Trey Anastasio: Homing Beacon

Dean Budnick on November 16, 2020
Trey Anastasio: Homing Beacon

photos by Jake Silco

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“So much of my work is about getting out of my own way, rather than fighting toward something,” Trey Anastasio reflects. “The work is to not mess up what already exists. There’s a tsunami of energy happening, and my mind is the impediment.” Anastasio is referencing his decision to launch The Beacon Jams on Oct. 9. The weekly Friday performance series, currently slated to extend through Nov. 27, is filmed at New York’s Beacon Theatre and streamed via Twitch.

When Relix spoke with Anastasio earlier this year for our “Power of Live” issue, the guitarist expressed his reluctance to participate in any livestreams. At the time, he indicated, “I don’t know if I want to play without our community with me. It’s a bridge I haven’t been able to cross.”

Yet, even as he began quarantining at his Manhattan apartment in March, Anastasio was far from a recluse. He shared a series of new original compositions via Instagram, which he later collected and released in late July on his Lonely Trip record. On August 11, he joined The Roots to perform “I Never Needed You Like This Before,” becoming The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon’s first in-studio musical guest since March.

In September, Anastasio also participated in a SummerStage Jubilee benefit, however his appearance was prerecorded. He had yet to perform live.

That finally changed with the debut of The Beacon Jams.

The first installment found him teaming with four Trey Anastasio Band mainstays—bassist Tony Markellis, drummer Russ Lawton, keyboard player Ray Paczkowski and percussionist Cyro Baptista— along with Broadway veteran and steady collaborator Jeff Tanski (Hands on a Hardbody, Ghosts of the Forest), who guested on piano for a few tunes.

The show opened with what felt like the inevitable “Corona” and included a mix of Phish and TAB staples such as “Blaze On,” “Dark and Down,” “Soul Planet,” “Everything’s Right,” “Sand” and “46 Days.” Anastasio also performed some of his latest solo material and he reveals “my favorite song of the night was probably ‘…And Flew Away,’ which was just slamming from where I was standing. I also really liked, ‘I Never Left Home,’ both of which are new songs. Those two were just killing me.”

Another highlight was a trio version of “Stash,” featuring Anastasio on electric guitar and Tanski on piano, with Baptista clapping his hands at an otherworldly pace, prompting the guitarist to later quip, “Sometimes when Cyro’s moving his hands like that, I think he might lift off.”

The arrangement of this song also accentuates the intertwined nature of the material at the Beacon. As Anastasio observes, “‘Stash’ has gone through so many incarnations. I first wrote it as a stand-alone guitar piece. So the entire form—exactly as it sits when Phish plays it—grew from the original form that I could play on an acoustic guitar or electric guitar. Later, Don Hart wrote a beautiful orchestral arrangement, and Jeff Tanski used that as a guide. We ended up doing the piano and guitar version and it fit hand and glove. Cyro joined in, as that groove is right up his alley.”

The Twitch platform included an interactive component, with the chat flying by at a hasty clip, despite the fact that it had been throttled down to “slow mode.” Over the course of the evening, Anastasio paused to offer his own heartfelt comments at various moments in response to some of these posts.

While The Beacon Jams are free, viewers are encouraged to make donations to the new Divided Sky Fund that has been launched as part of Phish’s WaterWheel Foundation. Proceeds will assist those affected by addiction and facilitate the creation of a treatment center in Vermont.

Looking back on the initial night from a distance of three days, Anastasio is buoyant: “I’m just so grateful that this event emerged because it really does feel like a way to connect.”

As for the decision to move forward with The Beacon Jams, despite his initial qualms, he adds, “I finally had to accept that this is where we are. I’m swimming—I’ve got a board under my arm and a huge wave is coming. I can either fight the wave or surf on it. That path of nonresistance has consistently served me better than the path of resistance in my life.”

Can you walk through the process that ultimately led you to reassess your earlier decision not to perform a livestream without a full venue of audience members?

