An Acoustic Evening with Trey Anastasio
Featuring the Scorchio Quintet
November 18, 2010, Richarson Hall, Princeton University
Love is Freedom, Water in the Sky, Summer of ’89, The Divided Sky, Greyhound Rising, Bar 17*, Gone*, Brian and Robert, Stash, Flock of Words%, Strange Design$, Wolfman’s Brother*
E: Julie^, Let Me Lie
*Trey on Piano [moved back to guitar for Wolfman's jam]
%with harmony vocals from cellist
$Tom Marshall on harmony vocals and main verse 2 vocals
^song co-written with Amanda Green from their new musical
When my friend Kenwood called me last Friday to let me know that he had scored a pair of tickets to Trey’s instantaneously sold out acoustic show at Princeton, I jumped at the opportunity. I had tickets dangled in front of me for the Trey show at Carnegie Hall with the NY Philharmonic last September and I passed on them, and later regretted having done so when I heard the amazing setlist and patchy recordings made off someone’s iPhone. It wasn’t just Trey’s typical set of orchestral songs – Guyute, Time Turns Elastic, Inlaw Josey Wales, and other Seis de Mayo tracks – but fully orchestrated Phish songs. And not just songs like If I Could or Fast Enough For You (which lend themselves nicely to the orchestral treatment), but the songs you really wanted to hear done with an orchestra: Divided Sky and You Enjoy Myself. I didn’t want to miss another one of these.
I wondered what format Trey would feature for this. Would it be like his Trey Band shows, where he comes out on stage with what’s becoming a standard set of acoustic tunes performed solo– Bathtub Gin, Sample in a Jar, Chalkdust Torture, Brian and Robert, and weirdly enough, Wilson – interspersed with tracks scored for string quintet? Or would it be like the NY Phil concert, with every song getting the fully arranged treatment and adventurous Trey compositions, not just songs. I was so lucky to get the latter.
This venue, it must be said, was special. Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus is everything you’d expect from the hallowed Ivy-laced halls of one of America’s most prestigious, and classical-looking, campuses. The rounded off theater had the feel of a Baroque theater in the round, except it was a semicircle, with only about 8-10 rows in the orchestra and only 7 rows in the steep balcony. Neo-classically ornamented columns and wooden facades gave the place a distinctly “old Europe” feel, somewhere between a 17th-century playhouse and a medieval monastery. A magnificent fresco along the back wall of the stage and stained glass added to the overall peaceful and refined feel of the room.
Around 8:20, the Scorchio Quintet took the stage, followed by Trey wearing his now standard “man-in-black” army-style jacket and black jeans. I think Trey might be a hipster…
The Scorchio was configured differently than I was expecting. The cello onstage was augmented with a double bass, but there were also three chairs and a grand piano. Was it the standard string quartet plus a bass, or was it one each of the four strings plus a pianist, plus Trey? Turned out it was the former, a string quartet lineup with bass added. They immediately launched into a song I hadn’t heard before, from the lyrics I’m guessing it was called “Love is Freedom,” with Trey playing an open-tuned guitar. Right away, I could tell that we were in for a very special night.
This chamber music group was clearly not just a randomly thrown-together group of rock-minded string players occasionally renting themselves out to whatever pop star wanted to pimp out his/her sound with strings. The Scorchio had clearly practiced these songs, and knew how to play together. Their blend was impeccable, never overusing vibrato, and really knowing how to bring certain parts out that complemented Trey’s lead while also setting back and providing a homophonic base for Trey’s melodies. Trey’s tone, on what I’m guessing was a Martin acoustic/electric, was so pure and crystalline. No effects at all, just the bright, high timbre of a Martin, simply amplified. His singing, too, was restrained and quiet, but poignant, throughout the night.
Because the experience would have otherwise gone very differently, I have to compliment the crowd for their impeccable reverence and respect for this event. Trey was all the sound in the room, with hardly a single noise from the audience during the incredibly quiet and delicate performance of these songs. Even the whoops and applause of recognition was mostly absent (except, of course, for those songs for about which we were truly ecstatic!), something that could not be said for the Carnegie Hall show. Phans generally did all their same gestures of applause and crowd noise during the Carnegie show, making lots of noise at all the same moments they would have during a Phish concert (“Boy!” in YEM, or the switch to major key in First Tube, or the peak of Guyute). None of that here tonight – Trey was able to deliver every exquisite moment in a silence that did not need to be enforced with overzealous shushing.
