13 September 2009


[First, a disclaimer: Yes, I saw the Mike Gordon show on Tuesday 9/8/09. Yes, I thought it was alright, and definitely interesting, with the standouts being the "Andelman's Yard" encore, Desmond Dekker "Music Like Dirt" cover, and sit-in with Benevento-Russo. However, in the words of my buddy, Jesse Jarnow, with whom I attended the show, it was only when the latter joined the stage that it "became real music." Which is perhaps not the kindest or subtlest way to put it, but JJ has never been one to mince words. That said, it was a good show, and I'm glad I went. But tonight's morsel, dare I say with the risk of seeming a little bit biased, was a rather momentous event...]

Before I march forth with Part II of my Phenway recollection, I must say that on Saturday, September 12, 2009, Trey Anastasio distinguished himself among modern-day American musicians by performing with the New York Philharmonic symphony orchestra, in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall. All of the works were songs that are regularly performed with his band, and many were co-written with Tom Marshall, his common compositional collaborator. The concert was a fundraiser for the Kristine Anastasio Manning Memorial Fund (on the behalf of Trey's sister and only sibling, who passed away on April 29, 2009). It was not Trey's symphonic debut, but was his first in New York City, with one of the oldest preeminent symphonies in the world.

In celebration of Joy, I managed to find a very long, silky and sequined silver ball dress, depicted here, with the Red Sox umbrella I found at Phenway:

On the way to the show on the R train, I sat down across from this kid, raptly attending to a chip of a compositional manuscript, which I spied to include works of Beethoven. Peering with musical geekdom cranked to eleven-and-a-half, this kid was totally into it, head craned at 90-degrees, hands gesticulating in manic savant immersion. Gee, can you guess who I was immediately reminded of? These things don't happen in my world by accident...

Later, after the show, I overheard an older gentleman walking down the street after the show. Definitely not your average phan, he wore the prototypical tweed jacket and wild white hair of a season ticket-holder to every classical society in NYC. Nor was he huffing nitrous from a multicolored balloon. He exhorted nasally, "It just sounded like an assortment of themes mixed together."

I agree with him. At points, it was a challenge to remove my longtime Phish-loving listener from between my ears, clear the space, and really hear what was happening, without the distraction of sheer thrill, happiness for Trey, emotional empathy for the cause, or the simple awe of being surrounded by the pomp-soaked historicity of Carnegie Hall. Having played violin for 10 years as a youth, I was exposed to a wide variety of classical music, which I enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) immensely. This predilection was among the chief attractors to Phish in my early phandom...at the time, I was entering appreciation of a whole new set of artists who were different from the standard breed I grew up with, the Mozarts, Mendelssohns, Chopins, and especially the original pioneer patron of the symphony orchestra, Beethoven. Personally, I have never been a raging fan of Beethoven, thinking his works more towards the tendencious and overdramatic. But he was Beethoven, kind of a dramatic guy. So I forgive him...

Anyway, like I said, I agree with the Old Culture Codger, in that the content of the Trey concert performance was not a high-minded, comprehensive recital of the magnum opus of an old master. The compositions sounded, in their local and global arrangement, less the expression of idiosyncratic style of one particular virtuoso composer. The musical form the songs took in their orchestral context suggested pastiche, rather than cohesion.

However, these main critiques having been dispatched, I can go on to say that Trey's absorption of the modern American classical music heritage is ironclad, vigorous, freshly experimental and, at times, devilishly hilarious. Perched on the edge of my velvet seat on the Center Balcony, with a pretty good view of the stage (though from some height), I grasped my chin, pouted, played with the buttons on my sweater, conducted with my index finger, and inhaled deeply, as if to imbibe the vibrations. I stared, almost cross-eyed, into space, the lines between Phish playing in my head blurring in a truly mystifying manner, with the string filaments, horn punctuation, and timpani booms, rising in layers like fragrant wood smoke from the stage.

What I was hearing was a kind of New American Pastoral music, or maybe more an East Coast Pastoral, or (quite certainly) a post-Grateful Dead, post-rock, pre-millennial, New-New England Pastoral. Sure, it sounded like a lot of the orchestral bits thrown into rock songs for dramatic effect. But this was no rock music. There was Trey's plaintive, amplified but tastefully muted classical guitar flourishes. His acoustic guitar turns were quite sublime, to punctuate the orchestrations best described, to my mind, as dewdrops trembling off a car hood, as it speeds down a country road, while its stereo plays Aaron Copeland and Charles Ives.

