On Friday night, Trey Anastasio regrouped his 2019 touring project Ghosts of the Forest for Night 5 of The Beacon Jams, his eight-week virtual residency at New York’s Beacon Theatre.
This performance officially opened the back half of the eight-part residency, and a few patterns had emerged in The Beacon Jams throughout the “front four.” We’d probably get the no-horns, “local” Trey Anastasio Band lineup as the house band, probably some Jeff Tanski piano renderings of Phish songs, probably some tasteful cameos by the Rescue Squad Strings. Of course, as is the nature of these Beacon Jams, we as the audience are on a need-to-know basis. Trey has clearly been making big plans to ensure that each of these streams is something special, and the midway point of the run has always felt like an intuitive place to shake things up.
That flame was stoked by a Friday afternoon post from Trey announcing that a beautiful, glowing poster print commemorating The Beacon Jams Night 5 would go on sale after the show. Following the performance, Trey posted the full image of the commemorative poster for Ghosts of the Forest night at The Beacon Jams by Daniel Danger.
The familiar fade-in on the Beacon stage revealed not the Beacon Jams band we’ve seen the last few weeks but an expanded version of the Ghosts of the Forest outfit with whom Trey recorded an eponymous concept album and embarked on a national headlining tour in 2019 that eventually produced an official GotF live album.
For those fans unfamiliar with Ghosts of the Forest, there are a few important things to note before we dive into the music from Friday night. First, unlike virtually every other Trey project, the order and content of a Ghosts of the Forest setlist is set in stone. As Trey revealed on SiriusXM during the initial Ghosts of the Forest tour in April 2019, “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.”
Second, it’s prudent to consider the heartbreaking origins of this trove of new music: the loss of Trey’s longtime friend, Chris Cottrell, to cancer in 2018. “He was my tether to childhood and to a life before Phish happened,” Trey explained in a candid 2019 interview with Rolling Stone.
The music he wrote for the project 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 juxtaposed delicate, artful white static elements and towering, technicolor electronics. [Note: If anyone’s looking for some good follow-up viewing today, the 2019 Trey Anastasio documentary Between Me and My Mind offers a wonderful look at the creation of this project, Trey’s uncertainty about the material, his final, emotional visit with Cottrell, and more. Stream it via Amazon here].
Following the sold-out, nine-date Ghosts of the Forest tour in the spring of 2019, Trey seemed to close the book on the suite. Sure, a few of the songs would work their way into Phish setlists in the ensuing months, often quite prominently (lookin’ at you, Alpine “Ruby Waves”), but that tour always felt like a one-and-done. Ghosts of the Forest presented us with a vulnerable Trey offering up a new kind of show as a means for coping with the loss of a foundational person in his life. From there, it seemed, he turned the page and kept pushing on ’til the day, as C-Cott would have wanted.
Just over a year later, however, we find ourselves in a vastly different world. We’re spending our Fridays together remotely as a particularly reflective Trey Anastasio makes amends for his past transgressions by raising money to directly help people who are struggling as he once did via the Divided Sky Fund—which has now racked up more than $400,000 in donations. With all that in mind, it seems only natural that Trey’s thoughts may have wandered back to his late friend, remembering him fondly while wishing he was here to experience this evolution with him. Now that it’s happened, a Ghosts of the Forest night at The Beacon Jams feels like a perfect choice.
Ghosts of the Forest – “Drift While You’re Sleeping” – The Beacon Jams Night 5 – 11/6/20
[Video: Trey Anastasio]
Now, on to the music itself, with a small caveat: I’ve reviewed this show before. After getting my ticket for the last NYC Ghosts of the Forest show on April 23rd, 2019, I purposely blocked out the music trickling in (both the studio record and the live recordings) so I could take it in for the first time in person. It’s not something you normally have to consider with Trey projects, all of which are known for their ever-changing sets from night to night, but Ghosts of the Forest is not exactly a “normal” Trey Anastasio project. For a dive into the Ghosts of the Forest live show as a whole, I’ll refer you to the going-in-blind review of that 4/23/19 United Palace show.
The Beacon Jams Ghosts of the Forest night setlist stuck with the script of the previous live performances, unavoidably reducing the element of surprise on Night 5. Of course, the performance still found ways to unexpectedly delight the Twitch masses, so we’ll focus on those elements here.
