You probably don't want to read about Phish in a TAB review, and I really wanted to resist drawing any sort of comparison, but I think doing so helps put the 2012 version of the Trey Anastasio Band into perspective, so I'll ask your brief indulgence.
After catching the 2010 & 2011 TAB Chicago stops, I felt that I had worked up a pretty good story about the band. In these years, while Phish remained an awesomely competent nostalgia act, TAB was Trey's only real outlet for experimentation -- with arrangements, new material, and more adventurous sounds. It was a welcome breath of innovation from a man who had too often seemed to rest on his laurels on the bigger stage.
Then late summer of 2012 happened. Though Phish sets remained devoid of new material, there was a genuine breakthrough in improvisation, and Trey has been largely responsible for the band turning the corner. Frankly, leg two changed the game and TAB wasn't going to be the only shop in town for fans to get a dose of the new. Would they adjust accordingly?
The first shot fired was Traveler -- an album with lofty aspirations and an impressive roster of contributors, but underwhelming results. A jumbo sized version of the album's slick cover served as stage backdrop at the Chicago Theater and its themes and material would loom large over the proceedings. The pressure would be on these songs to push this band forward into new territory.
Except for the Zappa-cum-indie-rock leaning "Scabbard", which hit the mark both on the record and in the number two slot of Friday's show, the best praise I could muster is that the Traveler tunes are not that bad. While "Frost", "Corona" and "Architect" didn't exactly kill the show, they didn't do much to elevate it either -- the keyboard (and Fender Jaguar) driven lite rock was not nearly as bold sonically or interesting melodically as Trey probably perceives them to be in his head.
That leaves us to find good news in the rest of the show, which was packed nicely with TAB classics and covers. Here, it was new additions of Cyro Baptista on percussion and James Casey on sax that added both diversity and change to the ensemble. They would have to contribute significantly in order to yield new musical dividends on stage. They were both successful in these roles.
Casey owned the solo on "Burlap Sack & Pumps" but Treys comps were excellent as well -- not necessarily a "duel", but a certainly formidable give and take between each of these talented players. Cyro allowed the "Alive Again" to take on a swinging groove absent from other recent versions, while big man inserted some licks that often evoked the "Crosseyed & Painless" or "Streets Of Cairo" teases that he's been known to throw in with Phish. Song-wise, the MVPs were snatched from the treasure trove of excellent material debuted between 1999 and 2001 that seems to have found a true and lasting voice with Tony, Russ, Ray and Jennifer: "Push On Til The Day", "Money Love & Change" and "Cayman Review" all achieved lift-off.
It was the second set "Plasma" that earned show highlight, taking on a darker more psychedelic jam in the 2012 incarnation. On this, and many of the early period Trey hits, worked the Languedoc like weapon, not unlike the best moments of the recent Phish tour. Meanwhile, Phish hung-out in the corners all night, with crossover songs like "Sand", "Gotta Jibboo" and "First Tube" slotted into important setlist spots and delivering big in each. "Magilla" was swinging fun, with bold sassy runs by the horn section, particularly Cressman. Though short, it was definitely the happiest surprise of the night.
The covers could probably use a revisit by the next TAB tour. I feel like although "Devil Went Down To Georgia" gets executed well, it still feels too kitschy. Same with "Clint Eastwood," despite the always remarkable Jennifer Hartswick vocal clinic. "Oooh Child" is a great choice but little was done with it.
In the shadow of the most revelatory and essential Phish tour in more than a decade, the stakes were just a tad higher. Trey's improvisational sense is strong, many songs featured the brand of guitar shredding that Trey seems to be reserved for TAB -- and this is ultimately where I feel my money went. With lots of goodwill in the bank, I will be led eagerly along to all the corners of Trey's mind and creative well, even if consistency of output does not always follow from tour to tour and band to band. I can question his vision at times, but Trey will always take me to that place.