by: Matthew Cremer (revised version)
When Phish played the Zoo back in 2012, marking the first time the legendary jam band had performed in the state of Oklahoma (in it’s 30+ year existence, mind you), that was a pretty big deal (at the time). Then again, in retrospect, the actual show itself was more so along the lines of “we’ve never played here before, so they’ll like whatever we give them” kind of show. Even though a fun, down-the-middle, non risk-taking jaunt, it was still definitely nothing to write home about.
Alas, this is not a review of a Phish show. Jesus, those are exhausting. And this most certainly does not involve the god forsaken Zoo Ampitheatre. For when it comes to certain crystal clear distinctions between Tulsa and that other place (Oklahoma City), there is one that stands out – the Cain’s Ballroom. As in, we have Cain’s and you do not. Does that mean us Tulsan’s think we’re better than OKC folk? Not really. Ok, maybe. However, this I do know – we have Cain’s and you do not. This actually applies well beyond the scope of Oklahoma-land to quite a few different places, I’d imagine. Yes, it matters that much. Although Tulsa is a city of disjointed novelties, when throwing Cain’s Ballroom into the equation, it is the nexus glue that holds the whole damn allure together. It’s one of the very few things we can boastfully lay claim to (I emphasize “very few”). The venue has not only been a rite of passage of sorts for local audiophiles, shoe-gazer’s and noobs alike over the years, but is revered by modern day music royalty (think Beck, Jack White etc.) as a, well – pretty big deal. Indeed, they “get it” too.
This week the Trey Anastasio Band (yes, Trey from that band Phish) would have their opportunity to “get it,” playing for the very first time in Tulsa at Cain’s. Between this, the fact it was scheduled on a ho-hum Tuesday evening and having a strong (but certainly not sold out) draw, the show had all the makings for a sleeper. No, not a snooze-fest, but something quite the opposite. Especially when taking into account that the community had lost sage/jamband steward Col. Bruce Hampton (Aquarium Rescue Unit) the night before in a bizarre, yet fitting exodus from Planet Earth. This in itself holds significance as Anastasio had befriended and been influenced by Col. Bruce back in the days of touring together with H.O.R.D.E. in the early ‘90’s.
With that said, a tribute would surely be in store at some juncture. As it turned out, TAB didn’t waste any time by opening with a cover of Hampton’s “Basically Frightened” (the band soundchecked the tune for practically an hour straight). At the conclusion of this rousing, on-point homage, Anastasio honored his old buddy by adding, “have a beautiful journey” while visibly getting choked up. And it was while stopping short of a teary outburst onstage that the tone would essentially be set for the rest of the evening. Not along the lines of somber and poignant, but as in “I need to get this off my chest right now – and you’re coming with me.” Instead of an auditorium of strangers watching a grown man cry right then and there, for the next two and half hours we witnessed a cathartic release of emotion interwoven through every conceivable nuance, power chord and raw exaltation summoned from Big Red and Company. The near capacity crowd in turn shared a collective, uproarious Okie family embrace of the band (and uplifting of Trey) from the onset. From that point, he seemed determined to repay the gesture by trying to connect with as many people in the room as possible. By the end of “Magilla,” Anastasio was already fully in his comfort zone as he emphatically exclaimed, “we are overdue being here!” You don’t say. With a nice balance of brief, yet hard-charging improvisational flurries (“Cayman Review” and “Curlew’s Call”) and tightly wound, buoyant covers (Portugal. The Man’s “Feel it Still” and Bob Marley’s “Soul Rebel”), Anastasio had a child-like exuberance that bubbled over throughout. As the set culminated with a nod to Tulsa Sound hero Leon Russell on “Delta Lady” and the always guitar shaman-esque “First Tube,” the initial stanza was across the board a big upbeat, therapeutic exhale for the band leader from Vermont.
