Under One Accord in Midtown: Trey brings symphony tour to Atlanta

Written by David Shehi / Photos by David Shehi

February 13, 2012

Trey Anastasio with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (Conductor: Scott Dunn)
Woodford Performing Arts Center
Atlanta, GA
February 9, 2012

 

 

 

If there was one word that would put this past Thursday’s Trey Anastasio performance with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) into adequate summation, it would be “surreal.” True enough, it was not the first time the ginger-haired, Languedoc-wielding Phish god had played with full orchestral accompaniment. But in Atlanta, something unique and (positively nuanced) odd began with the walk through the nippy evening air to the door and lasted through the majority of the orchestrated bliss.

Anastasio showed his first public flair for all things orchestra in 2004, through solo album Seis De Mayo and the subsequent conducting of the Nashville Chamber Orchestra through three numbers at Bonnaroo, most notably Phish’s “Guyute.”

Many moons have passed since then: a Phish hiatus, an arrest, drug court, some community service, sobriety, virtual disappearance from the public eye and subsequent self-rediscovery. As a result of these, or perhaps due to something totally unrelated, Anastasio returned to his roots. He began writing intricate musical compositions just as he had in the early days of Phish.

As part of the process (that unfortunately very little is known about,) Trey became reacquainted with his love of symphony and musical parts, eventually contacting Nashville composer Don Hart. It was from this relationship that the magnum opus Time Turns Elastic was born.

In 2008, Time Turns Elastic debuted at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium with very little fanfare. Free tickets to the 50 person “limited seating” soundcheck were not all claimed; wherein a nervous Anastasio looked out to the 40 or so scattered folks every so often, asking “does it sound okay?”

Tickets to the show itself sold out by intermission. Jon Fishman (drummer, Phish) was on hand for the performance, like a proud dad watching from the seventh row as his dear friend fulfilled his dream. Fans did not care to bother him and the audience was fully supportive, largely remaining hushed as though their soul was taking in each note. In the days that followed, fans far and wide were kicking themselves in the ass for balking at the unique opportunity and hoped that they would be given another shot to make it right.

Since that night in Nashville, much has taken place. Phish has toured extensively. There have been other symphony performances of the opus with Anastasio as the lead member. There have been Trey solo tours. As a result, the legion of star-fuckers are alive, well and plentiful. These factors and others (to be named later) made for a night in the Midtown section of Atlanta that could not have been more different from the night at the Ryman. In this case though, different did not equal bad. It simply equaled different.

The performance in Atlanta marked the first stop of the first Trey orchestral tour. Over the course of a month, the tour’s schedule dictates four stops in four cities, playing with four different symphony orchestras. In direct contrast to its Music City debut, the tour sold out within a week of its announcement (perhaps earlier), and on this night in Atlanta, there were no tickets for which to be haggled. There was a rump for every plush seat in the house.

Walking up to the performing arts center was quite the sight; bearded typical fare Phish folk blended with ASO season ticket holders. If one was to simply judge the book by its cover, it looked like hell had frozen over and the 99 decided to join the 1 for a day. As one guy would be slowly, but ever so kindly asking for directions to “the Trey show” another would be talking about “Bill at the club.”

Some of the standard scene crowd chose to make an occasion out of it, putting on a coat and tie. However, more often than not they looked like they were off to either a wedding or a funeral. They were out of their element. It was a collision of worlds and one could only predict what the outcome would be.

Once inside, the venue was beautiful, but the staff was dreadfully under prepared for the alcohol consumption that would soon be taking place. In talking to one of the bartenders at the end of the evening, he was clear that they “went through three times as much [alcohol] as they normally do” and went on to say “you guys sure do tip good though.”

Anyone who has ever been to a major symphony orchestra performance in a city of any size can picture the makeup of the room: orchestral seating arrangement with an overhanging balcony and a ceiling that was built for the acoustic occasion.

To resounding applause, the leader of the band took the stage, grinning that familiar grin we all know and love. However it lasted longer than usual, as it truly does seem that it is within this element that Trey seems to feel best, and perhaps where he sees himself aging through the years after Phish.

Opening the evening with “First Tube,” the crowd had a difficult time quieting themselves, but soon realized that if they didn’t, the music simply would not be heard. It was a pristine way to immediately engage a crowd that was, for the most part, completely clueless about what they were getting themselves into.

Almost immediately, though, the audience caught the groove — heads bobbing and feet tapping to the familiar number.

Next on the agenda was The Story of the Ghost‘s “Water in the Sky.” Anastasio has said that this was one of his late sister, Kristy Manning’s, favorite songs. Manning passed away in 2009 and the tune was performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in her memory and in dedication to her surviving son.

Naturally, the song has taken on a new meaning. With the orchestral arrangement and the tempo turned down from recent Phish servings, the thoughts of lost loved ones flickered and a stirred emotional state was the result. It was beautiful.