In addition to Trey, keyboardist Ray Paczkowski, and bassist Tony Markellis, who are now 5-for-5 on the Beacon jams, Ghosts of the Forest night brought singers Jennifer Hartswick and Celisse Henderson into the fold. The show also saw the addition of a third GotF backing vocalist, Jo Lampert, who Trey was quick to point out that we’ve all seen before, whether in her role as “lead Trey clone” on New Year’s Eve 2019 to her inclusion in Phish’s Ziggy Stardust Halloween spectacle in 2016.
Of course, the reunion most fans are talking about is between Trey and another longtime friend, Jon Fishman, his comrade and Phish bandmate of many decades, who also serves as the drummer in Ghosts of the Forest. The Beacon Jams Night 5 marked the first time these two shared a stage since they took their final bows with Phish in Mexico back on February 23rd, some eight months/eight thousand years ago. The banter between the two throughout the night—and the obvious joy Trey got from playing with Fish once again—were highlights of the night in themselves.
From quips about how everyone had previously dated the drummer to inside jokes from their time as teenage buskers in Italy that produced Phish classics like “You Enjoy Myself” to the sort of faux-erotic ribbing you only see from friends with the tightest of bonds, seeing Trey and Fish onstage together again for the night was a healing sight for a hurting fanbase.
The real-time observations provided levity for a tense week in the U.S., as well. As the band moved from “About To Run” into “The Green Truth”, Trey began to laugh. Riffing on Fishman’s former side gig as a local elected official in his Maine hometown, “You know, that last song is about Fish. It’s like if they don’t figure this whole thing out, I’m [about to] run for president.”
Related: Phish’s Jon Fishman Talks Ranked-Choice Voting, Local Government, More At Democracy Comes Alive [Watch]
The most notable addition to the Ghosts of the Forest spectacle at the Beacon was a beefed-up, “spatchcocked” Rescue Squad Strings section (Katie Kresek, Maxim Moston, Phil Payton, and Mary Jo Stilp on violin, Monica Davis and Rachel Golub on viola, and Eleanor Norton and Anja Wood on cello). Expanded to eight pieces from the quartet we’ve seen the last few weeks, the Rescue Squad first emerged from the shadows for “Friend” and returned periodically to add a new sonic element to “In Long Lines”, “There’s a Path Above”, “Beneath a Sea of Stars Parts 1 & 2”, “Mint Siren Dream”, “Shadows Thrown By Fire”, “A Life Beyond The Dream”, and “Brief Time”.
Ghosts of the Forest w/ Rescue Squad Strings – “In Long Lines” – The Beacon Jams Night 5 – 11/6/20
[Video: Trey Anastasio]
Ghosts of the Forest w/ Rescue Squad Strings – “There’s A Path Above” – The Beacon Jams Night 5 – 11/6/20
[Video: Trey Anastasio]
Lighting director Marc Janowitz provided an appropriately starry backdrop on the set-closing “Beneath a Sea of Stars”, briefly transforming the vast, empty Beacon Theatre into just that. The inside joke banter continued to prompt laughter from the band (“It’s all folding in on each other, it’s all getting so meta”) as they moved into fantastic renditions of “Ruby Ways”, “Wider” and a powerful “A Life Beyond the Dream” to help wind down the show.
The Beacon Jams Night 5 presented the biggest curveball yet, changing up the formula to revive a project thought to be a thing of the past. It will be interesting to see how the residency continues to evolve over the final three weeks. Will next week move back toward “normal” in Beacon Jams terms, or will the lineup rotation continues from here—and if it does continue, what band will we get next week? Your guess is as good as ours. Catch you in the chat next week.
Setlist: Ghosts of the Forest | The Beacon Jams Night 5 | Beacon Theatre | New York, NY | 11/6/20
SET 1: 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
 With The Rescue Squad Strings.
This performance was part of The Beacon Jams series and featured the Ghosts of the Forest setlist from the band’s 2019 tour played in its entirety. Friend, In Long Lines, There’s a Path Above, Beneath a Sea of Stars Parts 1 & 2, Mint Siren Dream, Shadows Thrown By Fire, A Life Beyond The Dream, and Brief Time featured The Rescue Squad Strings (Katie Kresek, Maxim Moston, Phil Payton, and Mary Jo Stilp on violin, Monica Davis and Rachel Golub on viola, and Eleanor Norton and Anja Wood on cello). Trey teased No Men In No Man’s Land in Sightless Escape. Pigtail was quoted before Stumble Into Flight.