Guitar God

A conversation with Trey Anastasio reveals the methods of a savant, and the humbleness of a true gentleman…

by: Michael Shields ((Photograph by Danny Clinch.))

It has been a tremendous year for Phish frontman Trey Anastasio. Following directly in the footsteps of one of his greatest inspirations, Trey was chosen to stand in for the late, great Jerry Garcia as part of Grateful Dead’s five-night Fare Thee Well tour that took place this past summer in Santa Clara, California and Chicago. During the span of shows, Trey not only stood in, but stood out, flaunting his meticulous preparation ((Trey learned 100 songs in preparation for the gigs.)) and prodigious expertise in front of record breaking crowds. Soon after, and on the heels of celebrating thirty years together as a band, Phish embarked on a tour this past summer that is widely being celebrated as one of their best since the late ’90s. To conclude that tour ((A three night run at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park over Labor Day weekend notwithstanding.)), Phish put on their tenth multi-day festival, a celebration held in Watkins Glen, New York entitled Magnaball which consisted of eight sets of music ((One set was a surprise late-night sonic excursion known as ‘The Drive-In Jam.’)), and an awe-inspiring forty-five minute soundcheck that highlighted just how dialed in the band currently is. And later this month, Trey will release his tenth solo album, entitled Paper Wheels. Trey, who turned fifty-one this past Wednesday, not only displays no signs of slowing down, but rather it appears as if he is embracing a transcendent moment in his career where he is fully cognizant of how to wield his fully maturated and astonishing talents. And on Friday night, in front of a jam-packed hall of passionate supporters, Trey sat down with writer Alec Wilkinson as part of The New Yorker Festival for a discussion about his career, and his recent flurry of endeavors.

Alec Wilkinson is an accomplished writer who has been on the staff of The New Yorker since 1980. A self-professed “failed musician,” Alec was as jovial as those in attendance to be a part of the first event of The New Yorker Festival that sold out. In preparation for the interview, Alec spoke with Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead who raved about his experience playing with Trey, describing him as not only the “glue” that held everything together, but as the “M.V.P.” of the tour. Alec Wilkinson’s focus throughout the interview often seemed singular, with his attention pointed chiefly in the direction of Trey’s stint with the Dead this past Summer, but the conversation steered in this direction fortuitously led to a fascinating story about Grateful Dead superfan Bill Walton giving Trey a pep talk backstage in Santa Clara (which contributed to Trey garnering the confidence to count in “Althea” in Chicago and dominate it wholly) ((Walton’s speech, as Trey told it, was about not being afraid to take the lead, and he used a basketball analogy, declaring plainly that Scottie Pippen would never had made it into the Hall of Fame if Michael Jordan didn’t step up and get it done on a nightly basis.)). With so much attention on Fare Thee Well, it felt at times as if Trey’s dynamic and historic thirty years with Phish was being overshadowed, but there was a moment when you realized that Alec did in fact get it – where he made it clear he understood the power of Phish and of the communal experience the band shares with its audience. In recounting his viewing of a video he recently watched of Phish playing their always stirring classic, “Divided Sky,” Alec conveyed his awe at the moment in the song where there is a lengthy pause, and this pause – to his astonishment – led to a ferocious crowd swell that stole his breath. Trey, inspired by Alec’s story, took this premise further, exclaiming about a “Divided Sky” from a triumphant run at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1998 where he felt the audience wasn’t moved to elation by simply a musical cue, but one that was invoked from a surge of energy he emitted. He laughed that he might sound crazy describing this moment, but few in the audience, having witnessed what Phish in concert is all about, shrugged in disbelief.

Trey went on to discuss his enduring passion for playing live (“It feels like life and death when we go out there!”), and how he still gets fiercely lost in the music (“I usually can’t remember what I played”). He expounded on the fact that good musicians are a vessel, and how in muting your ego, you allow the music to flow through you – and how it is years of intense practice and dedication that lead to the ability to achieve this. And it is this commitment to readiness, to being fluent in a multitude of genres and techniques, that allows Trey and the members of Phish to not think, and to remove any “hurdles” or “blocks” that would inhibit their ability to offer a slew of different experiences improvisationally. “When I play music I don’t think at all,” Trey said, “it’s just real.” He would later say, “It feels…sacred.”

Prompted by a fan who threw a “Let Trey Speak” shirt onstage (a nod to the Fare Thee Well shows, where Bob Weir humorously wore a “Let Trey Sing” shirt), Trey at one point dug into a story about attending a Frank Zappa concert with his best friend and drummer Jon Fishman (who Trey hailed “the greatest drummer on planet earth”). In those days of yore, Trey would make the Phish merchandise himself and brought a shirt with the band’s logo on it to the show. He threw it on stage and eventually it was picked up by Frank and hung on a rope that straddled the stage. It was stories such as this that humanized a guitarist who is a legend in his own time, and endear you to him. Another witty moment such as this occurred when Trey joked about Phish bassist, Mike Gordon. Trey quipped that Mike is especially interesting and artistic when he is lacking sleep, and because of that the band members like to find ways to deprive him of slumber. “We encourage Mike to stay up all night,” he grinned. “When he’s out of his mind he’s…better.”

The evening with Trey and Alec wasn’t limited to conversation alone, as throughout the evening Trey would dig into his lengthy catalogue and subsequently treated the audience with a total of seven songs. Commencing the event with “Blaze On” (complete with whistling), a song written by Trey and Tom Marshall who have been writing together since eighth-grade, and closing the night with the anthemic “Sample in a Jar,” songs were intermittently placed between discussions, framing the talk and accentuating the emotion that propels his song-writing process. It became evident how close to his heart the songs Trey chose to play throughout the event were, songs like “The Line,” “Joy,” “Cartwheels” (debut), “Farmhouse,” and “Backwards Down the Number Line,” and because of this the brief concert that unfolded wasn’t simply fun, but powerful.

Impressively, amongst a weighty conversation about Trey’s talents, accomplishments and his place in the annals of American music, Trey presented himself not as simply humbled by his prodigious career, but brimming with gratitude. A gratitude that he extended to his fans this evening and throughout the Summer tour accentuated by Phish’s decision to spell out the words THANK YOU with their setlist during an extended encore at their tour closer in Colorado. A gratitude towards his bandmates, as on this evening Trey spoke of calling Page and Mike and Jon while on the road with Fare Thee Well to tell them that he was thinking of them, and that he cared about them. A gratitude to all the artists that helped pave the way and who inspired him to be the musician he is today. Artists like the aforementioned Jerry Garcia ((In one of the funnier moments of the night, Trey intentionally downplayed his respect for Jerry describing him jokingly as simply a “competent musician.”)), Jimi Hendrix, Peter Gabriel (“Peter Gabriel was like a god to me”), Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, and Frank Zappa. Gratitude to all the people in his life who have inspired him, like his mother (who was in attendance) whose artistic interests were always encircling him, his longtime co-writers Tom Marshall and Steve “The Dude of Life” Pollak who he spoke of often and glowingly throughout the evening, and Ernie Stires, his friend and former mentor, who taught him composition, giving him the tools he needed to embark on a remarkable musical journey through life. Trey Anastasio is a man who with all he has achieved has little reason to be humble, but he learned long ago to never take anything for granted. In a particular profound moment Trey confessed that “publically crashing and burning was the best thing that ever happened to [him],” and this is where fans found him Friday evening at The New Yorker Festival, appreciative, open, honest, and grinning ear to ear all night.

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