Grateful Dead 50
All The Years Combine, They Melt Into a Dream”
Part 3 – Trey Anastasio
By Matthew Bowers
“After kicking around who’s gonna work best, it’s really pretty evident to anybody who doesn’t have a real serious axe to grind who we should be dancing with here.”
When Bob Weir made this statement during an interview with CNBC in late February, all of the backlash and doubt about the band choosing Trey Anastasio to be the lead guitarist for the Fare Thee Well shows should have stopped. At that point the shows were still 4 and a half months away from being played, and as I watched the mixed reactions online from pure joy to blind hate, I knew that once everyone got on stage and let the music play the band, all of the naysayers would end up having to eat their words for dinner.
Being a huge fan of The Grateful Dead and Phish, I personally never understood why a lot of deadheads have so much vitriol and bitterness towards a band that a lot of them have never even taken the time to see live. I always encounter this strange contradiction that because you like one band you shouldn’t like the other, that it’s taboo for some reason. Not only do these bands not really sound like each other at all, both acts feature some of the most talented musicians you’ll ever find. The common links are that both bands take their songs and modify them live with in-depth improvisation, and both execute it with skill and grace. Both bands also have a rabid and loyal following that provides the show within the show, travelling around to parking lots across the country. But most notably, both bands feature a larger than life guitar player. As we all know, one of those players isn’t with us anymore, and he left some rather large shoes to fill for the “last ever” shows that the bandmates he left behind would play together.
When these shows were first announced and I found out Trey was going to be involved, I immediately knew that I had to do whatever it took to make it to these shows. As someone who’s been listening to the Grateful Dead for 20 years, and also an admitted rabid Phan who goes to see Phish as many times as I can every tour, I couldn’t wait to hear Trey play those songs that are so near and dear to all of our hearts. I knew that he would win over all of the doubters, and I really hoped that maybe he would turn some of them on to the genius of his own music with Phish. This was a chance for the “torch to be passed” so to speak, and hopefully would be a bridge between the two overlapping fan bases.
Trey is a musician’s musician, as was Jerry. He is classically trained, and has written so many complex compositions and even reworked his songs into symphony scores. This is the first step in realizing why he was the right choice for these shows. He takes his work seriously, not only does he have the chops but he understood the gravity of the position that he would have to fill. So he had his road crew set up his entire stage rig in an empty windowless warehouse in New York City near his home. From there he would put his head down, and according to many interviews would practice on his full rig for 5-8 hours a day learning Dead songs and studying Jerry’s licks and how he responded to the rest of the band.
When the shows would finally roll around, the hard work and preparation Trey had put in leading up to them would pay off in droves. I was not fortunate enough to make it to the Santa Clara shows, but watching on the webcast was a real treat nonetheless. From the opening notes of Truckin, through the psychedelic adventure that would be the “Cryptical>Dark Star> St. Stephen> The Eleven” segment, the realization finally hit me that my favorite living guitar player was not only going to rise to the occasion, but he would push the other guys over the top right with him.
The momentum would gain from there. The band would get more and more comfortable playing together every show and Trey would eventually step out as the clear leader. This is one thing that Jerry and Trey both do so well. When the band is in a deep exploratory jam, and it seems like the ship is about to sail off in the wrong direction, both guitarists are fantastic at building a theme that the rest of the band can pick up on and steer them back on path, putting wind in the sails. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely a few changes and segments that are rough around the edges, but these would be the exception to the rest of the magic that was captured during the 5 show run.
I can’t write about the importance of Trey playing these shows without mentioning the star factor. Trey is a rock star, nobody can deny that. When your band is the only one playing and 85 thousand people show up to a swamp in Florida to see you play guitar, you have achieved a level of success that not many other musicians have in the last 30-50 years. This wasn’t achieved by radio hits, it was done the same way the Grateful Dead did it when they were in their prime. Relentless touring and an unmatched commitment to their craft. Different in musical style, almost identical in the conception and the response/following that they garnered.
So, now you have 5 larger than life shows that need a larger than life figure to not only live up to the spectacle, but attempt to fill Jerry Garcia’s shoes and also sell out a football stadium 3 times over in the process. Nothing against any other guitarists that have played that role in other post Dead configurations (there have been some great ones undoubtedly), but these shows needed someone like Trey to fill that void and live up to those lofty expectations.
Yes there are other guitarists that could have gone on stage and sounded just like Jerry if you closed your eyes, but is that what we really wanted? In hindsight now that the shows are over I don’t think anyone would say yes. Trey masterfully not only used what he learned of Jerry’s style to pay respect to the way the music is supposed to be played, he still managed to sound like himself while he was doing it. He added his signature sound to make the songs fresh and new, while still keeping things organically “Dead.”
These are the reasons that the band chose Trey, and why I think that it was clearly the right choice. All of the arguing and questioning is over now, the music has been played and it speaks for itself. I was fortunate enough to be in Chicago, and I can say without hesitation that any of the other 71 thousand people that were dancing with me in Soldier Field would never question the band’s choice now.
As a phan I couldn’t be more proud of Trey, and I will cherish the memory of these once in a lifetime shows forever. I hope that some of the people he won over get to hit a Phish show this summer and see what he does best. If you thought he was fantastic at Fare Thee Well, just wait until he gets his hands on his own material he’s been playing for 30 years. This is a special summer music lovers. Take advantage while you can.
Part 4 coming soon…