August 4th in Boston was not your Trey Anastasio show on April Fools Day back in Vermont. The two-set performance at the Bank of America Pavilion was, in contrast, well- paced and structured to accent the momentum of the material, much of which was new and served to provide what may have been subliminal focus for the ex-Phish guitarist. His playing was pointed and passionate, and his band followed suit, radiating a confidence that, although the night was not without its tentative moments, served to justify the rapturous adulation exploding from the capacity crowd as Anastasio ambled somewhat meekly on stage.
No doubt the audience wants to encourage Anastasio to justify their faith in him, but also to persuade him to leave behind the self-doubt that might be plaguing him after close to a year's worth of somewhat halting progress in his reinvention as a solo musician leading his own band. Fitful studio recording has at long last given birth to a new album, produced by Brendan O'Brien (he of Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen pedigree), while small but crucial changes in the lineup of what's called 70 Volt Parade have accelerated the jelling of the band.
Trey Anastasio could conceivably make a live album out of what he and the group did in Beantown this gorgeous late summer night. The mix of new pop oriented material like "Shine afforded segue into earlier solo material such as "Night Speaks to a Woman and all of which served to further the momentum of the collective playing. By the time 70 Volt Parade reached a fever pitch at the end of the first hour or so, with "Mr. Completely, it almost seemed like the night had logically and purposefully come to a conclusion.
But the second set, moving at a more deliberate pace even when funking it up through "The Way I Feel, had its own rationale. As a means of offsetting the somewhat more accessible style of tune that's to appear on the forthcoming album, this part of the evening emphasized the cerebral side of Anastasio that this band, for all its playfulness, seems wholly comfortable in supporting. Much of that empathy has to do with the presence of new bassist Tony Hall, who plays with a resounding roar even when his basslines are teeming with grease: he's the alter ego of Skeeto Valdez, who drums with as much panache as he does authority. There's no false theatrics anywhere in this band, to the point Chris Kuroda's lights, for their comparative understatement, proved all the more dramatic. Keyboardist Ray Paczkowski's use of acoustic piano provides a terrific foil for Anastasio's guitar, a dynamic that, like the soulful waves of Hammond organ that ebb and flow through the mix, should be utilized more often.
In contrast, you have to wonder how Les Hall fits into this group's sound. His electric keyboard playing was virtually inaudible most of the night (the sole and significant exception his contribution to the Beatles encore), while his rhythm guitar work provides some kind of foil for the leader, but it's hard to hear how; it's almost as if Anastasio just likes having the guy on stage with him!?! Which might also be said of the female singers now on tour with Parade, except Jen Hartswick and Christina Durfee noticeably bolster the vocal strength of a group who has no singers to speak of except the frontman himself; the two women might prove even more valuable if they can, in addition to background harmonizing, sing horn parts (the likes of which Hartswick used to play in the Anastasio big band of a couple years ago.
By the middle of a fairly statuesque reading of the instrumental "First Tube, it seemed like it might be a good idea for Trey & 70 Volt Parade to perform this same set list for a few nights running. It'd serve the dual purpose of learning the new songs but also becoming comfortable with the flow of the music as the band discovers its own strengths. While this approach might run against the improvisational grain of a man who made a name for himself doting on the spontaneous, to slip in a different cover tune for an encore this night it was a mountainous version of the Beatles "I Am the Walrus might just be enough of the element of surprise.
After Anastasio's bombshell about Phish's disbandment last spring, the mixed blessing that was Coventry and the perhaps inevitable missteps early in the process of self-discoverytoo many cover tunes at Bonnaroo, not enough direction in the recording studio after productive work with Herbie Hancockfinding just enough comfort for himself and his band might be just what they all need. Based on how Anastasio & Co. played this first night of the tour, they should, sooner rather than later, elevate themselves to another level altogether, the altitude of which might surprise both devotees and dilettantes.