Nigeria’s “Minister of Enjoyment” King Sunny Ade would probably not approve of Trey Anastasio’s latest live release, Plasma. Nor would Frank Zappa, were he not in heaven teaching the angels dirty songs, as Terry Gilliam put it. The reason the hypothetical opinions of these band leaders are of import is that they are role models for Anastasio. Outside of his usual niche with Phish, Anastasio has assembled a nine-piece touring band to try out new material and let him play equal parts musician and composer. The cover photo to the album depicts Anastasio in mid-air, about to bring his arms down like Mozart at the end of a staggering forte crescendo. There’s no doubting Anastasio’s talented lead playing. But if, as King Sunny Ade and Zappa did, Anastasio is attempting to master the role of the rock or fusion composer, he’s got a long way to go, as evidenced by his work on Plasma.
The album starts off promisingly enough. “Curlew’s Call” offers a jammed-out samba that both Anastasio and the band seem comfortable moving around in. The title track is a straight-ahead jazz-rock tune and again, the band plays sharply within the pre-arranged structure of the song. A soundcheck of Phish’s jazz favorite “Magilla” is amped up by the horn section, offering shades of “In the Mood.” There’s also a brilliant cover of Bob Marley’s “Small Axe” at play here. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill after that. In fact, the second disc of this two-disc set is probably better off serving as a coaster than as a showcase of Anastasio’s talents.
The problems begin on “First Tube.” Drummer Russ Lawton seems confused over just how to negotiate Anastasio’s guitar noodlings, so throughout much of the jam, Lawton just defaults by hitting the symbols over and over. It doesn’t work. “First Tube” sounds as if it’s going to end about five different times. If you listen closely, you can hear Anastasio’s backing band begging him to put them out of their misery. It’s as if the horns, keys, bass and drums are crying, “We don’t know what to do with this.” But rather than draw the song to a close, Anastasio drags it out like a stubborn high school band teacher, insisting that his pupils make it to the end of the piece no matter how far above their heads the material may be.
On “Night Speaks to a Woman,” Anastasio goes off into left field on a jam, which one expects; this is his bread and butter in Phish. But Phish has always been deft at getting back to the dugout just in time for the ninth inning to close out with a big finish. In this cut, Anastasio has gone so far out that his band can’t find him. The miscommunication culminates in Anastasio essentially just stopping the jam in mid-air and then diving back into the chorus with no hint of a transition. Here, Anastasio is looking for a payoff he hasn’t earned. He’s like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff, falling only after realizing that he’s run out of land. “Night Speaks” also features some grimace-inducing vocals from Jennifer Hartswick, a trumpet and tuba player who shouldn’t be going for the hat trick, and Anastasio, who comes off as unconfident in his voice as ever. Together, these two are off-pitch and, well, horrible.
Even if Anastasio’s playing inspires marvel, which it often does, it means nothing if he can’t bring the band along with him. Throughout Plasma, one might recall that scene from Back to the Future wherein Marty McFly is rocking out on “Johnny B. Goode” but then draws strange looks from his band when he breaks into a heavy metal style that the others just can’t hang with. Obviously, the fact that the name on the album is “Trey Anastasio” and not “The Trey Anastasio Band” has to tell you something.
“Maybe I can’t know if what I’m playing is shit,” Anastasio says in the Phish documentary Bittersweet Motel, “but I think it’s great.”
The one way for a musician to know is to listen, and an examination of Plasma indicates that the ringleader isn’t doing enough listening onstage. What’s most surprising about the album is that Anastasio had two tours and six months from which to select these songs. If Plasma is the sweet cream, one has to wonder what the rest of the tour sounded like.
Neither Zappa nor King Sunny Ade abused his authority as composer to overpower the other musicians in their respective ensembles. If Anastasio’s side projects are ever to come close to the magic he’s created with Phish over the years, he’ll have to restrain himself like his role models did.