The second set, however, is when the aforementioned unburdening of emotional excess weight really played itself out as this show truly achieved lift-off. Opening with raucous, fluid versions of “Night Speak to a Woman” and “Alive Again,” the mood shifted seamlessly into “Dark and Down.” With the horn section of Casey (sax), Hartswick (trumpet) and Cressman (trombone) stepping off stage for almost the entirety of the number, Anastasio’s presence was quickly magnified as he dug deep, wailing away above the hypnotic undercurrent of the remaining members. There was nothing jarring whatsoever as the much lighter and effervescent “Gotta Jibboo” was thrown into the fold, smoothly building the momentum of the set ever further. After Trey masterfully blended in a segue of call and response with the horns, the front man’s zeal for honoring the moment sprung forward. Intermittently jumping and swaying along, he became enamored with a small group of people who were situated in the overlooking mezzanine at the very rear of the ballroom. Literally playing to the “back seats” of the theater, Anastasio was practically challenging these passive onlookers to have as much fun as he was experiencing. If nothing else, to stop standing there with their thumbs up their asses and actually move them, God forbid. And from the looks of things, the thumbs eventually came out!
The home stretch of the second set was one of the more potent combinations of song choice and flow I’ve seen in quite some time. From a high energy, yet very moving cover of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “49 Bye-Bye’s” to the moody and at times psychedelic edge of “Burlap Sack and Pumps,” the wave continued to heighten in juxtaposed maneuvering goodness. Dipping down for a brief respite with the Gorillaz “Clint Eastwood,” Trey quickly ratcheted the momentum back up, going headstrong and loop heavy on the stalwart “Mr. Completely,” before reaching the tipping point with Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused.” It was here that Trey and vocalist Jennifer Hartswick took both the tune and the show up a notch (or 40) upon meeting each other head on at the front of stage for a vocal/guitar riff duel that in all actuality was a glorious, tension laden sonic translation of – let’s not beat around the bush here – raunchy intercourse. There, I said it. We’re all adults here, right? And if you are under 18 years of age and are reading along, well kids, apparently this is what happens when you play music at the Cain’s Ballroom for the first time.
As if THAT was not enough of a high note to go out on, Trey and his merry cohorts exhausted whatever head of steam they had left in the tank with a spirited sequence for the encore. “Push On ‘Til the Day” was focused and aggressive, as it became a flawless medley, conjuring up Tulsa icon J.J. Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze” and “Cocaine” (no, those are not Skynyrd and Clapton originals, ya big dummy). It was on the back half of this progression that Anastasio rode his wave of elation to the brink, jumping and strutting about while playfully hamming it up with a much younger fan on the front rail. Trey then broke into some kind of crazed whirling dervish frenzy as a transitional cue moving back into “Push On” to emphatically close out the night.
Out of the 100+ shows I’ve had the honor of being present at Cain’s Ballroom, this one makes the very short list without question. To say that this makeshift séance was a pretty big deal would be a gross understatement. It was a huge deal. Whether Trey was channeling the bravado of the beloved Col. Bruce or whatever strange brew was pulsating through his being, he was the straw that stirred the cosmic drink that night. The positive feedback loop incarnate who refused to leave anything on the court (or Oklahoma ballroom, in this instance). Trey “got it.” The rest of his hired gun ensemble “got it.” And we, the blessed audience, got one of the most uplifting and wicked performances you might just ever see on a Tuesday night in Tulsa.
God Bless the Colonel.
Set I: Basically Frightened*, Sometime after Sunset, Magilla, Cayman Review, Mozambique, Sand, Feel it Still**, Curlew’s Call, Soul Rebel***, Money, Love & Change, Delta Lady****, Valentine, First Tube
Set II: Night Speak to a Woman, Alive Again, Dark and Down, Gotta Jibboo, 49 Bye-Bye’s^, Burlap Sack and Pumps, Clint Eastwood^^, Mr. Completely, Dazed and Confused^^^
Encore: The Parting Glass+, Push On ‘Til the Day > Call Me the Breeze^^^^ > Cocaine^^^^ > Push On ‘Til the Day
* Col. Bruce Hampton cover
** Portugal. The Man cover
*** Bob Marley cover
**** Leon Russell cover
^ Crosby, Stills and Nash cover
^^ Gorillaz cover
^^^ Led Zeppelin cover
+ Traditional cover
^^^^ J.J. Cale cover