The Newport Folk Festival was never strictly limited to folk music, but the 2008 festival expanded the musical diversity more than ever before. Perhaps taking a cue from the massive success of younger festivals like Bonnaroo, the 2008 roster included bigger ticket artists like The Black Crowes, Jimmy Buffett, The Levon Helm Band, Trey Anastasio (presented here) and The Cowboy Junkies, right along with the folk, bluegrass and blues troubadours that once topped the bill. Despite some weather issues, this approach turned out to be a resounding success and all of the headlining acts turned in memorable performances that often conveyed the influence of the traditional styles that originally launched the festival.
One of the most surprising names to appear on the 2008 Newport Folk Festival roster was Phish's guitarist and primary songwriter, Trey Anastasio. Within the context of Phish, Anastasio concentrated on his electric guitar technique, drawing on rock, funk, country and jazz influences within a highly improvisational context. Following the 1995 death of one of Anastasio's primary influences, Jerry Garcia, and the subsequent demise of the Grateful Dead, Phish experienced a huge surge in their following. Within a brief time, Phish found themselves the new torchbearers of the jamband scene, with legions of devoted fans following their every move. The increasingly complicated logistics of touring that inevitably followed would eventually take its toll, leading to a two-year hiatus between 2000 and 2002, and finally to the announcement of their breakup in 2004.
After what was then perceived as the disbanding of Phish (they regrouped in 2009 and have been active ever since), Anastasio focused on touring with his own band, recording his own albums and making occasional guest appearances. His solo career was curtailed in December of 2006, when he was pulled over in the wee hours of the morning for erratic driving by a patrolman in Whitehall, NY. Subsequently arrested and convicted for drug possession, Anastasio's next 14 months were spent serving out his sentence in the New York State drug court program. He participated in daily drug counseling meetings, drug testing and community service, including scrubbing toilets and cleaning local fairgrounds. In June of 2008, just two months prior to his appearance at Newport, Anastasio completed rehab and his sentencing requirements. Clean and sober and crediting the program with saving his life, Anastasio became involved in the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and began taking the first steps toward rejuvenating his career as a professional musician.
On July 6, 2008 he appeared at Michigan's Rothbury Music Festival, where he performed an acoustic set that included several songs with Phish bassist Mike Gordon. A month later he would officially return with first post-rehab Trey Anastasio Band gig in Brooklyn.
Right between these two appearances came Anastasio's only completely solo acoustic gig, when he made an appearance at the 2008 Newport Folk Festival, performing in the early afternoon following a set by Richie Havens. Although Anastasio was theoretically one of the festival's least folky performers, he was actually one of the few to perform in the old-style tradition, with nothing more than his voice and acoustic guitar. Unaware of the low-key Rothbury appearance, Newport Festival advertising prominently boasted "Anastasio's first ever solo acoustic performance and his first full performance in 17 months." This guaranteed a large percentage of Phish fans attending the Saturday programming, there to support what was perceived as Anastasio's triumphant return. There was a bit of light rain during the set, but it had no diminishing effect on the enthusiastic response from the audience. In fact, as if to cooperate, Mother Nature saved a torrential downpour with heavy wind and lightning until just after the conclusion of Anastasio's set.
Presented in its entirety, here is Anastasio's wide-ranging set from that afternoon. This set not only represents his solo work and a couple of live debuts, but also placed a heavy emphasis on classic Phish material, much to the pleasure of his ecstatic audience. What is most fascinating about this solo acoustic performance is hearing these songs stripped down to their original form, free of the lengthy improvisations that established Anastasio's reputation as a world-class guitarist. Instead, he focuses on the lyric-driven nature of the songs, many co-written with his songwriting partner, lyricist Tom Marshall, who watched from the wings of the stage. Often obscured within the context of Phish, Marshall's lyrics often convey a childlike innocence and many of Anastasio's songs reveal a more introspective and contemplative nature at Newport.
The set begins with the pretty and comforting "Brian & Robert" followed by the inviting "Farmhouse," two 1997 songs issued in demo form on the Anastasio/Marshall collection, Trampled by Lambs and Pecked by the Dove. Both songs would be revamped for Phish albums proper, but are heard here in their original, unadorned form. Following some stage banter where Anastasio comments on the lovely surroundings of the festival, he continues in a more traditional folk style with delicate fingerpicking on "Water In The Sky." A example of the childlike innocence often found in Marshall's lyrics is represented in the next number "Let Me Lie," prior to Anastasio launching into "Bouncing Around The Room," which elicits the first highly audible cheers of recognition from the Newport audience.
Next up is a fascinating performance of "Heavy Things." Also originally featured on Trampled by Lambs… and further developed on Phish's Farmhouse album, this is quite upbeat, despite a lyric that focuses on stress. At this point, Anastasio introduces his co-writer, Tom Marshall, and dedicates the next song, "If I Could Be A Sailor," to him and to all the people listening from their boats docked in the harbor. Written ten years prior and chock-full of mythological imagery, this was the song's public debut.
Another song to elicit immediate response from the audience follows with "Mountains in the Mist." With its lyric containing the line, "I'm on the road again," this song deeply resonates with all Phish fans for obvious reasons. Next up is "Sleep Again," a song from Anastasio's solo album, Shine. A song about recovery, this is another number that takes on a deeper significance in the context of this performance. At this point, Anastasio has the Newport audience under his spell and perhaps as a result of feeling so comfortable, delivers the more groove-based "Back On The Train," followed by another public debut. This time, it's in the form of a brand new song called "Peggy," based on a guy with a poster of skating icon Peggy Fleming hanging on his bedroom door. Another Phish song follows with "Waste," which takes on a much more romantic feel in this context. This segues directly into the title song from his 2005 solo album, Shine.
The remainder of the set focuses on classic Phish material and, not surprisingly, elicits enormous reactions from the audience. Anastasio wraps things up with the double whammy of "Bathtub Gin" from the second Phish album, Lawn Boy, and the set concluding "Wilson," a song originally written as part of Anastasio's college thesis project, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday. Both are played in a more relaxed manner than with Phish, though the latter number contains some furious strumming.
Needless to say, the Newport audience has no intention of letting him go without an encore and when Anastasio returns to the stage, he delivers two more Phish classics, both of which are quite compelling in this solo acoustic context. He begins with a deliriously happy "Sample In A Jar," one of the highlights of the fifth Phish album, Hoist, that again features some serious strumming. Anastasio then caps off this memorable performance by segueing directly into "Chalk Dust Torture." The only song to feature a true guitar solo break, this is again most notable for the intensity of his strumming. In many ways, this acoustic arrangement of "Chalk Dust Torture" acknowledges another of Anastasio's influences, Pete Townshend, as he replicates the fervor of the Phish arrangement and a much bigger sound on acoustic guitar alone. With its questioning lyric couplet of "Can't this wait til I'm old? Can I live while I'm young?" this serves as the perfect sentiment to close the set, conveying both a sense of rebellion and survival.
-Written by Alan Bershaw