Trey Anastasio Band at the Ogden, 03/01/11

Categories: Jam Bands

Adam Perry

03.01.11 |Ogden Theatre
Whenever I think of Phish singer/guitarist/composer Trey Anastasio's most powerful solo work, my mind always turns to "orchestral funk" -- the term Anthony Keidis used to describe the Talking Heads' large-band era (with Adrian Belew on searing lead guitar) when inducting the art-rock legends into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Trey Anastasio Band, reunited recently after several years of hit-or-miss mainstream rock experiments by Anastasio, hit Stop Making Sense-worthy heights last night by melding a high-energy horn section (which now features two female singers) and driving bass and drums with swirling keyboards and Anastasio's trademark Santana-inspired guitar improvisations.

And it was exactly that danceable last night at the Ogden: Santana-meets-Talking Heads with a touch of complex Frank Zappa weirdness. The first of two sold out shows, Tuesday's three-hour-plus performance by Anastasio and his six-piece band (down a few horns from the outfit's celebrated early '00s run) featured an introductory acoustic set full of warmly welcomed Phish tunes.

The jamband hero showed he's equally adept at big-time rock solos and laying a mean capo. Crowd favorites such as "Theme from the Bottom," "Wolfman's Brother" and "Farmhouse" were abbreviated and stripped down so a smiling Anastasio could strum relatively simple chords, skipping bridges and tackling lead vocal duties while the joyful audience sang the harmonies and call-and-response parts usually handled by his Phish brethren.

Adam Perry

Anastasio's version of "Theme from the Bottom" removed the ominous Bartok edge that makes that song special, but "Backwards Down the Numberline" and "Gumbo" provided the Denver crowd with chances to contribute levity and tenderness by singing intermittently odd and sweet lyrics so loud Anastasio could step away from the mike and grin.

"Gumbo" was included in a series of chatty moments Anastasio called, "VH1 Storytellers time," in which the red-haired Vermont musician hilariously detailed secretly stealing irreverent passages from Phish drummer Jon Fishman's journals when they lived together in the mid-'80s.

Songs like "Tube" (with its lines about pregnant hens and rubber bottles) and "Gumbo" ("The sacrifice jars made bubbles/And spittle is everywhere") provided not only a window into what Anastasio described as "what it looks like inside the mind of Jon Fishman," but also underscored why so many music lovers can't get past Phish's often silly lyrics, sadly missing out on the quartet's sometimes breathtaking compositions and group improvisations.

Whatever your take on Phish, one has to laugh at Anastasio's explanation of Fishman's inspiration around the time he wrote "Tube" and "Gumbo": "He was into wheat grass at the time. I came home and he was giving himself a wheat-grass enema."

Believe it or not, some Phish songs -- with the help of the group's lyricist and friend Tom Marshall -- feature flashes of stunning poetry, like Tuesday night gem "Strange Design." However, newer Phish tunes such as "Joy," which boast lines like "You were the song that my soul understood...when we were young, we thought life was a game," and "Let Me Lie," in which the protagonist takes his shirt off while riding a bike, recall Will Ferrell and Chris Kataan imitating Air Supply on Saturday Night Live.

Whether it's Anastasio's age or his recent -- and long needed -- stint in rehab that veered his songwriting in such a cheesy direction is uncertain, but the gradual emergence of his talented band squelched the audible complaints from the picky Denver audience. One fan up front even yelled out, "This song sucks!" before a sentimental new Anastasio number.

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