The Ritual: Trey Anastasio, Memory and Transcendence
When I finished the long, involved, nerve-wracking and but also immensely satisfying process of finishing 2013’s You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, my book about how I went from writing about the seemingly disparate but ultimately simpatico fanbases of Insane Clown Posse and Phish, I vowed to try to keep both acts a regular presence in my life for as long as possible.
I doubt will ever go to Sundance again. I think it’s safe to say that my days as a professional film critic or full-time staff writer for a pop culture website are over. I started over, almost from scratch, in so many ways when I departed the world of salaried employment for the terrifying but also enormously exciting world of freelance writing in 2015 so I’ve held onto my deep emotional connection to Phish and Insane Clown as a source of continuity and consistency in a life and career often lacking in both.
A decade after I went to my first Phish show, and tentatively started to explore the world of the Dark Carnival by going to the Gathering of the Juggalos, Insane Clown Posse’s annual festival of arts and culture, these acts continue to mean something important to me. Phish and ICP matter to me, and Phish matters to my wife as well.
So I was sufficiently bummed that Atlanta was not one of the stops on Phish’s Summer tour this year but took consolation in the Trey Anastasio Band playing Atlanta’s Tabernacle as part of his Summer tour.
I’ve seen Phish, I dunno, 38, 40, 43 times. Who can tell? If you know exactly how many Phish shows you’ve been to, you haven’t been experiencing them the right way. I’ve seen the Trey Anastasio Band much less frequently, Last week’s show marked only the second time I’d seen TAB.
I love Phish as a band. They are more than the sum of their formidable parts, brilliant, peerless musicians with a chemistry that can only come with decades of playing together, from experiencing everything life has to offer, the giddy highs, the agonizing lows, those bleary nadirs when the future looked painfully fragile and uncertain, if not outright doomed.
But the essence of Phish, the core, is Trey Anastasio’s voice and guitar. They are a band in the truest, most potent and powerful sense but he is unmistakably their frontman, the leader, the anchor upon which everything relies. The pressure that comes with that, that terrifying power and responsibility, nearly killed Trey. It pushed him to his very breaking point, to the brink of oblivion, to where he nearly destroyed himself, and extinguished his extraordinary potential with hard drugs.
So the celebratory vibe at Phish and Trey Anastasio Band shows these days is on some level a celebration of survival, of persistence, of overcoming life-challenging obstacles. You have to survive in order to thrive and Trey is unmistakably thriving now. Yes, I’m calling him by his first name. You see somebody 45 times, you earn that right.
Part of what made the concert so magical was the music. The joy that Anastasio takes in his gift is infectious on a life-affirming level. He’s worked ceaselessly for decades to become, if not the best in the world at what he does, then certainly one of the best. I’m not an electric guitar guy but Trey is my guy. He’s my dude. There’s something about watching and listening to him play guitar that fills me with peace, with happiness, with a sense that, despite everything, the world is a fundamentally kind and hopeful place.
But the other part of what made that particular show so special was emotional. It has to do with the crowd’s connection with Anastasio but also with each other, and memory and music and escape.
When I started going to Phish shows I was a cynical stranger, an outsider. Now when I go to a show I feel like I’ve come home. It’s not a concert or a performance, or a show. It’s a goddamn ritual. It’s a sacred ceremony. It’s something I look forward to every year and am never disappointed by. It means so much more to be being able to experience it with a wife whom is one hundred percent responsible for getting me into Phish, and everything that followed.
Despite, or because because of everything there is an openness, and a sweetness, and a vulnerability to Anastasio as a performer and as a man that is both heartbreaking and heartwarming.
The Trey Anastasio Band show was not just good. It was transcendent. It was three and a half hours of bliss, of magic, of escape. But don’t take my word for it. Go to a show yourself.
I worry sometimes that I’ll go to a show and the magic won’t be there, that I’ll just hear a band and feel old and worry about my back and my future and start looking at my phone. But that hasn’t happened yet and nights like the one I’m describing now make me think that I’ll remain hopelessly enraptured until I’m no longer a part of this sick, sad but sometimes heart-breakingly beautiful world.
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