Review: No Casualties in BSO, Phish Clash of Styles [Baltimore Sun]

Musical worlds collided Thursday night when rocker Trey Anastasio took the stage with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and conductor Marin Alsop. There were no casualties.

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  1. Review from 8301

    5/22/2009 Time Turns Eastic – Trey Anastasio – Meyerhoff Symphony Hall
    The rush on Thursday night before Memorial Day weekend is a horrible time to decide to get on the beltway outside DC and head up I-95 north to Baltimore. There has to be a really good reason to bring this type of misery upon yourself, but the tickets in hand were for something special. The combination of a top tier orchestra performing with the guitar maestro Trey Anastasio. This convergence has only happened a handful of times in the past. If you love music and a show like this pops up in your backyard, then you have to go.
    The scramble through the vacation traffic wasn’t as bad as feared. We pulled up to the venue with minutes to spare, but in typical Phish show style most of the audience was still milling about outside, slowly filing in the front gate to get their tickets checked. The show started a couple minutes after the advertised start time, which gave us enough time to get to our seats just before Trey walked on to the stage and began strumming the opening chords to Divided Sky. The concert hall was magnificent building designed for orchestral concerts. Trey stepped up to the scene by sporting a very dapper black suit (way better than his purple jacket). This all screamed anti-Phish concert, especially with the full string section backing him up, but Trey was in the zone. Dropped jaw and slowly rocking back and forth, just releasing into the moment. You could tell that he had already landed into the headspace of being lost in the music by the first few notes. This was obviously something he put a lot of time and creative energy into and now he was surrendering to the moment and enjoying the ride. He had the typical Trey expression that we all have seen before while on the floor at Hampton, or the stadium seating at a New Year’s Eve show. His eyes could roll back into his head at any moment and drool could come down his chin, but his slow metronome like waltz would continue and the violins would swell and double basses would plod a powerful path through his revised takes on Phish standards.

    At this point in the show it was just the strings on stage. Trey either played his Languedoc guitar or one of two acoustics on stage. His electric signal chain ran through a simplified pedal collection, including two TS-9s and a possible compressor. His lone modified Fender amp cabinet flanked by plexiglass supplied a powerful, but constrained… almost too restrained sound. It was a long way from his setup from the last major Phish tour where if you looked at his guitar the wrong way it would cry and feedback. If you like your Phish served clean, precise and delicate, then you need to give this show a listen. My only complaint was that although the orchestra played magnificently, the volume at which they played was too quiet. It forced you to really focus to pick out all the parts, which wasn’t helped by the fact that there were several people there just to drink liquor, have loud conversations through the music and twitter about the show. It was easy to stereo type these baphoons and I kind of wished they never showed up. It was impossible to understand how these neanderthals didn’t realize they were stepping on everyone’s experience, but I digress.

    What surprised me about this show is that Trey choose to sing. Even on Divided Sky he stepped up to the microphone, where he could have opted to leave out the single vocal line in the otherwise instrumental 10 minute arrangement His wavering voice formed a dichotomy with the proficiency of the orchestra and his own playing. Divided sky especially sounded hollow vocally, but his voice improved as the night went along. The other surprise was his choice of songs. Standard Phish tunes that feature atonal fugues would seem to be a natural fit for the crossover to orchestra arrangements, but Trey went with his unlikely choices of ballads and even the groove heavy First Tube. Every song performed contained its own highlights. In-law Joise Wales brilliantly featured a cool subtle interactions between Trey’s finger picking and the harp. First Tube probably had the biggest climax of the night as Trey traded the polyrhythmic melody with different selections of the backing band. Pebbles and Marbles feature an an excellent extended guitar solo. Even the typical slower tunes worked well and complimented the feel of the show. The orchestra provided gentle lifts as needed and before you knew there was harmonic tension all over the place that was built up around you without you noticing it and before it was too late Trey would lead us the way back to resolution land. Of special significance that night was the fact that this was Trey’s first performance since his sister passed on. He dedicated the Water In The Sky to his nephew and recognized his friends and family in the audience. It was not hard to assume that he was thinking of his sister when he chose to encore with If I Could. When a song is first born, it is a blank slate, but as life navigates it course, songs collect memories and experiences are attached to them. In my mind it will be impossible to separate those dedications from these songs. I think this is the main attraction for a Phish fan besides the face melting shred of a good jam. To steal a line from somewhere, Some people come to laugh their past away, Some come to make it just one more day. Why else are dreaded peasant-dressed hippie mommas and suit clad young urban professionals meeting in the Meyerhoff? We have all shared in this collective music experiment in some way.

    The center piece of the show was the new composition Time Turns Elastic. This lengthy adventure used the orchestra to its full potential. I believe this was first written for the orchestra and will later be turned into a Phish chestnut. I can’t wait for the upcoming Jones Beach shows so that I can see the alternative take on it. I must admit that the lyrics were cheesy, borderline string cheesy. I have only heard it once, so I’ll reserve formal judgment. It comes across as a sixties pop psychadilly rainbow-catching narrative, but the arrangement is a different story. After a spacey type invocation, the tune drifted from the narrative melody to complex segues, which materialized in a monster with every cylinder firing. The blistering riffs Trey unleashes in the final moments of the song are worth the wait. We are talking David Bowie-ish fully fret board exercise while his vocals offer hip counter points to the ranging storm of cacophony the orchestra was stirring behind him. Upon completion, Trey was winded to the point where he says he needs to catch his breath. He should have taken a second longer, because in his excitement he started Let Me Lie in the wrong key, triggering a restart. Guyute made up for it though. It is important to mention that Trey did not use any sheet music and did not face the conductor or the orchestra and was essentially on fire all night long. Summer is here and Phish tour is gearing up. Glad to see Trey has his A-game back. See you on tour!

    Set 1
    Divided Sky
    Brian and Robert
    Inlaw Josie Wales
    Water in the Sky
    Pebbles and Marbles
    First Tube

    Set 2

    Time Turns Elastic
    Let Me Lie
    If I Could

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