Trey Anastasio has spent this year vigorously proving he has a musical life after Phish, with two solo tours and a new studio album, optimistically titled Shine. But on November 8th at New York's Roseland Ballroom, he ended his three-hour set by showing that his long life with Phish is always worth celebrating. For the encore, he brought ex-bandmate Page McConnell on stage for a three-song duet of Phish songs that sent the crowd into a fit of ecstasy.
With Anastasio on acoustic guitar, McConnell on electric piano and the two of them crooning in fraternal harmony, they pulled out the Billy Breathes outtake "Strange Design," turned the Round Room epic "Waves" into a concise ballad and jumped back to Billy Breathes for the sing-along standard "Waste." It wasn't enough to make you believe that Coventry '04 never happened. It was reassuring to know that Anastasio will never say never. Then if that reunion wasn't enough, Anastasio finished the night with a keyboard-army race through the Farmhouse instrumental "First Tube," bulking up his current band 70 Volt Parade with McConnell and John Medeski on extra ivories and tenor honk from saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum.
If McConnell had been nowhere near Roseland, this still would have been a night to remember and download. The first peak came in the second song, a powerfully distended "Night Speaks to a Woman" in which Anastasio's face lit up with delighted concentration as he soloed over the meaty rolling boom of his parade: drummer Skeeto Valdez, bassist Tony Hall, guitarist Les Hall (no relation) and keysman Ray Paczkowski. Backing vocalists Jennifer Hartswick and Christina Durfee had to fight for space in the mix at times -- this is a loud band -- but then so did Anastasio, who seemed to thrive in the surge. His guitar breaks and vocals in the songs from the tight buoyant Shine (including "Air Said to Me," the title track and "Come as Melody") had a straightforward big-rock force that Anastasio rarely allowed himself in the weird science of Phish. "Simple Twist Up Dave," from the Plasma big-band songbook, was another bulldozing treat, with distortion instead of horns. Anastasio also took Round Room's "46 Days" out for a long boogie march that sounded more like Exile on Main Street than Jam Band Nation.
I should say a few words about the set break -- there was none. For all of the big talk about freedom and exploration, jam band culture can be rigidly conservative. Example: bands always play two sets, with a twenty-minute intermission that is often just a momentum killer. On this tour, Anastasio gives his band a rest but keeps going with an acoustic guitar for a few songs, mixing old and new numbers with no apparent plan but great instinct. He was in Round Room again for "Pebbles and Marbles," then went back even further, to Hoist for "Sample in a Jar." And when he sang the last line in that chorus -- "The simple smiles and good times seem all wrong" -- it was obvious that no one in the room agreed. Including him.