When we spoke last time, I had been touring consistently for possibly the busiest two years of my entire career. Phish had just played Mexico and I had done TAB tours and solo acoustic shows— Carnegie Hall and all this stuff. I was just so enmeshed in the live world and I loved it so much that I just wasn’t ready to accept a reality where that didn’t exist.

Then I started thinking, “Well, here we are; this is the way the universe is turning at this point in time.” What is is. I’ve learned this lesson before, but I had momentarily forgotten it. So instead of trying to push against the reality, I began trying to accept the moment and adjust my perspective.

Over the years, when I’ve done that, I’ve found that sometimes gifts come wrapped in very strange packages. I didn’t want to get arrested, be put in a felony drug treatment court, move to upstate New York for 14 months and go to jail. At the time, it seemed like a bad thing. And I was completely wrong. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I couldn’t have been more wrong about that event.

So the first step was to acknowledge, “Here I am, and I have a Spire [8-track recorder] and I have an amp and I have a bass”— actually, I bought one online and they delivered it to my apartment. So I decided to make some songs, and that was pretty positive because I ended up with a lot of new ones.

Something else that has happened more recently is that I kind of rediscovered my guitar. I really missed playing it. I think that touring is so hard and tiring that it had been eating into my guitar practice time. So I got into this thing not too long ago, where I put on music and play the guitar to it. It’s been really fun finding some cool music and putting it on the stereo. Then, I walk around and play the guitar. That’s been an unexpected outcome of quarantine.

What sort of music have you been playing along to?

I have loved playing to West African musicians, like Ebo Taylor— listen to the song “African Woman.” Then there is William Onyeabor, The Funkees, King Sunny Adé, Fela [Kuti]. I’ve also been playing along with Toots and the Maytals and a little Ry Cooder. I’ve seen some cool videos by his son Joachim that are floating around and it made me go back to Ry.  Also, lots of Tom Waits— I’ve been playing his classic albums in sequence—Heartattack and Vine, Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs.

It sounds like the guitar may have supplied some amount of catalyst but what else changed?

Throughout this time, I had been doing a lot of meditating and a lot of reading. That’s important for me as a musician, especially as an improvising and composing musician. What we aspire to do is point toward something deeper, a timeless kind of space.

My daily work has been trying to accept the moment, instead of trying to push against the reality.

So as I went through the whole summer, my perspective began to change. I missed connecting with people. Back in the spring, I couldn’t have imagined that it would be October and that we’d be sitting here thinking, “Are we about to go back inside again for the whole winter?”

All of this led me to revisit my earlier decision to not perform live. I realized that maybe I’d been wrong. It’s important to be open to that—after all, I’ve been wrong so many times before.

That’s when I started calling around and talking to all the great people that we work with and asking them, “What can we do?” It didn’t do me any good to resist.

Sure, I’d love to be playing three nights in Atlantic City, outside on the beach. But we’re not playing Atlantic City outside on the beach right now. That isn’t happening, so what can we do? The answer ended up being these Beacon Jams.

I took inspiration from so many people that I admire, who had responded to the moment. I’ve mentioned Stravinsky, who wrote “L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale)” during the Spanish Flu, accepting the limits that were placed on him and creating something incredible. There’s also The Beatles, who were touring with a crappy sound system—they were playing Shea Stadium with like one little speaker. Then they said, “Screw this,” went home and invented the concept album.

There are a lot of events that have prompted shifts. Prior to World War II, dance bands were very popular—people would fill Roseland to see Tommy Dorsey. But then there was a war, which led to a draft, along with fuel and rubber rationing [which limited travel and ended production of shoes with rubber soles]. So people stopped dancing. But the next thing you know, jazz musicians invented bebop, where everybody sat down in smaller clubs.

The rise of country music is tied into the invention of the radio because all these rural stations started popping up and began looking for performers to broadcast.

