I first saw Trey Anastasio perform alongside classically trained musicians in Troy, NY, in February 2001. On a program that included works by Barber, Strauss, and Ravel, Trey performed a concerto for electric guitar composed by his mentor, the late Ernie Stires, and debuted the orchestral Guyute. The concert—Trey’s first during Phish’s hiatus—seemed to be Trey’s attempt to communicate to us and to the world that he was not simply a rocker; he was a composer of serious music.
Trey used classical instruments to communicate something very different last night at Princeton’s Alexander Hall. This time around, rather than taking a page out of Frank Zappa’s book, he was, perhaps, taking one out of James Taylor’s. The Scorchio String Quintet, which accompanied him through the entire show, functioned less as a vehicle for adventurous composition than as the foundation of a bed of prettiness on which Trey’s recent songs could lie for the evening.
But as a lover of classical music, I’m well aware that prettiness is just one—and one of the more boring—uses for a string ensemble. And as a lover of Trey’s music, I’m well aware that his best material skews towards adjectives other than “pretty.”
And yet he performed a set of tunes that, even despite the absence of the dreaded Time Turns Elastic, would likely be universally derided as the worst setlist in history if played by Phish. Fortunately, in the lovely interior of Richardson Auditorium, these songs were far more bearable. Set in the middle of Princeton’s campus, the U-shaped concert hall was designed so that all 900 seats would be close to the stage, and every note would sound pristine as it reached the audience’s ears. The intimate room—where Trey mentioned seeing Country Joe and the Fish at an anti-Vietnam rally in 1970, as well as King Crimson and other shows—was the perfect venue for this type of a performance.
But the performance simply did not live up to its possibilities, due entirely to the song selection. Half of the 14 songs were written after Phish’s 2004 breakup; of the remaining seven, four were Water in the Sky, Brian and Robert, Flock of Words, and Strange Design.
It was the other three songs—Divided Sky, Stash, and Wolfman’s Brother—that provided the highlights of the show and the reminders of what heights a performance such as this one could theoretically reach.
The Divided Sky arrangement was familiar, having been premiered at New York’s Webster Hall at a Trey band show in 2006 and played again in September 2009 at Carnegie Hall. Far from being a recreation of the Phish version, the string parts wove new counterpoints and melodies around Trey’s guitar parts, breathing fresh life into the nearly 25-year-old song.
Stash, enjoying its debut in this form, was the show’s midpoint and its highlight. While new elements were integrated into the song as they had been with Divided Sky, Stash’s arrangement went further. In the absence of drums, and with the addition of sliding violin notes and altered chord structuring, the song became jazzier and distinctly less Phishy. Stash also offered many opportunities for audience participation, which the otherwise respectful and quiet crowd gladly accepted. Much to Trey’s amusement, the audience clapped in the right places, joined in for the “oh-woh-oo-woh” section, and took on “maybe so, maybe not” duties. Trey took it from there, serving up an excellent solo, with the quintet playing a composed accompaniment.
At the end of the set, following a very brief appearance by Tom Marshall, who took the vocals for the second verse and the harmonies of the choruses of Strange Design, Trey sat at the piano for the opening chords to Wolfman’s Brother. The song was a surprising one for string accompaniment, and the verses sounded a bit strange. But after completing the final chorus, Trey zipped over to his guitar, and began grooving along. The violins, viola and cello soon cut out, leaving Trey to duel with the double bassist. He too then dropped out, letting Trey funk it up, solo, on one of the three acoustic guitars he’d brought along. Trey began sliding his pick across the strings, tapping the side of his guitar, and ascending the fretboard as the strings joined back in with a tension-building section that led to one final climax. Trey introduced the members of the quintet, as well as Don Hart, who did the string arrangements, and the 90-minute set ended.
After a mellow encore, which featured the debut of the Amanda Green collaboration Julie as well as Let Me Lie, the show came to a close. In stark contrast to Phish’s Halloween show in Atlantic City 18 days earlier, which left fans hooting and high-fiving strangers as they exited, I heard numerous conversations on the way out of Richardson Hall about going to sleep.
To anyone who’s followed the last decade of Trey’s career, it should be no surprise that last night’s show featured Trey the Songwriter, not Trey the Composer. And within that scope, much about the performance was excellent. Trey’s energy, as always, was infectious. The hard work that he, Don Hart, and the Scorchio Quintet put into this performance was obvious, their playing excellent. Any opportunity, furthermore, to see Trey in a venue ten to twenty times smaller than his normal performance spaces is a treat. But a show that highlights Trey’s last half-decade of sentimental songwriting will also necessarily highlight the fact that those songs play to many of his weaknesses as a composer, singer and guitarist, and few of his strengths. So while last night included some breathtaking moments, they were delivered by a man who is capable of far more.
Set: Love Is Freedom, Water In The Sky, Summer of ‘89, Divided Sky, Greyhound Rising, Bar 17, Gone, Brian and Robert, Stash, Flock of Words, Strange Design, Wolfman’s Brother
Encore: Julie, Let Me Lie
Trey was on piano for Bar 17, Gone, and the first half of Wolfman’s Brother.
Tom Marshall sang on Strange Design.
Leah, the cellist, sang backing vocals on Flock of Words.