-and-response with Casey's resonant saxophone as the song caught fire. The number was reminiscent of Miles Davis's electric era, and was one of the highlights of a second set that was full of them. Trey must have felt so as well, as he stopped the show so we could all sing "Happy Birthday" to Casey, as a way of thanking him for the impressive sax work that just slayed the crowd. "Thanks, Minnesota," Casey said warmly, clearly touched by the gesture.
Trey kept the momentum going with a guitar-driven take on "Architect," which featured bright beams of light streaming off of his instrument as he lost himself in a searching solo. When Anastasio is truly feeling a song, he either bounces around enthusiastically or looks off in the distance locked in what Phish fans refer to as "Trey-face." There was plenty of both on display throughout the generous performance, as Trey looked in good spirits from the moment he stepped on stage, clearly thrilled to be playing First Ave once again. "This is an unbelievable room to play in," Anastasio remarked fondly, before leading the band through a new song, "Bounce," which indeed did have the band and the crowd bouncing along to the track's infectious beat.
A dynamic cover of Gorillaz' "Clint Eastwood" was a welcome surprise toward the end of the second set, with Trey and the crowd handling the effervescent chorus while Hartswick assertively handled the track's bristling rhymes. After affectionately introducing the band, Trey again remarked about how much he loved the club. "This has been an amazing show tonight. I can't believe how cool this room is." And with that, he ushered the second set to a close with a vibrant take on "First Tube," despite numerous calls for "Wilson" after he was handed a Russell Wilson jersey from the crowd. "The power of the chant, what can I tell you," Trey joked, in reference to the Wilson chant that some Seahawks fans used to spur their quarterback on to a Super Bowl victory. "I'll come up with a Vikings chant next year," Trey promised.
Trey was still thinking about his potential Vikings chant when they returned for the encore, saying that Adrian Peterson is amazing and "He deserves a chant." A keys-laden take on "Heavy Things" started things off tranquilly, with Trey adorning the number with subtle acoustic guitar strains. But a set this potent couldn't end quietly, so the band tore into a storming cover of Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog," with Hartswick again handling the tempestuous vocals. The untamed song brought the night to a lively close, with the crowd entirely satiated after three hours of jams, and Trey clearly happy to have made a triumphant return to First Avenue at long last.
Personal Bias: I went through a bit of a Phish phase in college, seeing the band a few times in the early '90s, but haven't listened to them much over the years. I went into this show with an open mind, and came away impressed with the musicality of Trey and his talented band, as well as the genuine good feelings that his songs bring out in his fans.
The Crowd: Filled with dedicated Phish fans, a lot of whom were quite wasted, but really friendly. I got a lot of high fives from random dudes, and I'm totally OK with that.
Overheard in the Crowd: "I can't make it all the way up the stairs. I'm just going to sit down right here."
Random Notebook Dump: The sweet posters for the show were done by the amazing folks at Landland. Nice work from those talented folks.
Dark and Down
Money Love and Change
Night Speaks to a Woman
Push On 'Til the Day
Land of Nod
Burlap Sack and Pumps
Simple Twist Up Dave
Clint Eastwood (Gorillaz)
Black Dog (Led Zeppelin)