This is my Trey-man Review

As the snow started to fall in Chicago, a line of excited folks of all ages stretched around the corner of Racine & Lawrence–folks who felt lucky to have a ticket.  Prices in the secondary market were awfully inflated, which brought an unusually large tribe of scalpers to the Riv, and left many forlorn folks outside seeking extras.  Once inside, people found their seats upstairs or claimed their space on the floor, and the excitement started to build.  People were talking about the Milwaukee show the night before (also a tough ticket) and the rumored dates for Summer tour.

The crowd was pumped.  When Trey & Co. finally hit the stage, the place exploded — and the band was ready meet the audience with an equal amount of energy.

The opening notes of “Shine” were met with an enthusiastic response from the floor, and hands were thrown up in the air as we were all quite ready to “ride on” into the night with TAB.  Trey’s vocals sounded great on this opening number (as did Jen’s and Natalie’s)!  As I listed back to old Phish tapes, I’m often astonished by the vocals (uhm…not in a good way), and it’s striking to hear how much better he is singing now.

“Cayman Review” fed off the energy from the opener, and got everyone grooving left & right, back & forth (including Trey).  When “Push on til the Day” began, I saw Natalie turn to Jen with a look on her face that said to me that she was looking for a break…but the horns weren’t getting one just yet!

As the band kicked into high gear, Trey padded around the stage moving with more energy than I’ve ever seen.  The horns actually did get a break at that point, leaving the stage for the first time to allow an extended jam from Russ, Tony, Ray & Trey.

“Sweet Dreams Melinda” provided for a bit of a break, and the crowd swayed gently to the rock-a-bye beat.  I heard something akin to the New Orleans-style collective of improvisation toward the end of the piece, and that was a real treat.

When “Alive Again” started, it felt like it was moving a bit more slowly than usual.  Many of the songs had that feeling, but I’m not sure it was unique to Friday’s show.  The band seems to be taking a more methodical (someone else called it “mature”) approach to the songs, and to the jams as well.  TAB these days functions more like a jazz combo than it has in years past.  But don’t get me wrong: they are still beating with the heart of a true rock band.  To me, the best part of this song was everyone on stage (even Russ – while drumming – no easy feat!) singing/chanting/shouting “the time has come for you to be alive again!”  I also noticed a horn line toward the end (before the 2nd singing/chanting/shouting part) that sounded new to me.  I’m sure that the line wasn’t new for this particular show, but it might be new on this tour.  Don Hart’s new horn arrangements, in general, really do give a fuller & richer sound.
“Gotta Jibboo” of course was the dancing highlight of the first set.  Trey set up the infinite descending-pitch loops that we’ve all come to expect from this song, but TAB’s version on Friday felt a lot tighter & more succinct than the version we heard at Toyota Park last August.

After the triple-punch opener, bit-of-a-break ballad, horn feature, afro-trip, and dance number, we were finally ready for some reggae in the form of the first cover of the night, “Small Axe,”  where Natalie got another trombone solo.  “All that Almost Was” got the crowd rocking again, although the part that I found most interesting was the upward vocal inflection from the ladies while they echoed the end of the phrase, “almost was but can never beeee!”  There’s a fun little single-beat break in this song, too, and Trey very obviously loved the audience’s surprised reaction when the band nailed it.

“Alaska” again felt slower (this is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you), and featured Ray’s more subtle-but certainly no less interesting-take on the piano part.  By the way, that piano that he’s playing is a gorgeous piece.  It looks like a solid (and extremely heavy) chunk of wood that would be more suited to a desk than an upright piano.  I have no idea how they had it mic’d, but it sounded fantastic.  I’d never appreciated Ray’s role in the band as much as I did that night.

I was very excited to hear “Valentine.”  I really enjoy the addition of the horns to this tune.   “Tuesday” acted as a nice flow to the relative ebb of “Valentine,” and I figured the set was ending.  The following acoustic tunes were a nice bonus, and I managed to record two brief videos:

Sample in a Jar

Set II began with another we-want-you-all-to-get-up-and-dance number, “Dragonfly.”  My buddy told me that this was recorded late one night (at 4 a.m. or something) and Trey just sang whatever came to mind — hence, the nonsensical lyrics.  “Night Speaks to a Woman” is one of my favorite Trey tunes.  This was the first time during the night that I was able to really hear Natalie sing by herself, as she got the “like water on the breeze” lines as a solo…and DAMN!  That girl can sing.

“Sand” felt nicely placed and allowed us to shake the setbreak doldrums (as if the first two tunes hadn’t) and get back into the groove.  After a healthy dose of  dance grooves (which was, again, niiiice and slow, compared to Phish, anyway) “Let me Lie” served as a welcome respite.  Trey seemed to acknowledge the couple front & center, who at the end of Set I had held up a sign reading “Let Me Lie is our wedding song” — they’re getting married this April.  I think Trey honestly loves this kind of thing.

“Mr. Completely” is the tune to which I know none of the words, but it easily won the JoN (Jam of the Night) award.  This song featured a return to something I loved about the earlier versions of the band, like the Undectet, where Trey would conduct or compose on the fly.  He didn’t take his guitar off, but he’d dictate who was to take the next solo, and then tell the band which key to play in using hand signals.  This is where his genius shines, and where we see just how tight his band really is.   For Ray’s solo, Trey put 5 fingers up, which I can only assume means B major.  Then he pumps his fist, and the band drops into the new key.  Russ got 3 fingers down, for E-flat major, a perfect key for the alto saxophone.  Natalie got called to the stage with the “chainsaw” hand motion, and got her solo in B-flat (2 down), and Jen played her solo in C major (no fingers, I guess?!).  For Trey, 1 up, or G major during his solo, then 4 up (E major) for the ending.  Amazing…

The only segue of the night was into “Plasma,” which featured Russ on the flute once more.  “Birdwatcher” was downright hilarious.  With the ‘doc slung around behind his back, Trey took the microphone off the stand and croons to the crowd a-la-Lawn Boy, snapping along.  I’d never seen him overtly goofing around and mugging like this before.  Add in the girls doing a routine you’d think of more in the context of the musical “Annie” and you’ve got one heck of an interesting tune there in the middle of the second set.

“The Way I Feel” gave Tony a nice (albeit brief) turn in the spotlight, and set the stage for the energy to pick up again before the night was done.  “Last Tube” did just that, and then the entire band turned everything up to 11 with “Black Dog.”   Jen absolutely sang the hell out of this tune…even more than usual.  Trey introduced the band, noting that Jen called Chicago home until he’d “stolen her back recently.”

The encore began with only the 3rd cover of the night — in the earlier days of Trey’s solo tours, a lot more covers were played, but with so many original songs now there’s more of an opportunity to pick & choose.  As much as I would like to hear “Ooh Child,” “Bell Bottom Blues,” or “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” every night, the new tunes are really great.   I was honestly a bit disappointed that we didn’t get to hear more of them (“All That Almost Was” was all we got). 

Before the final tune of the night, “First Tube,”  Trey acknowledged Russ Lawton & Tony Markelis, saying that they’d started the band and giving them their due credit for writing so many of the tunes that the band plays (he mentioned “Sand” and “Jibboo,” I believe), and noting that they were about to play the very first tune that they’d written together.  It was nice to hear him say that, because so often I hear people refer to these as “Phish songs.”  It was great to see props being given to the original core trio that stated this legacy 12 years ago.

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