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Communication breakthrough

Stewart Oksenhorn

ASPEN – Sue Anastasio has a nickname for her husband Trey, the former singer-guitarist of jam band extraordinaire Phish: the Relentless Communicator. Apart from whatever dynamic reign in the Anastasio household, the name comes from Trey’s outpouring of music. Over the 21-year history of Phish, the band toured constantly, playing lengthy shows anchored by Anastasio’s winding, conversational guitar solos. The four-piece band released 11 studio albums – a modest number that is supplemented by the enormous output of live releases. Outside of Phish, Anastasio led a free jazz band, Surrender to the Air; toured and recorded under his own name; and released a CD of his orchestral works, “Seis de Mayo.” And if you happened to find yourself holed up – backstage, or in the Barn, the rustic Vermont studio where Phish did its recording – with Anastasio, there was a good chance your name might appear as co-writer of a Phish song.”If somebody’s sitting in the room, I’ll write with them,” said Anastasio by phone. “That’s the Relentless Communicator thing.”Recently, Anastasio has been living up to the nickname more than ever. After Phish broke up in 2004 – a disbanding announced with an Internet posting by the Relentless Communicator – Anastasio went right back to work writing songs. The result was last year’s “Shine,” a CD that shows a fairly clean break with the way Anastasio had worked in Phish. The album has a punchy pop-rock feel, with none of the extended jams or twisted structures that distinguished Phish’s music. The album was made not in the Barn, and not with Phish’s usual collaborators, but in Atlanta, with rock producer Brendan O’Brien.The biggest departure, however, was on the lyrical side. Anastasio wrote all the lyrics for the whole album, a first. The lyrics that poured out of Anastasio were not the impenetrable inside jokes, or the goofy wordplay that marked much of Phish’s earlier output. Instead, they seemed to add up to an actual statement from Anastasio, sentiments about the end of Phish and embracing a future outside of it. The lyrics are circular, dreamy and never add up to a concrete narratives – yet, by the end of “Shine,” it has added up to a true revelation of where Anastasio stands in his post-Phish existence: optimistic, open and ready to move on. “I was becoming more desperate to say what was on my mind,” said Anastasio, who co-founded Phish, with drummer Jon Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon, in 1983 at the University of Vermont. (The lineup would be filled out with keyboardist Page McConnell in 1985.) “I was a little sick of the goofiness, to be perfectly honest. I wanted to say things that were closer to my heart.”

Anastasio hits that mark on “Shine.” The opening title song lays out a simple plea – to former bandmates, to the extremely loyal fans – to accept change and embrace the future: “When the day’s come and gone/You know we all ride on.” “Love Is Freedom” acknowledges the difficulty of saying goodbye (“This pain I would not have known, had you not arrived”) but argues for letting go when the time comes. None of the songs break the six-minute mark. It is a far cry from dance-happy, nonsensical Phish epics like “Weekapaug Groove” and “Tweezer.””Our patterns of writing were established,” said Anastasio, who often extracted lyrics for Phish songs from poetry written by his childhood friend Tom Marshall. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to get away from Phish.”Anastasio has had a fine opportunity to witness the direct impact a concise, uncomplicated song can have. For the last week, and through much of the summer, Anastasio’s six-piece band has been opening shows for Tom Petty. The audience is largely Petty’s, and Anastasio is glad he doesn’t have to try to reach them with sprawling, Phish-like statements.”He’s a master of writing the simple, but very emotionally honest, universal songs,” Anastasio said of Petty. “I’m watching him every night and I’m looking at his audience, trying to connect with them. It’s a good feeling that someone can get something from your song without having to chop through the jungle to get to the heart of it. Maybe because I’m getting older, and you get in touch with how precise and finite things are. Every time you pick up the guitar, you’re grateful for the chance to communicate, and you want to cut right to the chase.”Anastasio is playing his stripped-down songs in a stripped-down ensemble. While earlier versions of his group featured as many as 10 players, the band he brings to Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ June Festival this week features four instrumentalists – bassist Tony Hall, drummer Raymond Weber, and keyboardist Ray Paczkowski – plus two backing singers, Christina Durfee and Jennifer Hartswick, who also play some trombone and trumpet, respectively.Of course, “Shine” came at a time when Anastasio had plenty to say. Dating back to the mid-’90s, Phish had become one of the biggest attractions in music, and were the center of the jam-band scene, an alternate to the increasingly corporate music world. (The band’s earlier years included a concert at the Wheeler Opera House, in March of 1992, the last time any of the members performed here.) Phish put together some of the most ambitious single-band gatherings ever, including Big Cypress, a two-day concert on a Florida Seminole reservation capped by a seven-hour second set that went from the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, 1999 till sunrise of Jan. 1, 2000.Phish took a two-year hiatus beginning in October of 2000. Anastasio took the time to tour and record with a band that featured a horn section, and also play in Oysterhead, a trio with bassist Les Claypool and Police drummer Stewart Copeland. (Oysterhead was scheduled to perform its first show in nearly five years at the Bonnaroo festival this weekend.) Phish returned to the stage in high style, with a New Year’s Eve show the last day of 2002, at New York’s Madison Square Garden. But the reunion must have been missing something. In a May, 2004 message credited to Anastasio alone, it was announced that Phish was finished. A few nights later, Anastasio appeared on the “Charlie Rose Show,” by himself, to explain the break-up.

