To the uninitiated, like me, the phanaticism of Phish phans can be puzzling. While it might be easy to write this band off as overly simplistic, true devotees know Phish for their epic improvisations, going on for twenty minutes in spontaneous jams, led by guitarist and vocalist Trey Anastasio. Their front man’s musical prowess is undeniable, famed for his understated vocal interpretations and mastery of his instrument, making him known as one of Rolling Stone Magazine’s ‘One Hundred Best Guitarists of All Time’ and a spontaneous rock idol.
So when his music is transplanted out of festivals and into The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, one can’t help but to wonder how Anastasio will fare. In this concert with the National Symphony Orchestra, Anastasio presented songs (both orchestral adaptations of Phish songs and of some of his own original creations) produced through a collaboration with Orchestrator Don Hart. And believe me; while this environment is radically different from what you would expect, the epic power behind his music is all the more present within this rigid structure.
Anastasio’s simplicity and understatement was replaced with grandiose, sweeping power that built with complicated dynamics and rhythms. The National Symphony Orchestra was, as expected, flawless. Each movement seemed roll through vast landscapes of music, guided by fluttering woodwinds and punctuated by bold blasts from the brass section. The concert took on a dream-like quality, with a constant ebb and flow of emotions clearly present in the music. The acoustics perfectly complimented the orchestra, adding a power that would typically not be experienced by the everyday Phish listener.
Lovers of his music (known emphatically as “phans”) showed up in droves for this sold out event. The atmosphere was incredibly unique, with formality ranging from tuxes to tee shirts and a nearly equal number of people wearing jeans as dress pants. The concert itself seemed to lovingly set the phans against one another, with all hoots and hollers quickly being stifled by a chorus of shushing, or an uncomfortable attempt to clap along with the music falling flat and out of rhythm almost immediately. Nonetheless, the excitement radiating from the crowd was overwhelming. People gave a standing ovation after nearly every song, danced and whipped out air guitars in the balconies, and sang along with the phan favorite song “Stash.”
Anastasio was the clear star of the night. A single note plucked was enough to send the audience into a cheering frenzy, and each song seemed to leave the audience more satisfied than the last. While his vocal range seemed pretty limited in this concert, the atmospheric contribution was the most important aspect of his singing, and his gritty, unpretentious tonality provided intriguing juxtaposition to the NSO. His guitar playing was mellowly intense and never seemed restricted by the structure of his music, with solos that seemed to explode with energy, providing sounds like a heavenly chorus of sopranos or a simple but infectious riff to guide a whole movement. He even dealt kindly with a obviously affected photo-op seeker who ran to the stage, promising to dedicate the next song to her if she just sat down.
Conductor Steve Reineke aptly interpreted the score, building to each crescendo in a meaningful and exciting manner. Reineke gave a performance in his own right, almost succumbing to dancing along with Anastasio’s catchy beats as he led the orchestra. Each soloist in the NSO performed with impeccable form, standing their ground against Anastastio’s guitar playing.
Anastasio’s collaborations transcend what one person can accomplish alone, creating an experience that is truly unforgettable. This concert was an absolute ‘must see’ for any Phish phan and a great night for those less acquainted with the band.
Running Time: Two hours, with one twenty minute intermission.
Trey Anastasio’s website.