CHICAGO -- Phish frontman Trey Anastasio is playing several new songs on his first solo tour, a part-acoustic, part-electric outing that reached the Riviera Theater here Thursday.
The singer/guitarist, whose 12-show trek is scheduled to continue through May 19, seems consumed with thoughts of motion and finding his place in life, at least judging by the new songs in Thursday's two sets.
"When I first jumped off, I had a bucket full of thoughts," he sang on the nimble blues number "Get Back on the Train": "It took me a long time to get back on the train .../ Now I'm gone, I'll never look back again."
Seated center-stage on a wooden chair, Anastasio leaned back a bit and applied his fingers to an acoustic guitar. At times his movements were so delicate that as he took his hands off the neck it seemed the guitar might just keep playing on its own.
During a 55-minute opening acoustic set, the Phish frontman played three other new songs: "Snowflakes in the Sand," "Mountains in the Mist" and the instrumental "Purple Hue." These cuts were interspersed with Phish fan favorites "Farmhouse," "Punch You in the Eye," "Runaway Jim" and "Sample in a Jar."
Built around agile picking dotted with harmonic notes and occasional flourishes, "Purple Hue" offered a contemplative vibe; some passages seemed full of questions. "Snowflakes in the Sand" mixed the natural rhythms of folk and blues playing with the technical virtuosity of classical music. "For solace I will walk the land/ And search for snowflakes in the sand," Anastasio sang.
Later, during "Mountains in the Mist" he intoned, "I'm worn and bruised/ But I am here at least."
For many Phish diehards, the show's prime attraction was seeing the
eclectic band's frontman in the relatively intimate confines of the
2,300-capacity Riviera. Anastasio's first public solo performance was in
his home state of Vermont in February, followed by a solo performance in
New York that month at a benefit for Tibet House.
"It's so amazing to be so close and to actually see him working," Becky Cooper, 24, of nearby Carol Stream, said.
"It's nice to see the guitar work he does," Brad Hill, 35, of Chicago, said. "When he plays electric, there are so many effects. This is a lot cleaner."
The eager audience members made their presence known throughout the set. During familiar numbers, they sang along en masse. During the new songs, many talked loudly, prompting waves of shushes from others.
After a short intermission, the guitarist returned to the stage with bassist Tony Markellis and drummer Russ Lawton for a two-hour electric set that held the audience rapt.
The covers-heavy second half seemed to underscore the sense of soothing escape that many Phish fans find in the band's music. The trio worked through a short take on Johnny Nash's
"I Can See Clearly Now" (RealAudio excerpt); later they extended the Five Stairsteps' comforting "O-o-h Child" into a 15-minute jam.
Numbers such as "Gotta Jiboo" fell into familiar Phish territory: the piece's main purpose was to jam; lyrics were just a paperweight to prevent the whole thing from blowing away.
Covering Billy Preston's "Will It Go Round in Circles"
(RealAudio excerpt), Markellis and Lawton established themselves as a
funk unit more than a blues-rock rhythm section. They gave both this song
and others a fluid feel.
The band closed the show with an encore of the full-speed-ahead original
"Silicon Fairy," but not before they offered one more questioning new song that contained the intriguing lyric "the wind or a bug."
"We've got the rules down now/ We done learned how to speak," Anastasio sang. "We're at the top of the cliff/ And wondering if we should leap."