July 6, 2006
The spontaneous spirit of improvisation overflowed at Mansfield, Massachusetts' Tweeter Center on July 6. Seven hours of music were rife with great moments, though none of the three acts played truly great sets.
Oddly or not, "rookies Marco Benevento and Joe Russo (The Duo) played at the most consistently high level. To be fair though, the keyboardist/drummer tandem took fewer chances. But with just over a half-hour to play, it was eminently wise in another sense to stick to the basics, while proving adventurous enough to choose all new selections from their album Play Pause Stop (Reincarnate, 2006), which at that time had yet to be released.
The new material from Play Pause Stop is a refinement of what The Duo's been doing for a couple years now. The music flows now more than it rocks, the child-like simplicity of the melodic lines Benevento plays offset by the near-monolithic beat generated by Russo (and thereby rescued from any danger of New Age-ism).
It's a tribute to The Duo that they're alternately courageous and self-effacing enough to play their own music before a sparse early crowdcontaining enough spirited recognition to encourage them---before re-entering an hour after they finished to collaborate with guitarist Trey Anastasio and bassist Mike Gordon. But Benevento and Russo are not merely a rhythm section of role players: with the two ex-members of Phish, they comprised a quartet who, over the course of two hours, generated more than a few sparks and at times some truly fiery exchanges.
Most of the interaction was the subtle ebb and flow between Anastasio and Gordon. The former is clearly a different man in this lineup than when fronting his own group (or when he steps in with Phil Lesh and Friends as he did later this evening for the second set). Utterly unself-conscious about his stage presence, freed from the onus of carrying the primary burden of musicianship, Anastasio played with fluid imagination and an obvious pleasure in the give-and-take going on across the stage.
Perhaps no more so than Gordon, though his stoic demeanor, even during the small handful of songs he sang, displayed less overt emotional reaction. Comfortable in playing with The Duo, as he has fairly regularly in a trio format the last couple years, the charter member of Phish played an almost interrupted flow of alternately fluid and funky bass lines. He acted, in turn, as the conduit for rhythm with Russo and the nexus of ideas offered up by Anastasio and Benevento.
The intuitive interaction between the guitarist and keyboardist (who concentrated on piano) may have actually been the most telling part of the GRAB (Gordon-Russo- Anastasio-Benevento) set. That is, if it had not been for the dense and intricate improvisation the four men developed within minutes of casually striding out on stage; while there were some moments of searching for a common thread upon which to jam, and some moments late in the set devoted to tricky turns of phrase that ultimately led nowhere, this is the kind of loose improvisational music that's a joy to follow even when there's an occasional wrong turn.
The same was long said of the Grateful Dead, whose bassist Phil Lesh has maintained a sense of adventure in virtually all his various alliances of friends since he want back on the road in 2000. And that's not to mention the sense of community he so often mentions in his nightly organ donor raps (Lesh was a transplant recipient back in 1999). How inspiring is it to see and hear audience members in their late teens early twenties equally excited about members of Phish and singing along to Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter songs like "Brown-Eyed Woman ?
Lesh & Co. played a truncated, fairly conventional first set at the Tweeter, sticking to the structure of vintage tunes such as "Doin' that Rag and "Golden Road a hard- rocking version if there ever was one! There's an interesting chemistry developing in this current lineup as it includes saxophonist nonpareil Greg Osby as well as guitarist/pedal steel player Barry Sless, but there were few segues and extended jams during the first hour or so.
Not surprisingly, then, especially with the addition of Trey Anastasio on vocals and guitar, the second set, lasting close to two hours, was rife with jamming in and out of material designed especially for such forays. "Help on the Way/Slipknot was woven in and out of the playing throughout the set after the no-holds barred introduction via Bob Dylan's "All along the Watchtower." "The Eleven was curiously absent as the group coalesced around "St. Stephen. But with vocalist Joan Osborne in tow along with keyboardist/singer Rob Barraco and drummer John Molo, the band created an exalting finish with "I Know You Rider, elevated by "Franklin's Tower" and escalated even further by "Goin' Down The Road Feelin' Bad.
That uplifting climax more than compensated for the turgid interval including "Nobody Girl (a tune by Ryan Adams, whose material Lesh loves) interpolated with "China Doll. Osborne's got a beautiful voice (though her stage presence can be intrusive) but it'd be preferable to hear Larry Campbell play guitar instead of hearing her sing because his combination of country and blues textures, while reminiscent of Mark Knopfler during early Dire Straits' days, is uniquely his own.
It was a benediction of sort for Phil Lesh & Friends to bring their July 6th performance to a close with the bandleader's own imagistic composition "Box of Rain. The purely celebratory atmosphere in the sheddespite the fact it wasn't sold outnevertheless retained a mystical element to which this song from American Beauty (Warner Bros., 1970) alludes.
With the varying combination of musicians on stage throughout the night, it was difficult not to sense a palpable continuity not just in the evening's performance, but in the cross- generational spirit shared by Lesh, Gordon and Anastasio as well as Benevento and Russo.
Visit Phil Lesh, Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon and Benevento/Russo Duo on the web.