“I put out my issues first in public,” said Anastasio of the disbanding, “so they seemed like my issues.”But I knew it was a positive move. I loved Phish; I love Mike, Jon, Page and especially the connection we have with the audience. When this rush of anger came back to me, I wanted to tell people, hey, it’s OK. This was an attempt to stay healthy and keep playing for another 30 years.””Shine” was Anastasio’s way of communicating those thoughts. He says the album is a collection of messages he wanted to relay to various people.”A lot of people [in the Phish organization] were losing jobs, fans expressed anger. It became about that,” he said. “I think I had not braced myself fully for the range of emotions that would go along with the reality of trying to heal relationships with so many people. How could I? My whole social network had to do with Phish.”Anastasio’s next musical step appears to be something that combines the musical adventurousness of Phish with his newfound lyrical direction. “Bar 17” is scheduled for release late this summer. Anastasio started work on the album around the time of Phish’s demise. But the project met the twin roadblocks of cleaning up the aftermath of Phish, and producer Bryce Goggin’s wife giving birth. The recording was shelved in favor of “Shine,” but Anastasio has put “Bar 17” back in motion.The album features numerous strands of players: members of Phish; members of Anastasio’s bands; the Nashville Chamber Orchestra; and keyboardist John Medeski, from Surrender to the Air. Also on board is the Benevento/Russo Duo, who, with Anastasio and Phish bassist Mike Gordon, comprise a band that is touring this summer. (Anastasio says he and Gordon have written a handful of new songs, which they may record with the Benevento/Russo Duo at summer’s end.)Anastasio says “Bar 17” combines elements of his orchestral “Seis de Mayo” and “funky kind of rock stuff. It’s sort of more composed and deep. I wanted to push back deeper into the more extreme song structures.” The words, however, remain simple.”‘Shine’ would be a stepping stone to write more heartfelt lyrics,” said Anastasio. “It’s getting tougher for me not to be honest. I get bored if it doesn’t feel like it’s truthful and emotional.”

Now that he’s composing Phish-like music, and even touring with a Phish-mate, is another Phish reunion a possibility? Anastasio doesn’t say no, and he hints toward maybe, sometime off in the future. He says the members talk a lot, and are processing the issues raised by the break-up. Anastasio played recently on Phish keyboardist McConnell’s forthcoming CD.”It’s only been two years, after what seems like a lifetime,” said Anastasio. “But we’re all open-minded.”Vail Colorado


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