Trey Anastasio, one quarter of the legendary Vermont jam band Phish, sits center stage at the Virginia Beach Ampitheater with acoustic guitar in lap and head lowered, pondering.
It's a little after 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 31, and this is the middle of his encore. Anastasio has just finished a solo version of "Radon Balloon," a song from another one of his side projects Oysterhead. The far less than capacity crowd starts to get a little restless.
"I'm just trying to figure out what I want to play," says Anastasio, laughing. His words are followed by people cheering and yelling out various Phish song titles.
Anastasio laughs some more and segues into a flawless version of "Driver," a heartfelt ballad first found on Phish's 1999 live album. The crowd, satisfied, cheers and sings along.
Over the previous two-and-a-half hour concert, Anastasio, along with his eight-piece ensemble including keyboards, saxophones, trumpets, trombone, flute opened a musical cornucopia that went from jazz to funk, to rock, and now acoustic ballads.
This solo tour could be seen as the big celebrity doing what he wants, because he can. But this is more than some egotistical drive to make it on his own. Anastasio is the musician who's been locked in a "rock star" image, and now he's trying to break free.
The party got too big. Somewhere along the 17 years of Phish's constant touring, the spontaneity and most importantly the fun, were lost. The four members became so accustomed to playing with each other, things got comfortable and the jams became "standard," losing their edge and allure. So each member left, searching for something new.
Anastasio finds older, more traditional styles rejuvenating, playing a handful of jazzy originals. He's not trying to recreate Phish with this band. Instead, Anastasio wants to capture the power and magic of big band sound, pushed with African rhythms, while throwing in a healthy dose of groove rock.
The opener, "Push on Till the Day," captured the spirit of dance with the horn players wiggling to the beat. The band's first set moved shakily, but picked up with the bluesier "I Done Done It."
During the show Anastasio appeared to be having fun, swinging his body around as his guitar belted out clean jazzy staccato rhythms. He and his guitar indulged in surprisingly fewer solos than with Phish. His hip-sways directed the band at some points. The only difficulties seemed to be starting songs, which would have required Anastasio directing.The horn section needed the most guidance, probably because of the addition of trumpeter Carl "Gears" Gerhard of the Giant Country Horns, whose members were reunited for the first time in 10 years at this show.
The sparse crowd was calm, some were in awe trying to figure out what was going on, while others danced as if they themselves were a Phish show. The greatest response was for the Anastasio-penned Phish favorite, "Gotta Jibboo," which opened the second set. The band picked up on the funk for more than 30 minutes, which included teases of James Brown's "Sex Machine" and a choreographed sword-fight-turned-dance between Anastasio and trumpet player Jennifer Hartswick.
Now, at the end of the concert, Anastasio finishes up "Driver" and motions the rest of the band to the stage for the classical piece, "At the Gazebo."
Anastasio's experimenting loses ears as some crowd members start to move to their cars. One girl in tie-dye and dreadlocks yells a request for a "real song."
Anastasio has come of age musically, but not all of his fans are there yet.
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