We’ve all lost someone special in our lives. In the midst of the pain and sadness, perhaps we made a pledge to ourselves to translate those emotions into fuel for positive change. That’s what happened to me when my dog Jiboo died tragically almost ten years ago. “Live like Jiboo” (i.e. happy all the time, unconditional, selfless) sounded like a great motto. I’m not sure how well I stuck to it, but the intention was there. When Trey Anastasio lost his best friend Chris Cottrell to cancer last year, it had a profound effect on him. Fortunately for us, one of the most relentless, insatiable channels of creativity known to humankind needed an outlet for his grief. Trey took this event and distilled it into a musical manifestation of healing, more potent than anyone could have fathomed.
Over the course of nine performances in the month of April, Ghosts of the Forest became a living, breathing eulogy to “C-Cott” and so much more. This was no ordinary concert. It wasn’t a straightforward exchange of entertainment from band to audience. It was a rock-gospel-soul opera, using the loss of the ultimate bromance to create almost three hours of music unlike anything heard before. We’re talking about a testament to artistic genius I consider on par with any in modern times. It was a reboot of mind-body-soul that left us existential realities to ponder. Juxtaposing light and dark through a psychedelic kaleidoscope, we all know which one comes out triumphant.
Ghosts of the Forest was a statement of overwhelming power laden with heart-opening messages we can all benefit from. It was a passing forth of sage wisdom delivered with childlike fragility. If you’re someone who adores Trey as I do, chances are Ghosts of the Forest was among the most refreshing, inspirational live music voyages of your life. It certainly was for me. An integral part of that impression was the gift of absorbing these songs within the iconic surroundings of Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. The oldest amphitheatre in the country was a fantasy setting to intensify the majesty of the Ghosts’ odyssey. Lucky for us, it was the final show of the brief tour and the band had refined these complex compositions into their fully actualized expressions.
This was only one of two shows on the tour to feature an opening band and I couldn’t have been more elated to see that slot filled by Khruangbin. The trio from Houston has quickly become a nationwide sensation with their stylized fusion of 60’s Thai funk, psychedelic jazz, spacey soul and surf rock. Everyone loves a female bassist and I’m sure many of us can relate on our Laura Lee crushes. Watching her strut the stage, dressed in haute couture and black wig, while thumping with authority was about as hot as it gets. Mark Speer is a tasteful guitar shredder and it was easy to see why Trey pegged them for this coveted slot. It’s almost unheard of for an opener to be rewarded with this sort of attendance. You could tell this was a watershed moment for the band. It was enchanting to hear some of the sexy songs from their debut album, The Universe Smiles Upon You performed in this setting. Their ace in the hole is an instrumental medley of old school hip hop classics. They left us wanting a lot more.
From their inception, Ghosts of the Forest was a project shrouded in mystery. For months leading up to the tour, we knew next to nothing about the material we would be hearing. It was only in March that they released the eponymous track and revealed there would be an album coming out soon. This coincided with a Rolling Stone interview in which Trey revealed a lot about his motivations. After the album dropped and shows from the tour were available to be heard, I consciously avoided it. I felt strongly that it would be in my best interest to go in blind and absorb the music with no preconceptions. I couldn’t have been happier with this decision. It was both liberating and delightfully suspenseful to have no point of reference when each song would spread its wings in the crisp Berkeley air.
The opening track, “Ghosts of the Forest,” served as an elegant, haunting induction to a whole new universe. It was an immediate indoctrination to the emotions of a man stripped bare. If you weren’t ready to accept the reality of “drowning in bitterness…memories…anger…regrets…hatred,” then maybe this wasn’t for you. Can you appreciate how unheard of it is for a crowd of 8000+ to be present and supportive of an entire show of new material? I can’t speak for everyone in attendance, but I felt a palpable sense of unification right away. Maybe we took pride in making this a nurturing space for our guy to share his most intimate self. We’re here with you Trey. We’re here for you buddy. We understand.
The 12+ minute epic “Drift While You’re Sleeping” was the official launching point into the panoramic scope of the band’s potential. The show had barely begun and we were already far from the shallows now. We’re digesting some sobering messages – “We move through stormy weather, we know that our days are few, we dream and we struggle together,” but then there is the salvation of trusting that “love will carry us through.” This is painted on a canvas of magnificent gospel soul, stretching out like the Grand Canyon… larger than life. The reggae excursion in the middle of the song is simply breathtaking. There is not one drop of exaggeration in asserting that the vocal duo of Jennifer Hartswick and Celisse Henderson is one of the greatest ever assembled. Throughout the night they illustrated the fact that a voice can be the most impactful instrument of all.