It was everything I imagined resonating under the surface of the band's dense, rhythmic, amplified arrangements. Phish brings the boogie to the bourgeoise, but last night, the bourgeoise got to boogie. More than that, though, some likely unwitting (possibly high-minded) spectators got to be reminded, probably for the millionth time (lest they forget) that rock musicians are legitimate musicians, influenced and informed by the canons and conventions of so-called "important music," that the legions of (albeit occasionally very alarmingly debauched) fans are there for a reason.

["The modern-day composer refuses to die." -- Trey follows in the footsteps of Zappa (played Carnegie 10/11-12/71) who quoted Edgard Varèse (Ionisation Carnegie debut 3/6/33), who emulated Igor Stravinsky (Rites of Spring Carnegie debut 1/31/24)...whose portrait is on the wall of Carnegie Hall, left.]

Trey said in an interview (a rather amusing one, at that) in the 9/10/09 issue of Time Out New York, that his aim would be to continue these kinds of endeavors, presumably doing his part in building out the rock tradition to naturally and routinely include a classical branch, as norm rather than exception. "So my dream is to take this thing on the road, like a Phish kind of thing where you do two nights in two different towns and play different material." From the look of the crowd, not to throw stones, many could probably do with a few more nights at the opera in their musical appreciation schedule.

"Pebbles and Marbles," made immediate sense to me in a symphonic context, with its sweeping transitions, lyric allegories and conclusive culminations. The rhetorical refrain lends to a pensive curlicue of strings. "If I Could" was incredible backed by harp, especially, which trickled out its sweet cascade of an ending rain from a bough, a perfect counterpoint to Trey's sniffle-worthy solo. This is a level of emotion that cannot be captured at a Phish show. These tender, nuanced songs worked incredibly well in a symphony concert scenario, because their psychological delicacies are often lost on a primarily rock 'n' roll crowd, that tends to see them as opportunities to make a pilgrimage to the nearest arena restroom. "Brian and Robert" is another such song performed beautifully, and transformed from its often difficult, ultra-quiet and sensitive placement in rollicking Phish setlists.

The "Guyute Orchestral" was really exciting. "Guyute" is a song that I've been hearing as composed for symphonies since hearing it the first time. Page McConnell's bright, powerful piano accompaniment usually gives the song its classical dignity (along with Mike Gordon's facile bass lines). The meat of "Guyute" was interestingly ensconced in a fanciful, piquant arrangement of the intro to "My Friend, My Friend," which faked out the audience. That fakeout, and the whirling turns of pastoral and gypsy bohemian themes I was starting to catch signaled to me I'd really have to start letting go of my expectations, and paying attention, because seriously interesting stuff was happening.

Trey also remarked in the TONY interview that his intention isn't likely going to please the Phish phan showing up to hear a classical rehash of their favorites: "...my dream was to have a repertoire of performable pieces with an orchestra that really worked and to have the music be challenging—not like a pops concert." So Trey's not taking "Phish Pops" on tour, here. The embrace of a full complement of strings, percussion and horns elevated "Guyute," the tune about the ugly pig, impressive enough on its own, to diamond-encrusted swan status in very short order.

Now here's the part where I run the risk of seeming pretty controversial. I had the privilege of witnessing the first Phish-4 version of "Time Turns Elastic," performed at the 5/31/09 Fenway Park Summer Reunion Tour opener (which you'll read more about in my next post). And I do mean privilege...I was practically jumping out of my pants with excitement to be subjected to a new, very, very long and mightily orchestrated Phish tune. I'd heard that it was Trey's new ambitious orchestral work, but for whatever reason (maybe because I heard it played with Phish the first time?), I had little desire to hear it played with an orchestra!

It's odd, I know. "Time Turns Elastic" has been the central axle of Trey's recent involvement with symphony orchestras, and here I am blithering about how I simply like it better with Phish. It's not just knee-jerk...I was surprised (and...I'll say it...a little horrified) by the odd variation in theme, and the strange modal choices, which began right after the first vocal section (around and about the "I'm a submarine, submarine..." part). In the Phish version, there's a spare flutter of declining guitar notes, a slight dramatic pause, then a distinctly Weather Report-y transition, which manages to be intrepid and exploratory, yet surreal enough to crack the imagination into accepting the visual theme.