Trey’s second song was “Water in the Sky,” the original slow version from 1997 that made occasional occurrences during the past two years, including at the comeback show in Hampton. He played it with the capo on the third fret, giving his guitar a more folksy and light sound, with the strings playing lush background harmonies that occasionally broke out into slow honky-tonk fiddle lines and bluegrassy chord vamping.
What followed was by far the best version of Summer of ’89 that I’ve heard, or that I think will even exist. The folks over at phish.net have advocated for the maturity of Trey’s lyrics and bareness of his soul in this song, something that many older phans seem to relate to, as they’ve now grown up just as Trey has. With the capo way up on the seventh fret, giving his guitar an almost Hawaiian guitar or ukelele timbre, Trey actually had me choked up with the most soul-baring performance of this song that will probably ever be. You felt almost as if you were witnessing an extremely private, intimate moment between Trey and Sue, who was certainly in attendance. Trey’s lyrics were clearer than ever, and his nostalgia and regret-tinged story of their first love and later his absence during the birth of their firstborn were audible in the warble of Trey’s emotion filled voice. The strings tastefully added countermelodies to Trey’s vocal, at times verging on the saccharine sentimentality of a Romantic-era potboiler, but seeming to always remain restrained enough to keep us right there with them. As Trey removed the capo and switched over to the celebratory chords of “and we danced all night,” it felt like a triumph, like “after all the shit we’ve been through, we made it alright.”
As beautiful and special as this was, the set clearly needed something to bring the energy up, as the evening had been particularly mellow and a little bit melancholy so far. Divided Sky did everything I could’ve wanted. Don Hart, Trey’s orchestrator and arranger, seemed to not only listen to the album version of Divided and mine it for inspirational material, but the cello and bass lines, as well as the upper three strings’ chord rhythms, seemed based on the exact style of Page and Mike. The group showed off their modernist chops, slashing through the palindromic composed section with aplomb, hitting every polyrhythm and dissonant figuration. Clearly, these string players would have been equally masterful playing the twentieth-century polyphony of Schoenberg and Bartok as they were the lush, Romantic accompaniments of Trey and Don Hart.
Throughout the night, Hart came up with ingenious replacements for the variety of electric sounds that Trey needs to build up certain moments. The slow, middle guitar solo of Divided was just such a moment. It began with the cello bowing the bass drone of ambient sound that precedes the solo, with the violins and viola playing counterpoint in fourths in between phrases of Trey’s theme. Trey’s affinity for the early-modernist French composers Debussy and Ravel came out in this section, with the airy fourths floating on top of the bass drone, and occasional arpeggiando playing from the viola. This solo usually depends on Trey building tension by gradually increasing his distortion with each phrase, until the second time through the B melody when he hits the full distortion and really pulls the emotion out of his soaring theme.
Without distortion at his disposal, the entire group instead played the B melody accompaniment pizzicato (at 2:45), with Trey muting his strings for the melody. It was a dramatic effect, almost the aesthetic opposite of Phish’s treatment of this section, bringing the dynamic and articulation down quieter and more staccato instead of ramping up the duration and volume of these notes. Similarly, in order to let Trey’s “sustained” notes hold during the final solo, the group got really quiet on their chords, and Trey did his best to draw out those acoustic notes as long as he could. His solo began with just plucked bass and his guitar, while the quintet gradually increased their countermelodies, thickening the texture with every pass through the harmonic changes. At the end, in a relative sense, it was just as majestic a build as Phish’s. Divided was the first of the evening’s standing ovations.
A new song followed, possibly called Greyhound Rises?, and then Trey took to his piano. The high strings began with a sad, descending melody, touched with moments of dissonance, as Trey played arpeggios of extended seventh and ninth chords on the piano. This was Bar 17, a song I wasn’t familiar with other than by name, but I really liked this version. I suspect that, like Summer of ’89, this will be the best version I ever hear of Bar 17. Trey’s vocal was clear but subdued during his long held notes, as it was all night. The silent audience in the chamber music environment allowed him to really explore the softness of his vocal abilities without it sounding sick or acerbic (as it did at times during the dark years, 2004-06). A more clearly marked rhythm started up for Gone, the Party Time track that many would like to see turned into a Phish song, and that matches with Liquid Time on that album of B sides. He then returned to guitar for a beautiful version of Brian and Robert, again featuring the spare arrangement that Phish has favored since returning from their breakup (without the Fishman falsetto vocal).