Adding to the long list of elements that made this project so special was the inclusion of Jon Fishman as its drummer. Am I forgetting something in asserting that this is the first Trey side project since Surrender to the Air in ’96 that Fishman was a part of? All the other members except Henderson are regulars in the Trey Anastasio Band. Based on the extremely personal nature of GOTF, it made sense that Trey wanted to lean on one of his oldest friends setting the rhythm ablaze right behind him. Jon Fishman is the Trey Anastasio of drummers. He is one of the best in the world at what he does and that’s not even up for discussion. He never plays a boring or predictable beat. He makes everything simultaneously complex and digestible. We see this all on “Drift” as he is going Beautiful Mind on our asses, striking the skins with delicate authority, unlocking a secret code.
The feeling I was experiencing felt akin to the exotic, unfamiliar realm of a Phish Halloween “musical costume.” Factoring in the visual splendor and ensemble collaboration evoked the flair of a Broadway production. The textured backdrop consisted of three dimensional pieces of fabric that, at first glance, seems very homespun. It’s not until the show progresses that we realize it just an external layer shrouding a bank of LED technology. Along with LED towers positioned around the stage, we are treated to a cerebral light show unlike we’ve ever seen. Utilizing textures and shadows in a way that reflects the music’s yin-yang, the visual journey accentuates the music just as intended. The most memorable effect was the point during a certain song when Trey’s rock star silhouette was mirrored in motion across screen. This was all a virtual diorama within the grandiose backdrop of the Greek’s stone columns.
The next song “Friend” contains perhaps the most brutally honest and raw emotions of any. We are struck by the haunting, underwater, modulated guitar tone and piercing piano. For a minute there’s a Pink Floyd “Echoes” type of vibe as is also the case with “Ghosts of the Forest.” When Trey tells us, “I’ve traveled all over this big old world and it’s so hard to find a real friend,” we know it’s ok to open the floodgates. It’s remarkable to observe that even though it’s still a newborn, every detail of this music has been thought through. The cadence of the vocal lines and spacing of piano chords urge us to marinate in spaces between. Over the years, a lot of Trey’s ballads take time to grow on fans, but this is different. This has immediate resonance.
One Phish fanatic friend opted not to attend this show because she was convinced it wouldn’t be dance friendly. Not having heard the music, I thought it might be a “stand and bear witness” kind of affair and I was fine with that. It turned out that these were major misconceptions. “Sightless Escape” laid those notions to rest. It starts out with a Dire Straits type of pacing and energy, with Trey punctuating verses with a surf guitar recoil. Almost every song contained a mantra of sorts that we could take home with us. This one is perhaps the most infectious of all – “There’s a light that’s guiding me.” It accentuates the idea that this really is an unprecedented interpretation of gospel because a lot of it could have equal appeal to both religious and secular listeners. Live music is oft compared to a religious experience and Ghosts of the Forest has to be exhibit A in that regard. As Phish lyricist Tom Marshall tweeted from the show, we were attending ” The Church of Trey.”
Once “Escape” is off to the races, the back-up singers organically filter through the mix like yarns of silk fluttering in morning sunlight. It evolves into a grinding groove, with Tony Markellis showing why he’s the godfather of pocket bassists, Ray Paczkowski asserting heavily on the clavinet and Fish absolutely killing it on the drums. Trey’s muted tone and chunky phrasing go into a little call-and-response with the singers as the outside world recedes into the distance. Nearing the climax, we get to hear Celisse unleash her heavenly pipes. The term “powerhouse” was coined for this woman. She was only known before from joining Phish when they covered David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust on Halloween 2016. Trey is completely enamored with her and rightfully so.
As the evening progressed, it all seemed more and more surreal. It was totally disarming that such transformative music was emerging from this man standing humbly 30 feet in front of me. It made him more human than ever and barely of this earth. The songs had this quality of being so fresh in the now while also timeless. It was as if they had always existed and were only now activated into audible perception. The energy of the Greek nurtured the art as it was able to be played at the lowest volume one could imagine for a rock concert. The sound infused into our ears, our hearts, our pores, our cells.
“There’s a Path Above” rolled out of the speakers with an instant sense of soothing calm and rooted girth. Anchored by a hypnotic bassline, it features one of the more inspirational refrains of the bunch – “If you want to fly, let go.” In the days since hearing it, I find myself using this as a touchstone and hope I will continue to do so. The connection between Trey and Ray was one of the most touching things to witness throughout this occasion. I haven’t seen TAB in a long time so it was particularly notable to see how their musical conversation has blossomed over almost two decades of playing together. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that we came very close to losing Ray to a brain tumor recently so I’m sure the messages in these songs have as much resonance with him as anyone. Cruising on the scenic “Path,” Trey bestows us a luscious stream of consciousness with that divine tone sprinkling pixie dust on our synapses.