The set progressed and as it did, so did the beautiful interpretations of Phish and Trey gems including “Divided Sky,” “Guyute,” “Let Me Lie” and two highlights of the set, “Goodbye Head” and “Stash.”

“Stash” in particular was not only the most fun of the night, but the community spirit contained therein proved to be the final piece of bait that drew all of the audience under one accord. Grey-haired elderly women fell in love with the crowd participatory clapping and vocal refrains, “Maybe so, Maybe not” and literally were disappointed that they had not stood in the horrific line to get a poster before the show began.

Almost as soon as the second set began, it became clear that the alcohol sales should have been cut off before intermission. What had been a relatively tame crowd was now having to be told to be quiet by those around them far too often, leading one fan to comment after the show, “it was a perfect example of why we just can’t have nice things in our scene.”

At some point something gave, because eventually either the “shhhs” worked or the drunkards were lulled to pass out point by the first movement of Time Turns Elastic, the focal point of the second portion of the evening.

What was interesting was how engaged the disenchanted Phish fans were with the number that is, more or less, considered a bathroom break tune at a Phish show. In fact, it is so hated by some that they will refer to it as being TTE’d when they become a “victim” of having to hear it on a setlist. Not on this night.

Once order was restored to the room, it was as though the crowd was hanging on every note, and rightfully so. When taken in via the scenic route, the number is emotive and powerful. Taking it in with eyes closed was like a journey across many terrains, through all four seasons, in the darkest hour and under the dawn of a new day.

The orchestra shone like the sun, one organism with countless rays, or notes and variances in sounds in this case. What spoke most profoundly about the way it was received by the audience was that it was the only number of the entire evening that was allowed to fully finish without premature applause.

Following an offering of “If I Could” that was only missing Alison Krauss and came complete with a proposal for engagement in the crowd (congratulations Billy and Brooke) and subsequent acceptance, “You Enjoy Myself” was dedicated to the loving couple and included a tease of “Here Comes the Bride.”

This theme of Trey interacting with the crowd was continuous. He accepted a rose before departing the stage at the end of the first act. He autographed a fan’s sign and now he was dedicating a song. These second two things simply would not happen at a Phish outing, or even a Trey Anastasio Band one for that matter.

“You Enjoy Myself” was standard, barring the fact that there was a full orchestra playing it. Then, it went to a place that was anything but standard with a little trickery and a bold move by Anastasio.

The trickery came during the lead up to the song’s only truly discernable words: Boy, Man, God, Shit. As is par, the yelling excited intro to “Boy” — led by Trey — ensued, but there would be no “boy” nor would there be the unintelligible gibberish that follows. Rather, it would be all instrumental, a trip down Phish memory lane to the 1997 funk days, orchestra style.

To close out the classic, Trey moved his vocal microphone and placed his guitar aside. It appeared as though he would be doing a dance that is commonly associated with the number. Instead, he closed his eyes, placed his arms over his chest and began to sing a capella.

At first, it seemed like an act of gross and pure pretentiousness on his part, something for Broadway. But that thought quickly yielded to truth: the man was baring himself.

During this section of the performance, Trey took down the two barriers that he had left (his microphone and guitar) on a night where there were already no Phish lights, security gate and very few effect pedals. Before this very crowd, Trey Anastasio, a private and shy person by nature, gave more of his true self than he may have done at any other performance. He bared his soul in an improvisational chant that gave every indication of being birthed from his heart and it didn’t matter that some notes that echoed through the hall were mildly off pitch.

To say that it was bold would be an understatement. The word that sums the move up best?

Refreshing.

Trey didn’t have to do that. He wanted to and it is this kind of music that causes these desires from the elder statesman of jam.

Following two relatively unremarkable encores, the night was capped.

In a relatively recent interview, Trey said that he thinks that a musician’s job has always been to provide an act of service for his audience, from court jesters to the present. It could be said that he does this every time that he takes the stage. But this past Thursday, music was the only tie that bound socially polar opposite people together, people who began the evening judging each other and ended it telling by telling each other that it was a “pleasure to meet” them before retreating to their respective corners of the world.

To sum it up, through a genuine demeanor, Trey Anastasio, a man who can make an electric guitar do whatever he wishes, played with a symphony. In so doing, he imparted a piece of himself on his audience through his art.

What had started out as a cold surreal night had now become completely valid.

His act of service had been fulfilled.

 

Setlist

I: First Tube, Water in the Sky*, Divided Sky*, Brian and Robert*, Goodbye Head, Guyute^, Let Me Lie, Stash*
II: Time Turns Elastic, If I Could*, You Enjoy Myself#%
Encore: Golden Slumbers, The Inlaw Josie Wales*

NOTES: * Trey on acoustic / ^ Trey first on acoustic, then electric guitar / # “Here Comes The Bride” tease / % A capella Trey vocal to close

 

Click the thumbnail(s) to view more photos from the show by David Shehi…