Concert: Trey Anastasio

Usually, when given the opportunity to evaluate a band member’s side project, I am less than enthused. With the exception of only a few artists, I typically find side projects to be a diluted form of the musician’s original band with few redeeming qualities of its own beyond the main musician. I am a firm believer that a band cannot survive without all of its members, and usually when I listen to a side or solo project, I truly miss the other original band members.

However, when given the chance to see my favorite living guitarist, Trey Anastasio of Phish, play live in his side project, the Trey Anastasio Band, I could not pass it up. Thankfully, Anastasio did not try to deny or totally move away from Phish within his set, as some solo projects strive to do – instead, Anastasio embraced the Phish legacy and built on it further within the show I saw at The Music Box in Los Angeles on March 4.

TAB has been playing since the late 1990’s with a variety of different members and under different names, but the current line-up is extremely strong. The band features the full instrumental line-up that Phish does: guitar, bass, keyboard and drums, enabling the band, led by Anastasio, to delve into Phish-inspired territory during their lengthier jams. Enhancing this quartet is a horn section featuring a saxophone, trombone and trumpet. The most valuable members of the new band are certainly Jennifer Hartswick on trumpet and Natalie Cressman on trombone, who both also provide excellent, soulful back-up vocals. The new horn section enables the band to tread into more jazz-oriented territory than Anastasio is able to do with Phish.

The show opened with a solo acoustic set by Anastasio entirely featuring Phish songs. It was good to see Anastasio celebrating his work with Phish, and though the set felt very personal, some of the more intricate songs, like “Theme From The Bottom,” felt weak without the other members. Particular highlights included some of the more subdued Phish songs, like “Joy” and “Prince Caspian.”

Once the rest of the band emerged, the show really picked up steam. The end of the first set and parts of the second set and encore included Phish songs like “Sand,” “Gotta Jibboo,” and a particularly excellent “First Tube” that, had I been listening to the audio only, could have passed authentic Phish recordings. Even some of the TAB-exclusive songs like “Money Love and Change,” which featured an especially funky jam, could have fooled me. A very special treat of the show was the Gorillaz cover “Clint Eastwood,” featuring Hartswick’s stunning soulful voice for the verses.

No matter if the song originated within TAB or Phish, Anastasio’s guitar playing was on par with the best Phish shows I’ve seen. He clearly was having a total blast with the very enthusiastic audience- a dynamic that is key to a musician like Anastasio who constantly feeds off the audience’s energy. His guitar lines were constantly creative and his improvisation was dynamic.

Though TAB did cover a fair number of Phish songs, the show still felt very fresh. The jazzier edge added to the band’s original and cover songs created a totally new atmosphere, and when combined with the small, personal setting of The Music Box, it felt like I was seeing a totally different band. The only constant I saw was all I had wanted from the show to begin with: Anastasio’s prolific guitar playing and composition.