When the album came out, it was very exciting news that one of the songs was 23-minutes long. This spoke volumes to what we all wanted to know about GOTF. This was going to be one of Trey’s most adventurous projects yet; something that would surely have received the freewheeling C-Cott’s stamp of approval. “Beneath a Sea of Stars” is a three-part movement which was divided into two sections on this night. If everything before and after wasn’t so damn amazing, these 25 minutes of glorious exploration would be the raison d’etre. Opening with a breezy melody and the lighthearted line, “We’re all here together and the weather is fine,” the monumental song soon unspools into a multi-dimensional meditation on nature. Birds are chirping, astral streaks spiral from Ray’s synth, Trey’s koa guitar cries out to the heavens. This is medicine music.
For a moment we are transported back to the dawn of creation as controlled chaos ensues. Tony’s bass rumbles the land, ushering in the proverbial big bang. Starting with nothing, together we become something. Crossing over into angelic space is a fitting reward after processing all of these challenging emotions. Emerging out of the ashes, “Stars Pt. 2” gives us a subtle hint of how transcendent it was hearing the Grateful Dead encore with “Dark Star” on this same stage 35 years earlier. Trey regales us with some of most mystical, esoteric imagery he’s ever penned: “Misty ships on the horizon line and the golden dome is waking, morning birds on magnetic parade, the dawn is slowly breaking. Vapor splits into yellow light the air is burning rapture, phantasm rings of golden heat in red hypnotic pastures.” Is this an homage to Game of Thrones? Whatever the heck it is, it was manna to my ears at that moment.
It deserves mentioning that the setlist at all of these GOTF shows was identical. We’ve never experienced anything like that in the world of Trey. When hearing it you realize why the sequence of songs was written exactly as the flow of the muse mandated. Following “Stars” with “Mint Siren Dream” (with the novelty of Trey crooning sans guitar), the latter felt like a natural extension of the former. This brings me back to the reasons why Trey deserves acknowledgement as one of the greatest writers/orchestrators in existence. Writing and arranging even one of these songs is no small feat. Doing so for 21 songs of this caliber and depth is a virtual impossibility. Piecing them together in this sort of way where they form one fluid statement of immeasurable depth is the work of a savant. These are just a few of the reasons why GOTF is incomparable to anything else and why I foresee myself listening to this show many, many times in the future.
The saga already felt like it had been going forever at this point (not unlike this review). Something about the nature of the material cast a spell on the perception of time. Hard to believe as it was, some of the best was still to come. “Stumble into Flight,” “Ruby Waves” and “Wider” contained some of the highest highs of the night. “Flight” features dirty Trey soloing like we all covet. “Ruby” culminates with a full-blown guitar assault that had me and the entire crowd screaming in ecstasy. It would be a surprise if Phish doesn’t add this to their repertoire. “Wider” is a cool deviation with a vamping, dub-style groove. “A Life Beyond the Dream” was an anthemic landing point, guiding us towards the real world with the reminder, “Don’t give up hope.”
Just when you think it might be over, we are in Part 3 of “Beneath a Sea of Stars.” The joyous catch phrase, “It’s blue all around,” affirmed my synergy with all that is. Clearly I’ve found my new theme song. Another showstopper of a jam started with Ray’s cat and mouse organ followed by Tony ascending the stairs and Fishman working miracles at every step along the way. Then the ringmaster dug deep yet again to summon his signature Languedoc howls. As the bass bounced, Trey stampeded towards the finish line with unfettered conviction. Jenn Hartswick looked like this was one of the happiest moments of her life as she chimed in again with Celisse to observe that…yes, in fact, “it’s blue all around!”
It all wrapped up as poetically as one could desire, with Trey letting us know that he’s “wide awake and the ghosts are out to greet me.” “Get in, get out,” the ladies sang just as they did when we were different people almost three hours earlier. We are wide awake with you Trey. We embrace the ghosts. We’ll remember those mantras. The inspiration of C-Cott will live on forever. The Ghosts of the Forest tour is over, but the influence of this music has only just begun to fulfill its destiny.
Encapsulating Tyler Blue
If you have walked through the door during a show at the Crazy Horse over the last five years, you've probably been greeted by Tyler Blue. When we are truly moved by music, the feelings are hard to describe. Tyler's words crystallize emotions and illuminate reflections while bringing the spirit of a show back to life.