An introduction of the quintet followed, after which Trey explained how he had had so much fun playing these songs with the group all week in preparation. And then he showed us which song in particular was so much fun to practice as he launched into the opening notes of Stash. This hit me completely out of left field, and I was immediately excited beyond belief. I had considered Divided Sky as a possibility since Hart already orchestrated it for Carnegie Hall, and was thinking maybe YEM or Curtain With too, but Stash wasn’t even on my radar. Good god, this was amazing. Stash might be one of Trey’s most complete compositions, with almost every note of the piano and bass part of the compositional fabric and not just accompanying Trey’s angular melodies. The quintet perfectly filled in the role of Mike/Page/Fish, providing the rhythmic, countermelodic, and harmonic sections of the song. Trey’s smile grew with the perfect clapping of the audience, and as he went into the “chorus,” the audience brilliantly sang the it for him. But it wasn’t the flagellating cry of a Phish show version, it was as if the crowd was really trying to add to the musical fabric of the song. Trey loved it, and let us sing it the second time around with the patented shit-eating grin on full display.
The part that was most impressive, possibly most impressive of the entire night, was the polyrhythms and sectional juxtapositions of the composed section that immediately follows the “chorus” (beginning around 2:18 below). By now, the quintet was really feeling the energy of Stash, and they nailed this very tricky section (without Fishman’s hi-hat to keep it all in check) playing with passion and intensity. The audience delicately sang the Page/Mike vocal part of “maybe so, maybe not,” and just as with Divided, the jam built slowly from background chords to a full, more melodic quintet texture, with melodies and chord figures increasing gradually to build the jam to its peak. This was a Stash to be remembered.
A surprise Flock of Words followed, a song I had pretty much forgotten about, hailing from the 2.0 version of Trey’s hiatus band that blew me away in the summer of 2001. Harmony vocals were provided by the cellist, whose rich vocal weight was a nice match for Trey’s voice, and felt fuller than Jen Hartwick’s sometimes thin vocal quality. It was cool to see her play the cello and sing simultaneously. Then, Trey brought out Tom Marshall, telling a story of how the two of them, as troublemaking and probably stoned teenagers, sat near the entrance to this very building and pointed at people as they walked by, singing “and we’re glad glad glad that you’re a glide.” I love finding out these little tidbits about Phish songs. They sang Strange Design, with Tom providing adequate harmonic support on the chorus, and singing the entire second verse lead. It was a little awkward (especially since Tom veritably towers over Trey) but it was nonetheless fun and heartwarming. Tom left the stage and Trey went over to the piano, sat down, and banged out the opening chords to Wolfman’s Brother.
Everyone in the place laughed. Really?? Wolfman’s??? Of all the songs…but it was fun. Trey played a pretty poor funk line on the piano, but the quintet was definitely feeling the funk, and it worked just fine. For the jam, Trey went over to his guitar, and I think this was the only part of the night that was purely improvisational. Which was really cool, as each member of the quintet tried to make a totally improvised sound. They had clearly done this sort of thing before – the result was a dissonant wash of Wolfman’s-like jamming. Very cool. Trey added to the silliness by going all Keller Williams on his guitar, hitting the top of the body and scratching his pick on the strings for percussive effects. LOL @Trey. LOL.
A huge ovation brought the group back out for an encore. The first song started with an intricate composed section for strings, and then led into the song proper. Something about the melody and form of this song felt very musical theater, and I correctly guessed that this was probably a song from Trey’s musical that he wrote with Amanda Green (also in attendance). The quirky lyrics, which are basically a “walk of shame”-esque detailing of the previous night’s slutty girl debauchery, further tipped me off. I was hoping for an If I Could encore, but instead, Trey followed this musical tune with Let Me Lie, my favorite of his new ballads. What a pretty song – I know it’s simple and the chord changes are practically a musical joke. But it’s a beautiful song, and the strings add to it so well.
This was, overall, such a special evening for me. I’ve been seeing lots of chamber music recently (I even tried to get to a string quartet concert earlier this afternoon, but arrived too late to be seated), and a lot of Phish recently. This felt like the perfect marriage of my two main live music experiences these days. I wonder if other phans, who don’t listen to as much classical music as I do, enjoyed the night as much as I did, not knowing the string quartet repertoire as well. That’s not meant to be insulting or elitist in any way, but just to say that when you listen to a lot of a specific genre, you are more conversant in that language and pick up on details that people who aren’t into it as much don’t.
Unlike some of Trey’s orchestral or classical arrangements, the music tonight never felt overly Romantic or flat. Furthermore, Don Hart can sometimes orchestrate in a hackneyed way, providing what sounds more like an amateur orchestral sound. But he nailed these string arrangements. Perhaps only having five lines to work with really forced him into concision, as Trey is with jamming these days. I hope that a recording comes out of this, maybe an album of this live concert? Or a studio session with the Scorchios? The world needs to hear that Stash and Divided.