So I started thinking that maybe there was a way, within the confines of COVID, that I could walk to a space to play. At first, we were looking at some black-box theaters—just square rooms. Then, the people at Madison Square Garden heard about it and were just so cool. They were like, “We know a place that’s 10 blocks from your house. You could walk there every day.” I said, “yes” and shortly afterward Twitch stepped up to the plate. And everybody in the band—although this may change—was from either upstate New York, Vermont or New Jersey. That meant that no one needed to get on a flight or stay in a hotel; they could just drive back and forth.

Pausing for a moment, you mentioned that you’ve been doing a lot of reading. What have you turned to during these times?

Right now, I’m halfway through Dreamland by Sam Quinones, an incredibly well researched history of opiate addiction in America. It’s fascinating and highly recommended. I thought I knew the story, and there is so much more.  Before that, I read How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, which was incredible. This book should be required reading in every high school. There’s so much that I didn’t know, which hurts my heart to be honest. I’m grateful to be learning. My before-bed book is a few pages of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, which Sue [Statesir, Trey’s wife] gave me for my birthday. I’d never read it before and it is beautiful.  My favorite reading moments are in the morning during coffee. I read spiritual books exclusively in the morning. Right now, I’m in the middle of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita. I’ve read it so many times. I used to carry a dog-eared copy in my bag on tour. It’s my desert-island book—if I could only bring one book, then that would be it. It’s a thing of beauty and I love this translation.

Back to the Beacon, at what point in the process did you decide to configure the stage as you did, so that you weren’t facing the seats?

One thing that I verbalized from the start was: “I can’t play to an empty room; it’s just too depressing. We have to do something else.” I hadn’t responded to the performances that I’d seen filmed from the perspective where the audience normally stands. You’d just see this vast, vacant room. So there was no way we were going to stand the same way we normally do at the Beacon, since we wouldn’t have people in front of us.

That’s when the ideas started to fly. The person I first started riffing with was Marc Janowitz, our lighting director. He runs lights for TAB and my solo acoustic shows. He also has done some things for Netflix and for musicians like Pat Metheny, who always likes to document the end of every tour in a black-box theater.

In the beginning, Marc and I were talking about setting up in the lobby or maybe in the balcony. Then he walked around and said, “The back of the stage is really cool—it’s got these ropes and stuff.” And somehow that morphed into: “Wow, look at this point of view from here.” So he decided to put lights in the seats and it ended up being the world’s greatest backdrop. It’s like a stadium light show in a theater because the lights are 300 feet above the stage.

One question that a few people posed during the chat after you finished a big jam was: “Is it weird not hearing a crowd response?”

Strangely, it was not weird because I was feeling a crowd.

I didn’t know what Twitch was until they offered to help support this concert series. But then I started watching because I felt that I should check it out if I was gonna be on it. So while I was making my coffee, there was this woman in Iceland singing songs from her bedroom. I really liked what she was doing. Then, I found this other guy from England, who was playing an acoustic guitar and talking to the fans at home. He had a hundred people or something on there, and then he was like, “I’ve got to go to the bathroom,” and he left the room. There was something cool about it—the honesty was kind of endearing. So by the time I got to the Beacon, I had dropped all that into my mind.

Another thing that’s important is that it just felt so good to be playing the guitar with everybody. It also was nice to be playing through an amp. I live in an apartment building, so I normally don’t play plugged in—I’m pretty quiet. But, all of a sudden, tubes were heating up, speakers were vibrating and drums were banging in the my back of my head. I loved it.

I had also been in touch with some friends and I knew what they were doing, so I was picturing them. I had friends who told me that they were going out into a field so that they could crank it through a stereo. There was also a bar that I knew was playing it. So I knew where people were and I was envisioning them.

The other great thing that happened is my daughter [Eliza] was funneling the chat to me on a screen. She had a very unique skill set for this because she’s been a theater stage manager and, in the last year or two, even worked as a PA and ASM on a couple of Broadway shows. So she had headphones on and a screen—she was pulling stuff out, along with a couple other people.

This was very special for me because it’s the first time I’ve ever worked with a family member. It just warmed my heart the whole time I was playing. There was my daughter right in front of me. Then, we drove home afterward. It was just great.

