[Courtesy of Josh Martin, user @jmart. -Ed.]
How to approach the Trey Anastasio Band's second (and tour closing) show at the Tabernacle in Atlanta?
1. Consider this exchange with a fellow serious phish head a few weeks before the occasion: Me: "So I scored some tickets to go see Trey band at the Tabernacle down in Atlanta in a few weeks." Friend: "Well, there's nothing in that sentence I like."
Really? Seems kind of harsh. I mean, Atlanta isn't my favorite city either [note: I have revised that opinion based on this trip], but the Tabernacle is VERY cool, and Trey band has some good stuff going for it, right? Most importantly a guitarist named Trey, whom you've probably dreamed of meeting several dozen times and have probably seen in concert many more times than that. BUT ALSO, nice vocal harmonies, dense percussion, and propulsive rhythm and horn sections that power new songs and substantively change the sound of familiar songs. Is this a good thing? I'm not sure. I guess the listener gets to decide that, but I would prefer to think that change is a good thing, especially with something as familiar to all of us as large swaths of the Phish catalog.
2. When Phish tour is on, all of the major jam band sites (including this one) update the setlist as soon as the next song starts, like almost immediately. Consider, then, the fact that this show (6/1/2019) still doesn't, as of four days after the show, have a complete setlist up [it does now], and the only one I could find on the entire internet was on the Live Phish app. And it's not that I'm suggesting that anyone is being negligent. The simple truth is that no one, not even the internet, gets as hyped for a Trey show as they do for a Phish show. Is this wrong? Is there some closet TAB fan out there who gets more jazzed about their music, the same way there was probably a head who was more stoked about the Jerry band than the Dead in ‘94?
3. In which I admit to you that I am not very familiar with the Trey Anastasio Band catalog, other than my experiences seeing them live over the years. I've never listened to an album all the way through and don't usually go back and listen to their shows on the app. As such, this review is going to focus on only two songs. I hope you enjoy it.
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Most folks have probably heard that the Tabernacle used to be a church. It was built in 1911 and actually served as one all the way up until 1994, when it was sold and re-purposed as a music venue in 1994 in anticipation of the 1996 summer Olympics. Security was very tight getting in [consider yourselves warned], but once inside it was pretty easy to see what all the fuss is about: The two balconies are quite steep, giving the overall effect that they're leaning over the stage, right on top of the performer. There are at least 10 separate places serving alcohol; I never had to wait in line once. The whole ambiance of the place is one where music is respected and the management has made it easy to have a good time. On to the music.
"Curlew's Call" (Plasma, 2003), the fourth song of the evening, is a great place to start, as it exemplifies many aspects of the TAB canon: A heavily syncopated Afro-cuban rhythm (in this case, something called "Partido Alto"), a celebratory, major key tone with loads of vocal harmonies, and two tasty trombone and saxophone solos in addition to Trey's own. The entire place was rocking for this one, and Trey took the solos as opportunities to dance around the stage, and make long and pronounced eye contact with as many members of the audience as possible. It was really fun to watch him being so expressive and animated in his movements. This was clearly his show and his band. The crowd on this number, and throughout the night, responded in kind with long, loud bursts of applause. Put "Burlap Sacks & Pumps" and "Simple Twist Up Dave" in this same category.
"Sand": Here is one of my most beloved Phish songs. So beloved, in fact, that I had to go back and confirm that this was actually performed by Trey band first (4/17/98) and Phish later (Gorge '99). As such, it's probably the clearest lens through which to gauge Trey's different approaches in these two bands. I'm going to assume that most folks reading this are familiar with the main guitar riff. Listen to this version, and notice how the horns are actually carrying a majority of it throughout the song. The "jam" starts off in familiar enough territory, with the bass and drums holding things down as Trey tiptoes in. He doesn't seem as interested in creating a conventional solo, that is, building things up, ending in a flame-throwing explosion. Instead, he takes the opportunity to introduce a theme for a few minutes and then move on to a new, entirely separate idea. Staccato flourishes here followed by long, plaintive washes of notes there. Listen for Trey's long slurred, heavily distorted runs of notes in this and many other solos this evening. Throughout each of these distinct passages, the horns chime in with different backing riffs at different times. Eventually the two come together in a fantastic, if abbreviated, peak.
How the band worked out exactly when and how the horn section would chime in is probably the most interesting question to us as listeners. In OUR (that is to say, phish head first) lexicon, "Sand" is a song that we can expect to be pushed in whatever direction the members feel like at the present moment, and even the briefest review of that song's history would show that it is a very accurate marker for where Phish is, musically, at any point in their career ('99 has a lot of swirling, ambient noise and digital delay. 3.0 has become a heavily-syncopated dance party, etc.). When a band has as many members as TAB does, how does a band leader work out that type of improvisation? The deep listening required for that type of group improvisation becomes much harder, if not impossible. And it was almost certainly never the point anyway.
Like most of you, I've been listening to a shitload of different types of music for a long time. And at some point along the way I came to the conclusion that, for me, the purest form of music is that which is played live, in front of an audience, extemporaneously, without a net. I've never questioned this belief and I don't feel a need to. That's what gets me off the hardest and no one has ever done it better than Phish.
As I've matured as a listener, I've also determined that there is a role for other types of music in my diet. The Trey Anastasio Band is a different, more performative type of music. I bet Trey would love it if people wouldn't even try to compare the bands at all. If the approach were the same in both cases, why bother even having TAB? The mission is something he can't get there: one man's undiluted vision, songs focused on the joy of life and movement, an emphasis on the well executed delivery of a specific product. If there were some objective measure of how good a time someone actually had at a show, I'm sure Trey would have been at the top of the list.
We danced our asses off at the Tabernacle that night. Everyone had a great time and was very vocal in their appreciation of the man and the band. And if that was the mission, it was very much accomplished.
See you in Charlotte.
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