What happened in the Phil last night at that moment was a weird, jangled explosion of Western-tinged, percussive gallop that took me off guard and became the harbinger of the eventual entirety of my experience. I just didn't dig it. I'm really sorry, Trey. I know I'm likely in the minority -- many of the detractors of "Time Turns Elastic" are probably tuning into YouTube videos of the Carnegie Hall performance, and exhaling breathy "Oh!"s and "I see!"s, getting a taste of the work in its original context. And here I am, an avid lover of the bold, progged-out, rock-operatic exuberance of the Phish version of Trey's current magnum opus. I'm SORRY! What can I do?! Some of the moods don't match the narrative, is all.

Thank goodness, the real, ultimate highlight of the night came in the performance of my favorite Phish tune (which, ha ha, just so happens to be among their most frequently performed), "You Enjoy Myself." Another song sweetly smoothed into a recital music mold, I was weepy-eyed and tickled yet again, practically falling out of my chair with anticipation as the crescendo climbed into orgasmic denouement, into an incomprehensibly giddy, fancy-tribal shakedown groove, accented by wild, bold, slithery horns, and replete with deftly executed rhythm egg and some intensely raging cowbell. All this hoopla was reeled into a muted outro, Trey's voice never before sounding more buttery, penetrating or affecting as belted into the creamy cavern of Carnegie Hall. It was the YEM vocal jam taken to a close, personal foray into the lone voice as vehicle for the spirit.

It was here that I grasped what I did not expect, but what makes sense as the after-story (as it always does): with Trey (and them Phish boys in general), it's the journey, not the destination that makes all the difference. I'm convinced after last night that if Trey continues to take this sort of show on the road, he will surely, doubtlessly and effortlessly catapult himself into the respectable firmament of American classical masters. We can all try burning our candles at both ends -- it may not be Trey's destiny, ultimately, as he's already pretty damn well-respected as a musician; his work may well gather flesh and girth via new growth with Tom Marshall and Phish.

However, this voyage may yield fatter fruit; as a rabid Frank Zappa fan, I can attest firsthand that Trey's music is already as compelling as FZ's, in his own way. Vastly (and I can't stress that enough) more approachable, and emotionally digestible as a spring wind, or the sting of a salty ocean wake, Trey's composed orchestral music will not only make a handy stretch over which a new generation can wax elastic on some of Phish's more extensive origins, but an expanse over which to forage into their own inner worlds of musical taste, even ambition.

The dude from whom I obtained my ticket was the new father of a three week-old son, whose responsibilities precluded his attendance at Trey's big night (about which he was decidedly bummed, despite his auspicious new dad-ness). His 23 year-old (!!!) friend, Matt, ended up being a fine "date." Sweater and khaki-clad, a baseball cap politely removed during the concert, communicative, tasteful and well-bred, we shared in common some classical music training, and spoke during the break about his recent return to the piano (the instrument of his youth). I told him that I'd sold my soul for rock 'n' roll in 11th Grade, purchasing a bass guitar to abandon my violin...although I absolutely still own the latter instrument. In ending up with this kid as my companion, the future of advanced cultural refinement wasn't altogether rendered hopeless by some of the more tasteless social degradation of the evening.

My persnickitude aside, the concert will be etched onto my consciousness for at least another lifetime. Trey's hair, frequency and inner joy matched the concert hall, and he really glowed. "At Goddard, I studied orchestration and form with Ernie Stires, who must have told me a million times that freely improvised music was utter shit," said Trey Anastasio, speaking of his late college mentor, and his earlier work with the elongated free-jazz improvisations in his Surrender to the Air project in 1996 (quoted from The Phish Book, by Phish and Richard Gehr, Random House, 1998.). Wherever Ernie Stires's life energy was last night, perhaps intermingling up in the celestial spheres with Kristy Manning's, it glimmered last night, as Trey made new symphonic overtures of an unheard kind.

[Photo courtesy of Ernie Anastasio from The Phish Book; Trey Anastasio performing in a Princeton Day school production of Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore in 1978.]

This post is dedicated to the memory of Kristine Anastasio Manning. May she rest in peace.


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