So, because of the way that we were standing onstage, I was actually still looking at some people, one of whom happens to be my daughter. The other ones were my longtime collaborators, Marc and Trey Kerr, who does TV directing. It felt like a team effort and I was definitely not looking at a vast space.

There were a couple of times early on where you seemed winded after a song. Were you still getting your sea legs, were you overwhelmed by the moment or is this something that normally happens to you and we just don’t notice?

I would describe it more as losing my bearings on reality. When I’m jamming like that, and really listening, my perspective starts to change. My eyes blur over. I’m way up in the stratosphere, there’s motion and it’s pretty weird. A lot of times, I’m not conscious of the space that I’m occupying, in terms of where the mic stand is. There are times when I’ll end the jam and be unaware of which direction I’m facing. I have to get my bearings. But, normally, there’s so much cheering going on that people don’t notice. So that was probably pretty normal.

One thing I thought was unique was that people could hear us talk to each other in between songs. We’ll often make jokes but usually people can’t hear it because it’s off-mic. But we are always shooting the shit with each other like we were at the Beacon. I’ll lean over and make a joke with Page [McConnell] or something. So I was smiling to myself, just so happy that people were invited into that intimate space.

Over the years, a lot of people have asked me: “What’s your favorite thing about being in bands?” And I always find myself saying, “Band practice.” I really like concerts, I really like touring, but I’ve always really loved band practice.

Something about that event felt like, for the first time ever, people were allowed to come to band practice with us. At band practice, you do a big jam like that and then you stop and everybody talks. You can see it in the movie [Between Me and My Mind] when the four of us are sitting around the table and joking about Kasvot Växt. That’s band practice.

I thought there was a bit of that at the Beacon. People could hear that Tony’s a funny guy. Right before the thing went on, we were already talking about the spatchcock thing. Then he was like, “Yeah, you actually can spatchcock an entire cow,” and he was telling me about some barbecue place somewhere.

Something else I noticed toward the end of the night is that you appeared to turn your head up and look off into the distance—the way you’ve described that you sometimes respond to the silhouette of someone dancing at the very rear of the venue. In this case though, I assume you were just looking at a wall and maybe some ropes as you mentioned.

The “up” thing goes way back.

I meditate before I play. That state of mind helps me reach the truer self inside that, in its essence, is connected to everyone and every living thing. It takes me away from the daily chatter and distraction, where I’m walking down the street debating with myself about some small thing that happened that day. As it says in “Brief Time,” “What was I so worried about? What a waste of time, I can’t even remember now…”

One of the things that music does for me, just like meditation, is that it turns off that separate place that’s about worrying about the past, the future and all that stuff. It gets me closer to the unified place that we all have.

This might sound like a lot, but it isn’t. It’s very simple. And one of the things that I’ve found over the years—going all the way back to the UIC Pavilion in the early ‘90s, where I had these moments— is that this manifests itself in an upward and open gesture.

So when good things are happening and I don’t feel weighed down, I find myself looking in that direction. On occasion, I’ll also try to look at people when I’m doing that.

There have been times in my career when I was down and kind of out, where I put a piece of tape down by my foot pedal that said, “Look up.” I had that for a while in 2002. I was getting hunched over and miserable. I had a lot of problems at the time, so I remember putting down a piece of tape that said, “Look up”— nothing to see down here.

It’s also one of the reasons why you have to be really rehearsed with your foot pedal. You can’t be thinking about it. It’s got to be invisible or you’ll be looking down at it all night long, which kind of screws with the music. You’re pushing buttons and not playing music. I’ve had conversations with guitar techs, explaining that they can’t move my button positions because then I’ll have to look down and the whole flow of the jam goes away.

I didn’t know I was doing the “up” thing at the Beacon, but I sure was enjoying myself. I think it’s a natural thing that starts to happen as a result of the joy I can feel from Ray and the organ, Cyro’s energy behind me—all that stuff is just so uplifting. I mean, even that term “uplifting”—I think the body position is a natural outgrowth of that.

