“Anybody singing the blues is in a deep pit yelling for help.” - Mahalia Jackson
In 2009, Trey Anastasio spoke in front of a gathering of drug court supporters in Washington, D.C. Trey talked about the period between Coventry and his 2006 arrest in Whitehall, NY. “My life had become a catastrophe,” he said. “I had no idea how to turn it around. My band had broken up. I had almost lost my family. My whole life had devolved into a disaster.” Many songs from that time carry the weight of those struggles, but the heavy blues of “Dark and Down” is Trey’s cry from the pit.
As listeners, we may or may not be able to relate to the specifics of Trey’s experience, but while the sordid details are incidental, the pain is universal. If you’ve ever hidden from overwhelming problems, you may have “found time for dark and down.” Those who have used self-destructive behavior as an escape have fled “to what to drown on” and “drowned again.” If you know you’re headed for destruction but feel helpless to change, you know what it means to be “falling” but “floating,” with “no power left to land.”
Yet for a song about feeling powerless, “Dark and Down” explodes with the savage energy of a soul laid bare. This is the inherent contradiction of the blues, where, according to Cornel West, “catastrophe and celebration – joy and pain sit side by side.” Trey’s ferocious tonal assaults are juxtaposed with sad, gentle vocals, making “Dark and Down” simultaneously mournful, angry, and desperately reaching.
It’s as if the music is clinging to the edge, fighting the pull of the dark. Taj Mahal described a blues man as a “warrior,” saying: “Part of what a warrior does, the compassion and generosity of warriorship, is to get the door open and hold it open for other people to come through. That means the warrior is often out there alone. Sometimes the door closes behind you and you don’t know it happened. Then you have to stop, put the guitar down, go back and get a wedge, and get the door open again, so...people can hear the music.”
In that struggle, there is hope, and hope in the face of despair is the essence of the blues.
Debuting on 5/4/05 in Charlotte, NC, “Dark and Down” embedded itself immediately in 70 Volt Parade setlists. Raw and ferocious from the start, some of the most notable versions of the song can be found in its first few months on the stage. 8/6/05 Jones Beach, 8/7/05 Cleveland, and 8/11/05 Fox Theater are what “Dark and Down” is all about; Trey shreds wildly while the doleful, smooth vocals of Jen Hartswick and Christina Durfee float behind. Some versions from that year’s fall tour take a slightly different approach, becoming dreamy and soft before building to an explosion. Listen to the 11/3/05 Madison, WI performance for a prime example of this style.
One might have expected “Dark and Down” to disappear as Trey moved from the turmoil of 2005-2006 to the brighter days of Traveler, but except for a small gap in 2012, it has stayed in the TAB rotation. Like its author, the song has proven to be tenacious. “Dark and Down” could have become a sad echo of that cry from the pit; instead, its performances are reminders of what we can survive.