Last night Trey Anastasio brought his newest project, the emotionally charged Ghosts of the Forest, to New York City for the first of a two night run at the United Palace Theatre. A departure from the improvisational jam routine, GOTF provided a set of incredible honesty and vulnerability. Apart from the music, this project stands-out as beautifully intimate and something uniquely special.
Six shows into their one-off tour, the group of frequent collaborators (members of Phish, TAB and the fresh voice of Celisse Henderson) have played the same setlist every night. Opting for one single set, the sextet unrelentingly weaved through all the highs and lows with precision.
As the crowd funneled in, the ambient house music set the mood, giving everyone time to settle into the wonderfully-detailed 3,000 capacity room. If you’ve been paying attention, by now you know that the music of GOTF has all been derived from the passing of Trey’s childhood friend Chris Cottrell. The 90-year-old opera house provided a perfect setting for this music. The poignant to-the-point lyrics, gorgeous layers of soothing vocal melodies and soaring guitar solos filled air with sentimental, and sublime energy.
The title track “Ghosts of the Forest,” which served as the opening song, is an ethereal walk through an odd-time signature – a reflection of what it’s like trying to understand permanent loss. Going on themes of confusion and searching, there is no nonsense here; “I’m drowning in my own mind, I’m drowning in thoughts, I’m drowning in memories.” These personal revelations continue through “Drift While You’re Sleeping” and “Friend,” a touching gospel ballad expressing the difficulties of making, and losing, friendship.
When new music is released, fans love and look forward to hearing how studio music will translate into the live setting. As the album had not yet been released before the first 5 dates, nobody knew what to expect. Yesterday however, the studio material was revealed and finally gave a taste to the masses. Still, two-plus hours gave plenty of time for extras. The first non-album song, “Sightless Escape,” was fourth up, but the first to feel like a potential jam-vehicle. Featuring a surf-rock tinged riff and a loose mid-section groove, you know things are picking up when Trey lets loose with the whammy pedal. A short, but soulful vocal solo from Celisse was an amazing touch.
Trey and his team, including Stop Making Sense production designer, Abigail Holmes, have done an excellent job of blending various elements of this production to evoke and portray the feelings one might experience when losing someone they love. The stage was fascinating, featuring constantly changing graphics displayed on 10′ vertical LED screens situated between three large panels of swirling three-dimensional triangles. At some points, the backdrop really looked like ghosts in a forest.
The setlist was up-and-down, light and dark, upset yet glad. At times the crowd would sit, during “In Long Lines,” a heartfelt acoustic passage where Trey is clearly singing about real memories he had with his friend. “I lit your cigarette, your hand was touching mine.” As Trey mentioned in a recent Rolling Stone interview, Chris smoked up until the day he passed. In another song, the crowd was bouncing, laughing with the band as they smiled and danced through “The Green Truth,” an uptempo classic rock number featuring vast interplay between guitar and vocals, on the refrain “take it as it comes.”
In a dare-worded curveball moment, Trey sat down his guitar completely for “Mint Siren Dream” and sang over a soft shuffle from Fishman, on top of descending leads from the milkman on keys, Ray Paczkowski. Another obviously special moment, as last year Ray had a brain tumor scare, right around the same time Chris Cottrell was in his final months. Allowing Ray to shine felt like a reminder that these unpredictable episodes in life can be celebrated as much as they are to be mourned in.
Recently Trey commented on Sirius XM that Chris loved it when he ripped on guitar. This was undeniable through the entire set, but spoke most loudly on the racer “Ruby Waves” and “About To Run,” which featured a colorful silhouette on the LED’s during its peaking solo.
It was not painfully obvious, that a man in mourning wrote this music. Though, songs like the all acoustic “Brief Time” point out the inevitable, most of it is uplifting. These songs are an expression of an infinite and all-encompassing love. They are an honor to friendship and experience. The set ended the same way it began, with the piano melody of “Ghosts Of The Forest” as each member walked off stage one by one. It was a surreal call back to the beginning, perfectly encapsulating the circle of life. In his final words, Trey thanked the crowd on behalf of the entire band. It was so heartfelt and really showed that they were there for him as much as he was there for them “dancing beneath a sea of stars.”
Stay tuned with NYS as GOTF is back at United Palace tonight for round two. Download audio of tonights set via LivePhish.
SETLIST: Ghosts of the Forest, Drift While You’re Sleeping, Friend, Sightless Escape, Halfway Home > If Again, In Long Lines, There’s a Path Above, About to Run, The Green Truth, Beneath a Sea of Stars Parts 1 & 2 > Mint Siren Dream, Stumble Into Flight, Ruby Waves,Shadows Thrown By Fire, Wider, A Life Beyond The Dream, In This Bubble > Beneath a Sea of Stars Part 3 (blue).
ENCORE: Brief Time, Pieces in the Machine