How are you approaching the setlists for this run? You’ve explained that you generally feel the vibe of the room before you make your song choices on the fly. Is that different this time without an audience? I also noticed, in your video interview with [SiriusXM Phish radio host] Ari Fink, that you had your poster board and markers, which were part of the process in constructing the Baker’s Dozen setlists.

Yes, I showed him a glimpse of all eight weeks and it was just “Lawn Boy” [Laughs.] That was a joke, but I do have the pad and I’m looking at it right now. There’s nothing on it because, while I thought I was going to do the Baker’s Dozen thing—where I spent six months writing the lists—this has been different.

What I’ve always tried to do is remain open. I deeply, honestly and truly believe that the deeper intelligence of the universe informs me more than my own stupid mind. That’s true of every aspect of what I do, including what songs I’m going to play.

For The Beacon Jams, I get up, make my coffee, go for a walk and I think, “Oh, it’d be really fun to play ‘Corona’ because when am I going to get to do that?” Then I think, “The stripped-down version would be good with this.” So I jot it down on my phone. As I continue through the day, my perspective changes. It’s like, “Man, I love this slow thing,” and I’ll add another song.

Then we go into the band room, and the temperature changes when everyone’s in there. For instance, I didn’t know Cyro was going to be there until the last minute and his presence altered what the song list was going to be. Then, another song will jump out after we start playing in the rehearsal space. But I try not to think about it too much. Right up to the last minute, I try to remain open.

And even though I gave a lot of thought to the Baker’s Dozen list, I always maintained that openness. During those six months, I kept changing the list. I would write it and change it, write it and change it. In the process, I learned that the more I let go, the better it gets.

I’m also not a free-floating individual, so when I walk into the Beacon, part of the way that the song list comes about is through the little conversations I have with everyone who works there. I get in the elevator and start talking to a guy about his family, and he says something that slightly plays into how the course of the night unfolds.

On the morning of the first Beacon show, there was an announcement that Broadway was going to be closed until June 2021. This impacts 97,000 employees of Broadway outside of the actors and musicians. But when I got to the Beacon, the marquee was lit and all these staff members were back to work. I was talking to them all day long. It was very moving and felt much bigger than the music. So I think that it informed the emotions of the music to see these men and women, who I had seen for years backstage, coming back to work.

Then, I had the Twitch chat. I totally got “Sunset Days” from the fans. I read something that Eliza put up on the screen about these people who were getting married. Later on, when I picked up the acoustic, I asked Eliza to put that back up again, so she went through her files and popped it up on the screen so that I could read it. I had also received a text from my daughter Bella earlier in the day that I had registered and then forgotten about, also asking me to play “Sunset Days” for her friends. As it turned out, she was talking about the same people.

The reason improvisational music works is that you listen. All you’ve got to do is listen to one other person. That’s all it takes. Just pick one person that’s not you. Just pick one—the bass that Tony’s playing right now. Let your radar go outward. Boom.

The other part is that, as best as you possibly can, don’t think about the results. It’s going to be good or it’s going to be bad. But what does that even mean? I’ve been wrong on that so many times but it’s irrelevant. I’m not in the results business. I’m standing here, Ray’s over there. My job is to just get out of the way and listen.

In my experience, thinking about results and not about the joy of the actual connection, doesn’t go anywhere good. I think you can tell what kind of music was written to make money and what kind of music is an expression of a human emotion—a cry for help, joy or whatever.

In the Phish world and my world, there are a lot of songs. But because we don’t really have a hit, I’ve never felt trapped into feeling that I had to play a specific song. It’s much more like, “Where are we today? What am I hearing?” Just let it fly.

So, you turn off the machine in your brain and live completely in the moment. And every step of the way, you’re reaching out to the audience and the other musicians to find the place where you connect. That’s how music works. That’s how song lists work. That’s how all of it works.

Something else I picked up from the chat was a real sense of gratitude and relief—“We’ve never needed you like this before!” or “This is what the world needed!” I imagine these responses were prompted both by feelings about the coronavirus and the escalating clatter and dissent in our culture. As someone who responds to the moment through his performance, has it been a challenge to prevent all of that from becoming overwhelming?

