Anastasio and Band prime Virginia for Phish reunion

Written by Scott Wise / photos by Bob Hogensen

October 28, 2008

trey-thumb.jpg

Trey Anastasio and Classic TAB
The National
Richmond, Virginia
October 25, 2008

In September Trey Anastasio announced he’d be closing his Northern Exposure tour at the National Theater in Richmond, Virginia, and local fans saw it as an opportunity for the former Phish frontman to make up for the train wreck of a show he and his 70 Volt Parade performed three years early in a larger venue just one mile away.

But by the time Anastasio’s return to Richmond rolled around, those same fans were focused on the future. Weeks after announcing his October "solo" tour, Anastasio confirmed rumors that he would be returning to his day job, bringing Phish back to life five years after breaking up the band he formed.

Phish’s first stop?

The Commonwealth of Virginia. Hampton Coliseum.

A mere 60-minute drive from the venue where he would put on what appeared to be his last performance before Phish reunites.

So with the past firmly in mind and the future untold, a sold-out crowd filed into the National Theater to witness the end of Anastasio’s "Northern Exposure" tour, ironically situated just blocks from the White House of the Confederacy in a city that once served as the Capital of the South.

When classic TAB took the stage 20 minutes past eight o’clock Saturday night, there were not many questions left to answer. Choosing from a fairly stable catalog of songs, the band had received rave reviews after their previous shows on fan boards leading up to the tour finale.

trey1.jpgAll that remained to be seen was if TAB could sustain their trademark energy for one more night and whether Trey would call Dave Matthews out for a reunion of Vermont and Virginia’s finest (Dave had a gig booked the very next day at a venue down the street). The answer to the first question arrived just minutes into the band’s opening number, a "still getting used to it without horns" version of "Push On Til the Day."

The tension Trey and his band mates built during the jam segment of this tune grew and grew until Trey finally hit the release button eight minutes into the tune, causing the crowd to jump and dance with delight. So much for the 44-year-old post-rehab rock star losing his edge. Had Trey and company kept that kind of energy up all night, those in attendance would not have been able to walk out of the National due to blisters on their dancing feet.

Maybe TAB was looking out for our feet, because over the next several songs the show’s energy dipped noticeably.

But what "Sand" and "Ooh Child" lacked in energy, they made up for in another category – meaning. The public has learned a lot about Trey since last he toured; that he had a serious addiction (a fact long rumored but finally confirmed) to some pretty serious drugs. We also learned, through courtroom video clips posted on the Internet, that he is a man of humility, a recovering drug addict.

Lyrics that meant one thing to the singer (and his fans) years ago have taken on new meaning as time has gone by.

In "Sand" it seemed Trey made it a point to over-emphasize the line "if I hit stormy seas/I’d have myself to blame" as if it were part of a 12-step program. To hammer home that step the stage lights brightened, increasing their intensity around Anastasio as his bandmates played the dark.

The following song, a cover of the The Five Stairsteps’ "Ooh Child," took on adding meaning when later in the show Anastasio acknowledged his two daughters and wife were in attendance that night. It was almost as if he was telling them he knew he had messed up but "right now" things are alright, things are going to be easier for their family.

If the opening number was the highlight of the opening set, then the new Anastasio/Marshall penned tune "Backwards Down the Number Line" came in a close second. Prior to playing the song Trey addressed the crowd for the first time to thank them for the support, then dedicating the song to Keith, the lighting director, in honor of his 50th birthday.  The song came complete with happy, nostalgic lyrics and has just enough guitar licks to keep things interesting.  It’s good to know that soon enough the song would be in Phish’s arsenal.

trey2.jpgThat is not to say classic TAB did not execute this tune and many others with the improvisational skills Trey fans want and demand. Drummer Russ Lawton and bassist Tony Markellis laid a solid foundation all night for keyboardist Ray Paczkowski and Trey to build upon. What Lawton and Markellis lack in stage presence and flair, they made up for in dependability and consistency.

To watch the pair work providing the backbone that supports Anastasio’s guitar-fueled jams only hammers home the point that regardless of what you learned watching MTV as a child, a good band is only as good as its rhythm section.

The band ended its first set with what can only be described as a "dirty jam" that spawned out of what started out as a pretty typical "Money Love and Change."

With the toe-tappingly melodic, cross-country tripping "Sweet Dreams Melinda," the second set did not get out of the gate quite as fast as set one. However that changed moments later with Lawton banging out the opening beats of crowd favorite and jam launch pad "Mr. Completely."

Phish fans still talk about the 30-minute monster "Mr. Completely" the band unleashed one summer day in Utah five years ago. Saturday night’s version lasted only about one third that length, but those 10-minutes provided the highlight of the electric portion of set two. The jam featured the aforementioned Paczkowski on his assortment of keyboards and organs, trading musical jabs with Anastasio while drums and bass filled the tiny spaces in between.

The "Gotta Jibboo" that followed did not stand up to the song that preceded it. Despite being written by three of the men performing it that night, it failed to reach the explosive heights Phish took the same song when its members debuted it in 1999. Still, " Gotta Jibboo" is a crowd favorite and whatever faults its performance may have had were not detected by the masses grooving to the Lawton/Markellis beat, a beat that turned reggae with a cover of the Jimmy Cliff classic "Sitting In Limbo." While the song has made appearances in TAB setlists in the past, it is yet another song that’s lyrics have added meaning in Trey’s post-arrest days.

Perhaps that’s why it appeared Trey was reading the lyrics off a cheat sheet placed before him on the ground.  While reading the lyrics may have prevented him from missing a word or skipping a verse, the constant looking down caused him to come in late on some lyrics. Straight forward, yet fun, versions of "Alaska" and "Shine" ended the electric second set.

trey3.jpgAs the rest of the band exited the stage, Trey picked up his acoustic guitar to whet the appetite of Phish fans in attendance. While getting in tune his proximity to the site of his future Phish reunion did not escape his mind. While he joked with the crowd about staying in Virginia to practice until Phish re-unites in Hampton, the stage lights behind him shined in pattern very much like the lights that surround Hampton Coliseum. The crowd roared in recognition and appreciation that Trey and Phish have chosen their home to play such important shows. The fact the band’s management is based in Virginia does not hurt.

Trey proceeded to bring smiles to everyone’s faces with mellow, acoustic, sing-a-long versions of Phish songs including " Water in the Sky," "Brian and Robert," and "Sample in a Jar."

Trey decided to share a special moment just prior to singing an acoustic "Strange Design." He pointed out his family in attendance and mentioned how he had written this song just before the birth of his eldest daughter. After dedicating the song to his daughters and wife, he proclaimed a second dedication to his good friend Mike (presumably Phish bassist Mike Gordon) who celebrated the birth of his daughter just the day before.

During the song when Trey asked if he could bring a few companions on this ride he calls life, he may have been singing to his wife and children, but the 1,500 fans hanging on every word were ready to hop in the Anastasio-family roadster and drive.

The night’s second big question was answered when the band returned to the stage for their encore sans Dave Matthews. No Dave meant classic TAB could encore with classic TAB tunes "Burlap Sack and Pumps" and "First Tube." The former gave each band member time to show off their chops during a jam that featured around-the-horn solos. The latter did what all good encores should do – it left the crowd wanting more.

How many days until Hampton?