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Despite his penchant for occasionally nonsensical lyrics, Phish frontman Trey Anastasio‘s always been someone who takes his music very seriously: before they were unfairly known as just a noodle-rific jam band, Anastasio and his bandmates had constructed a slew of extremely complex musical fugues, with movements that took classical techniques and added distorted haze and a little groove to them.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that his debut performance with an orchestra in LA was a triumph. What’s hard to believe is how triumphant it was: instead of merely adding additional instrumentation to some of his best-known songs, Anastasio (along with veteran orchestrator/arranger Don Hart) expanded the worlds his songs lived in, giving them breathing space, new heart, and texture, in an emotionally resonant, very seriously musical performance that saw Anastasio himself often in awe of the musicians behind him.
Credit for that is due to conductor Scott Dunn, clearly enjoying himself while pressing his Philharmonic to reach into their classical vocabulary to enhance Anastasio’s rock riffs: the violin section played pizzicato in the midst of “Divided Sky,” for instance, adding a percussive edge to the song’s recognisable build; the theme of “First Tube,” usually played just on guitar, was repeated rondo, with each instrument taking a turn on a variation; the entire orchestra’s portomento on “Brian and Robert,” lulled the song gracefully while Anastasio’s acoustic glistened above it all.
For non-classical fans – who likely graced most of the extremely attentive, rapt audience – that musical language triggered other cultural touchstones, nearly all of them cinematic, with aural nods to everyone from Ennio Morricone to John Williams. “Guyute,” in Phish’s song a varied song about an ugly pig, lost its vocals, gained a madrigal touch, and became a potential soundtrack for a lost scene from “Fantasia,” with humorous bow-licks and occasional timpani fills. “Stash,” was a collaboration between musicians and audience, with the crowd both singing along and clapping in triplets, until the percussion and horn sections took it into a merengue beat, with a trombonist coloring his solo with mute-movements that called to mind soft-step Fred Astaire.
The second half of the show was mostly dedicated to two songs: the multi-movement “Time Turns Elastic,” a newer number that Anastasio has been performing occasionally with orchestras for the past few years, and “You Enjoy Myself,” perhaps his defining composition with the band. It’s no surprise, then, that he took to both equally seriously, with the multiple odd time signatures of “Elastic” leading Anastasio to glance back at the orchestra in awe and “You Enjoy Myself” enjoying itself amid sweeping sections and climactic builds, as well as a death-defying sustained note from Anastasio himself that was a reminder of how he attained his reputation as a musical superhero himself.
In the middle of the concert, Anastasio thanked the audience and made a heartfelt, humbling statement: “I think this is the best-sounding room I’ve ever played in.” To many of the faithful, it may be one of the best-sounding concerts that room will ever see, as well.
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