On Saturday, Trey Anastasio and Ghosts Of The Forest rounded out their east coast tour with a second and final performance at the stunning United Palace in upper Manhattan.
It’s been difficult to steer clear of the music being played as the tour’s gone on—especially with the Ghosts of the Forest studio album dropping on Friday. But going into Saturday’s performance, I had heard no more than a few notes from this new project.
What I had heard was the background. As Trey revealed last week on SiriusXM, “It’s a concert with a narrative arc. There’s an underlying story within the sequence of songs, and within the lyrics of the songs. So, that probably makes it a little bit different from things that I’ve done before.”
He also dished to Rolling Stone about the heartbreaking origins of this trove of new music: the loss of his longtime friend, Chris Cottrell, to cancer last year. “He was my tether to childhood and to a life before Phish happened,” Trey explained.
It was so bluntly emotional, so raw, that he wasn’t sure he wanted to release it. “I went through a period of deep self-doubt after recording it,” Anastasio reflected. “I didn’t want to put it out. Maybe I was scared.”
Not only did he put it out, he blew it up. A sold-out tour. An incredible stage set that juxtaposes delicate, artful white static elements and towering technicolor electronics.
With that context in mind, the show was undeniably powerful. Throughout the ride, the Ghosts of the Forest touched on a number of unfamiliar styles, from the soulful peaks of “Drift While You’re Sleeping” to the vulnerability of “Friend” to the disco-funk theatrics of “Sightless Escape” to the mystical acoustic ambiance and dextrous avant-garde Jon Fishman drum line of “If Again”. “In Long Lines” evoked notions of “Wingsuit” and “Rise/Come Together”. “About To Run”, perhaps the strongest song of the bunch, channeled the gritty riffs of Band of Gypsys Jimi Hendrix as a rainbow Trey silhouette bounced around the LED screen that loomed behind the stage’s white adornments.
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4/13/19 – @treyanastasio’s #GhostsOfTheForest at the incredible @unitedpalacenyc. Went in totally blind on the music and really enjoyed it. Plus the stage setup was WILD. Watch an LED #TreyAnastasio silhouette bounce around the backdrop to #AboutToRun, maybe my fav song of the show. Still undecided.. . . . . #gotf #phish #jonfishman #celissehenderson #jenniferhartswick #tonymarkellis #raypaczkowski #livemusic #tab #treyanastasioband #liveformusic #liveforlivemusic
There was the ethereal, multi-part psychedelic complexity of “Beneath a Sea of Stars”, the uplifting “Stumble Into Flight”, the deep-space extremities of “Ruby Waves”, the island bounce of “Wider”, the shimmering build of “A Life Beyond The Dream”, the return of “Beneath A Sea Of Stars Part 3 (Blue)”, the show’s de facto coda that tied up a number of loose musical threads from earlier in the set.
Beginning with Trey, the band left the stage one by one at the end of the set as the “Ghosts of the Forest” theme played out. The show’s final song, “Pieces In The Machine”, saw Trey chase Jennifer Hartswick and Celisse Henderson around the stage in a joyful game of chicken as the song’s swamp rock vamp bounced along.
Ahead of the song, Trey seemed to take particular pleasure in noting “We love playing this song. We played it last night, and we’re playin’ it again tonight!” None of Trey’s previous projects have afforded him the luxury of replaying a favorite song for a second night in a row—but for Ghosts of the Forest, “Pieces In The Machine” is the one climactic closer, and Trey sounded liberated driving it home that same way one more time.
That was far from the only time Anastasio seemed to relish his unfamiliar approach to Ghosts of the Forest. There were times, in the thick of a jam, where the music would list toward a familiar lick—a shade of “Slave To The Traffic Light”, some notes of “Pigtail”, a taste of “Blaze On”. If this was a Phish show, Trey might’ve leaned into the similarity, used it as a new creative door. With Ghosts of the Forest, you could hear him consciously move away from such familiar paths and reference points. This was not the place for connecting the dots. This was something separate.
Throughout the show, Trey delivered his heartfelt lyrics with stark emotion. Many of them, like the tear-jerking “Mint Siren Dream” (“I haven’t felt this alive since I was ten years old”) and the encore-opening solo “Brief Time” (“It’s such a beautiful world, and such a brief time”), were more stated than sung, as if to say, “this isn’t about how my voice sounds, it’s about what I’m saying to you.”
Ghosts of the Forest will head to California next weekend for shows at the respective Greek Theatres in Los Angeles on Friday, April 19th and in Berkely on Saturday, April 20th. After that, the future of Ghosts of the Forest is a mystery. As Trey noted from the stage during his band introductions, they’ll be back soon—in “various other formations, playing all kinds of other stuff.” And it’s true. Trey Anastasio Band has a bunch of dates scheduled this spring. Phish summer tour is right around the corner. Soon, this will all be in the rearview. Back to business as usual.
But, if you really think about it, creating a new band and a new sound to say something different and of personal significance is business as usual for modern-day Trey. This is a guy who, since the beginning of 2018 alone, has pushed his main band to new heights (both literal and figurative), played shows with multiple iterations of his solo project (Trey Anastasio Band, Trey Anastasio Trio, Trey Anastasio Trio-turned-Quartet), mounted an intimate acoustic/storytelling tour, devised not one but two new bands out of thin air, wrote full sets worth of music for them, and unleashed them on audiences who had virtually zero notion of what to expect.
This may not be your favorite project Trey’s ever created, and that’s okay. You probably don’t love every song Phish plays either, but that doesn’t detract from your love and respect for the breadth of what they do. With a body of work like Trey’s, anything new is inevitably up against some pretty impossible expectations in the eyes of fans. As the wise Jon Fishman once said of his brother in arms, “The guy shits music. It’s never been anything other than that.”
With Ghosts of the Forest, Trey channeled a characteristic burst of prolific inspiration into something new and entirely different. It wasn’t the first time he’s done it, and it likely won’t be the last. However you feel about the music itself, we can all appreciate the seemingly bottomless well of creativity from which Big Red continues to draw. Thank you for sharing this with us, Trey, and here’s to the next big idea.
Ghosts of the Forest – “Ghosts of the Forest” – 4/13/19
[Video: Trey Anastasio]
Setlist: Ghosts of the Forest | United Palace | New York, NY | 4/13/19
Set: Intro, Ghosts of the Forest, Drift While You’re Sleeping, Friend, Sightless Escape, Halfway Home, If Again, In Long Lines, There’s A Path Above, About To Run, The Green Truth, Beneath A Sea Of Stars Parts 1 & 2, Mint Siren Dream, Stumble Into Flight, Ruby Waves, Shadows Thrown By Fire, Wider, A Life Beyond The Dream, In This Bubble, Beneath A Sea Of Stars Part 3 (Blue)
Encore: Brief Time*, Pieces In The Machine
*Trey solo acoustic