If you had come up to me at an early-’90s Phish show and told me 20 years later I’d be at the Kennedy Center watching frontman Trey Anastasio playing a concert with the National Symphony Orchestra I would have replied,
“Sounds about right.”
While (in)famous for their genre-bending free form improvisational live space jam excursions, Phish is equally known to fans for their genre-bending tightly composed multi-suite studio prog excursions, thus Trey’s forays into symphonic music in the past decade were a seamless progression.
Far from adding some backup strings to a Trey show or simply watching gimmicky orchestral re-creations of Phish songs, the packed house was treated to a true collaboration. Trey’s partnership with composer and orchestrator Don Hart has resulted in classic Phish material completely reworked to fit within the context of a large ensemble, plus new songs written with the orchestra in mind from the get-go, all with Trey up on stage following the lead of the conductor. Throughout the evening he stepped in and out of the limelight, switching between electric and acoustic guitars and adding sporadic vocals. It worked. The precision and granduer of the NSO as they weaved in and out of Trey’s psychedelic masterpieces was simply spellbinding.
The show opened with First Tube, the driving instrumental closer to Phish’s 2000 studio effort Farmhouse. Trey played the signature guitar riff for the first go around, but then different sections of the orchestra took over for subsequent passes. Two things were clear within minutes – this was going to be an amazing experience and conductor Steven Reineke might actually steal the show. He did whatever it is conductors do with his entire body, gesticulating with razor sharp clarity and shaking his ass in perfect time. I wish he would conduct my life.
Next up was Frost, from Trey’s last solo studio album which I never bothered to listen to. Most notable was Trey’s guitar tone. It was like butter melting over angel orgasm. It warmed my soul.
The acoustic guitar came out and the first notes of Divided Sky were met with loud cheers, and then when everything drops out, the crowd had a mid-performance eruption of applause, which caused a few of the stoic ever-professional NSO members to crack a smile. The song continued, delicately and beautifully, and everything was right in the world.
Well, almost. With a higher ticket price and no parking lot action, the crowd was a little more cleaned up than at your typical Phish show, with many executive hippies and grown ups. There was still that air of family though. Everyone was polite and chummy, two guys behind me who each had single seats separate from their respective groups instantly bonded. There was a vibe of respect and appreciation. When we were supposed to be quiet, we were, when we were supposed to applaud, we exploded. But without fail, there is always one at every Phish show. I hoped we’d be saved from the horror at this prestigious venue, but no, there she was, squirming in her hippie dippy dress, talking whacked out nonsense to her friends from note one, and shouting out inappropriate things at inappropriate times. My wife and I, having no tolerance for these shenanigans shot her dual icy glances numerous times, trying to Force-choke her from a few aisles away to no avail. I can barely read my anger scribbles, but I think it says “annoying fucking hippie cunt” in my notepad. More on this trainwreck later…
these lovely people on the other hand were a delight
Next we got the one-two punch of Bar 17 solo tracks Let Me Lie and Goodbye Head. Actually more like a one-two light slap. Granted Let Me Lie is a pretty nice little number, but that we got these instead of say, Wilson or Billy Breathes, was a little depressing. Some redemption came with the vocal-less orchestral version of Guyute, which included the original segments of My Friend, My Friend. Unfortunately our distracting hippie decided it was time to leave her seat and head to the front of the stage. Let me emphasize here that this is a seated fancy pants venue, with everyone sitting, aside from the occasional standing O, and this little bitch trots down and starts trying to TALK TO TREY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PERFORMANCE. He politely asked to her to go please sit down and she then TRIED TO GET UP ON STAGE. Trey looked at her incredulously and said “Oh my God.” The crowd started booing. Trey pleaded with her “I’ll dedicate this next one to you if you go sit down” The timid and kind geriatric ushers were standing idly by doing nothing. They obviously had never dealt with someone rolling at an NSO performance. I scanned for security personnel, but there were none. I was about to get up, run down there, and tackle her when an audience member in the front finally stepped in and got her back to her seat. More on this trainwreck later…
Next up was Water in the Sky, one of my least favorite Phish 1.0 songs, but I quite enjoyed this rendition, the country vibe worked surprisingly well with a full orchestra. Oh, but I didn’t really like the part where Trey had to shush the hippie bitch again mid-song. Why wasn’t this woman being dealt with by Kennedy Center staff? Was I taking Fluff’s pills here?
The sweet sounds of Stash came next. My wife leans over and whispers, “I hate Phish, but this is a really good show, thank you.” The fan-favorite (and Cale-all-time-favorite) live staple includes a little audience participation, with some quick claps on a drum beat at certain points in the song. The claps were amplified by the otherwise silent audience and caused Trey to grin. I wondered if the NSO was given a heads up. There was no way around Trey’s guitar taking center stage for this one and the moment was perfect… until the return of our friend. She decided now was the time to stand up, face the audience, and start dancing like a whore. I reached my boiling point, bolted up, went to the back of the auditorium and got in some poor ushers face, demanding she eject this worthless hippie scum from the premises immediately. She said she would let someone know, but by the time I was done pitching my justified tantrum the first set came to a close. I marched around the Kennedy Center looking for someone with the authority to do something about her, found two impotent security guards who refused to do anything except take me to the concert hall manager. I demanded to know why this person was allowed to disrupt a performance for an entire hour that people paid good money to see (not me of course, I had press passes, but I am a champion of the people!). She said she was taking care of it and that the woman would be told to go back to her seat. Really? She needed to be kicked out. An hour ago. It was embarrassing.
I got a drink of water and cooled off. God I fucking hate hippies.
Alas, the second set was about to start, the scourge was nowhere to be found. To that usher I originally complained to’s credit, she came to me apologetically with a security personnel and asked me to describe the hippie to him so he could be on the look out. Luckily she never appeared again, we can only hope she got lost during the set break and drowned in the Potomac.
Back to the show. The inevitable Time Turns Elastic opened set two. I will admit that the usually meandering and boring piece got pretty epic at the end. Afterwards Trey joked that the next song would be a long one. He then said his writing partner (and arguably 5th member of the band) Tom Marshall was in the audience tonight(!), and the next song was dedicated to him. Tom waved at the crowd. It was awesome. A gorgeous rendition of Brian and Robert followed (aka one of the many songs that people who claim they “hate” Phish will say they like it if they don’t realize it’s Phish [eg. my wife]). Afterwards Trey thanked the NSO, who got yet another well deserved standing O for the night.
You Enjoy Myself closed the set and there was much rejoicing. The quintessential classic Phish song definitely was the most rock and roll moment of the night, with the horns standing in for Trey’s vocals, hilariously mimicking the mumbly wash uffizi lines. Also I think they played the brown note for the “shit” lyric cause I made a mess in my pants. As the end faded out, Trey stepped front and center and performed an acappela vocal jam with the strings quietly flowing behind him. It was the most in tune I’ve ever heard him sing and it was brilliant.
Everyone took a bow, and I guarantee it was the loudest applause and cheers that room has ever heard. Don Hart was brought out for a bow before The Inlaw Josie Wales encore. Then the lights came on and it was all over.
Thank you Trey. Thank you NSO.