When we heard that keyboardist Ray Paczkowski had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, the community's collective heart went out to him; the Milkman, after all, is very much the lively soul of Trey Anastasio Band.
And so, TAB's spring tour was up in the air for a few days before Anastasio himself announced that he'd be converting those dates to Trey Anastasio Trio shows. Rounded out by drummer Russ Lawton and bassist Tony Markellis, the Trio hadn't played in years. As these things happen, the first night of spring tour — in Cleveland — would mark 20 years to the night since the Trio first performed onstage together.
"Twenty years later, I guess!" Anastasio said at the start of the show, wishing Lawton and Markellis a "happy anniversary."
At any rate, the House of Blues show was sold out, and the crowd was in fine spirits on this cold April evening. Anticipation had run through the roof, and the Trio greeted the packed house with "Gotta Jibboo," leaning heavily on Markellis' thumping bass line. (See the full setlist below.)
It was interesting to see Anastasio in this space: Paczkowski's ebullient keys weren't there for melodic contrast (nor Page McConnell's, for that matter). But given that, he seemed to go to his effects board less often — or at least in a less overt way. Most of Anastasio's solos embodied his classic tone and focused more on dynamics and phrasing. Take "Dark and Down," for instance, on which the Trio built a towering crescendo toward a mind-bending release. There, and elsewhere throughout the night, one could tell that Anastasio was locked in. After a run of acoustic shows earlier this year, he's back in his rock-star element.
As the show went on, the atmosphere stayed pleasant and super laid-back. As Anastasio pointed out, this whole thing wasn't really planned. He ended each jam by returning to the central theme and closing in time with Lawton and Markellis. Between tunes, he called the next one to the other guys. At one point, Anastasio said that they were just going to do some of their favorite songs — before lighting up "No Men in No Man's Land."
It should be said that Lawton and Markellis held down an exceptional rhythm section all night. Those guys are workhorses of two different stripes: Lawton seemed to be in an Orange Theory class as his arms flew across the ride cymbal and arced kaleidoscopically o'er his kit. Markellis was the image of a pure, stoic bodhisattva, sitting Zazen and walking the bass with firm commitment to its place as the backbone of the music.
The second set saw even more exploration, building on this group's bona fide foundation. While Lawton and Markellis didn't often deviate from a song's core rhythm, Anastasio led them into some interesting waters. The set-opening "Soul Planet" reminded us all of Phish's brilliant New Year's Eve gag in New York just a few long months ago; this version went a little darker. "46 Days," "Farmhouse" and "Steam" formed a terrific trifecta, with each jam taking the tempo and the volume way, way down. Much to no one's surprise, a good portion of the enlightened Cleveland crowed kept blathering on in the bar area, more or less ruining the effect of almost total silence onstage.
"Night Speaks to a Woman" was my personal fave, for what it's worth. The Trio stepped into a serious groove during that jam: It was a all rhythmic funk, and here, indeed, Anastasio laid into his effects with gusto. He had some sort of synth board on the floor, which he tapped now and then throughout the show to create gentle ambience in the deep background of a particular jam.
The encore slot was classic Trey: an acoustic "Waste," a fine "Heavy Things" and the head-bobbin' waves of glory in "First Tube."
It was hard to say what we should have expected prior to the show; the band hadn't done this sort of thing in years. Whole eras of Anastasio's career have come and gone since then. But in the moment, with a seemingly eternal winter staving off the childlike wonder of summer tour, it was just the fix we needed.
To Ray: We'll see you on the keys again soon.