Everything I like about music is that it brings people together— everything. Every musician I’ve ever liked—Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley—their songs were about unity. That’s what I care about.

Live music teaches you that there is a place where we’re all one and connected. Bob Marley was up there singing, “One love, one heart, let’s get together” because music opened up a path where that underlying truth was revealed to him.

So I spend my days trying to bring people together: “The ocean is only a lot of drops of water/ And the land is only a lot of grains of sand… From high above we’re all the same down here/ Without a map the lines all disappear… rise up and come together…” That’s where I’m going to stand.

As a musician, that’s what I’ve learned. Think about what you’re doing as a musician. You walk into a room with a variety of people, everyone counts something off and then you start searching for the place where you connect. Is it the beat? Is it the vocal harmonies? Where are we together? Everyone is searching with their radar and their antenna. Where are we the same? And when everybody discovers it, then that’s the groove. That’s what James Brown found. Those musicians all found that pattern—“Oh, my God, we’re all one.” They became one sound.

What you’re doing is searching for the place where you’re the same and trying to ignore the places where you’re different.

So as a musician, and in particular an improvisational musician, I try to look for places where I connect. I think we all recognize that there is just so much noise going on right now. I’ve never experienced anything like it. At times, I look around and wish we could all take a breath and listen for a minute.

Music is about listening. That’s how you play music; you listen to the another person. The whole skill set of improvisational music is listening. But these days, with all the chatter, it often sounds like a lot of screaming people who aren’t listening to each other. It sounds like bad improvisational music. Personally, I’d rather hear Kind of Blue.

The situation reminds me of something that every band experiences, which is the tempo war. The guitar player counts off the song. The drummer, who isn’t in the guitar player’s body, gets going at a different rate. Then the bass player thinks it’s going too fast while the drummer thinks it’s going too slow. So there’s a battle where the various musicians are either speeding up or slowing down, trying to pull the rest of the band along with them.

This happened to Phish early in our career, around ‘94. We experienced various versions of this over and over and over again—until, one day, we went into the band room and said, “We’re never going to do this again.” So we decided to do an exercise and we went around in a circle and each person had a turn to speed up or slow down. It was Page’s turn. He sped up, slowed down. Everyone had to follow Page. The idea was that Page is correct and you’re wrong. And then it was Mike’s turn. And Mike sped up and slowed down and Fish sped up and slowed down. Then I sped up and slowed down. And what we did was train ourselves not to fight and to accept the other person’s opinion. It was a full-on, “I love you. I believe in you as a human and a musician. So I’m not going to sit onstage and start thinking that I’m right and you’re wrong.”

Then, all of a sudden a whole new world opened up to us in the jams by just accepting and listening. That was when those “Tweezers” started happening that were like 40 minutes long. We were speeding up and slowing down. It was unbelievable. We had been fighting for four straight years. And, just by sitting down and saying, “We are now going to listen to each other. I’m not right and you’re wrong; each of us is right,” it was revelatory. That was when Phish became a good band, right before the Bangor “Tweezer.” It hasn’t been a problem since then. You’ll notice that in Phish jams, if they want to speed up, then they speed up. And if they want to slow down, they slow down.

I’ve played with orchestras all over America and it’s an amazing experience. You walk onstage with 90 people, there are no amps and everybody has to find one place to connect. So everybody starts getting together and, when it comes together, it’s 90 people in harmony.

I’ve had that same experience in Atlanta, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Seattle, LA and with the New York Philharmonic. And when I came together with all those people, it was so powerful that my knees got weak. There were times when I thought I was going to fall over. I cried. I’m crying right now remembering it.

But in this moment of isolation, it’s so much more profound. That’s what we were trying to do at the Beacon. We had all been separated and sent back home. Would we still be able to find a place to connect?

Speaking for myself, the answer is an unequivocal, “Yes.” I’m still feeling it three days later.

When we find that place—when we make that connection—it’s the most beautiful experience. The groove comes together and it’s incredible.