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EPIC PROPORTIONS—Trey Anastasio performs “Time Turns Elastic” with the New York Philharmonic. The multi-part work was co-written by Don Hart.
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Trey Anastasio with the New York Philharmonic

Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

September 12, 2009

There are a lot of ways to change a song. Obsessive fans tend to covet rare gems like acoustic strip-downs, jazz renditions, or the occasional remix. For the real collector, though, there’s always another avenue: the string tribute. Often unadorned, and painfully obvious in its recapitulation of a melody, the string tribute does no more for a song than a fancy carrying case does for an iPod — you may think you’re stepping up in class, but you’re right where you began.

When Phish guitarist Trey Anasastio appeared at Carnegie Hall earlier in September, he could have churned out direct translations from the Phish song book. Instead, the orchestra, conducted by Ascher Fisch (no pun intended), took the opportunity to showcase the finer points of some of Anastasio’s more diverse compositions. The venue and the players gave insight into characteristics and emotions in the song that didn’t translate in the context of a live Phish show. As the opening bass line for “First Tube,” echoed through the hall, a smiling Anastasio walked out, wielding a guitar, to loud applause. The song, a typical jam vehicle on the Phish stage, was given a fanfare treatment with trumpets leaping through their own emphasized melodies. In between Anastasio’s solos, the orchestra created swells of tension, rising and falling to move through adjacent sections.

Anastasio’s unmistakable tone molded nicely into the grander sound of the full orchestra, and he knowingly pulled back to reveal the intricacies of the new arrangements. He switched to acoustic guitar for the contemplative number, “The Inlaw Josie Wales,” whose woodwind lines dominated and gave essential backing to the bouncy guitar rhythms. Never really acclaimed for his singing ability, though, Anastasio was much more naked in the later pieces “Brian and Robert” and “Water in the Sky.” The room captured his voice intimately, but also proved that he had to reach for particular notes at the edge of his range. “Pebbles and Marbles” was given a surprisingly driving and fast-paced treatment, while “Guyute (Orchestral)” was carefully measured in each of its many sections.

The greatest achievement of the night came at the beginning of the second set with the New York Premiere of Anastasio’s latest piece with collaborator Don Hart, “Time Turns Elastic.” Anastasio had visited Nashville and Baltimore earlier to perform the near-thirty-minute epic. The song, which includes numerous lines of poetry that fit snugly into the rich orchestrations, are a sort of a document of a refreshed, sober Anastasio reflecting upon his past but looking to the future. As the song slowly sneaks to a introduction, Anastasio repeats, “In and out of focus/Time turns elastic.” The song went through so many movements, yet each was calculated to convey a different emotional peak. At times dark and brooding, the strings figuratively lift Anastasio’s guitar from low points to high points, as the vocal line seals the gaps left behind. The piece’s cathartic climax threw the crowd into a standing ovation, and Anastasio modestly accepted the praise.

As a treat for Phish fans, the orchestra helped deliver a new version of the classic tune “You Enjoy Myself.” While audience members roared and hollered throughout the opening measures (a first at Carnegie?) they were in for a surprise at the middle of the song. The fans geared up, ready to jump up and dance, as the orchestra headed for the well-known jam section. However, at the peak the orchestra degenerated into a jumbled mess of bent notes and horns. Hilariously, the audience figured out that this was the orchestra’s new take on the song’s anthemic section, and the horns took over with intentionally sour notes as a replacement for the lyrics “Boy, man, god, shit.”

A beautiful encore of “If I Could” capped a wonderful night and a milestone for Anastasio as a composer and performer. These songs underwent a transformation and took on a new life, as the orchestra succeeded in re-interpreting the personality of each piece. As fans walked out, they were, of course, greeted by gangs of nitrous peddlers — probably also a first for Carnegie-goers. As some fans sucked on balloons and others just laughed at the relentlessness of the guys with tanks, the party outside confirmed to all bystanders that it was a great night at Carnegie Hall.