Throughout his musical life—as a member of Phish and beyond—just about any time Trey has stepped on a stage, his guitar playing has instantly become the defining facet of the music and the center of attention. Most often leading his bands with his spontaneous six-string narratives, Red has come to relish the spotlight. But despite standing in the center of the orchestra at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday night in Los Angeles, and working closely with conductor, Scott Dunn, on cues, his guitar playing was not the focus of the performance. Featuring delicate, subtle licks and often “implying” far more than he was actually playing, Trey’s legendary axe was but one piece of the rich sonic tapestry that was the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Allowing his music to come to life in way he, himself, had imagined for decades, Trey’s compositions—and Don Hart’s masterful arrangements of them—became the focus of the show, themselves. Blending in with the symphony, though clearly voicing his electric and acoustic guitar tones, Trey shone in a completely different way on Saturday night, while realizing but another dream in the finale of his four-city symphony tour.
Several pieces, such as “Divided Sky,” “Water in the Sky,” “Brian and Robert” and “Let Me Lie,” were backed solely by the strings section, providing an ethereal and dreamlike quality to these more mellow songs. But the unquestionable highlights of the show came when whole orchestra joined in the mix, turning pieces like “First Tube,” “Guyute (Orchestral),” “Stash” and “You Enjoy Myself” into mind-bending, guitar-laced, hybrid pieces that pushed the boundaries of classical music. Trey phrased his solos in “First Tube,” “Stash,” and “YEM” in a way that sounded just like his classic playing, but often offering partial licks with little sustain, allowing your mind to connect the dots. At the same time, many parts of his typical solos were given to other members of the orchestra, whether trumpets, flutes or violins, creating an entire melange of Trey’s melodies coming from every angle. Not only diffusing the spotlight, Hart’s arrangements allowed the orchestra to authentically express Trey’s thoughts, underlining their tight partnership since 2004.
One of the largest ovations in the acoustically immaculate Walt Disney Concert Hall came after Trey’s two-movement piece, originally debuted in 2008 with Orchestra Nashville, “Time Turns Elastic.” Though much maligned by the Phish crowd in the rock setting, the piece was, at times, unrecognizable to its mainstream translation, as the intricacies of the composition were able to breathe through the instruments of an entire orchestra instead of forced through the amps of a rock quartet. Taking on a completely different character in its intended setting, “Time Turns Elastic” was the most challenging piece for the audience to digest. The extensive opening movement (before anything comes in or out of focus) fuses a jazz-like guitar style into an often atonal, and clearly emotional, musical sequence. The meticulous way in which Trey hit every note made it very clear that each one counted—there were no flubs allowed—and this formal tone even translated to his typically goofy face.
Throughout the second movement (the known song) it was striking how little guitar Trey played. With his music dancing around him, his focus turned to his heartfelt lyrics and their precise delivery. Trey layered his singing atop the piece as the orchestra did the bulk of the playing. In certain spots he contributed signature licks of the song, while taking enhanced guitar roles in others, but for much his magnum opus, Trey held the strings on his guitar or played in very minimalist fashion. And when “Time Turns Elastic” came to its concluding peak and the audience responded, satisfaction—rather, elation—shone from Trey, as his introspective piece was given proper treatment.
Though Hart’s arrangements took center stage throughout the night, perhaps the most noteworthy Phish-to-symphony metamorphosis took place with “You Enjoy Myself.” Hearing the band’s seminal piece interpreted by so many musicians in an a concert hall that Trey noted, mid-performance, was the best sounding room he’d ever been in, was nothing short of majestic. Following the composed half of the song, the trombone took the honor of “Boy,” “Man,” “God, “Shit,” and the orchestra proceeded to interpret a “YEM” jam! Highlighted by the call and response soloing between Trey and the trombone player in the “jam,” this segment carried a legitimate groove. This “jam” sequence truly illustrated the mastery of Hart’s arrangements, as Trey found some space to take liberty with his own part, even weaving in a tease of “Streets of Cairo” (likely from muscle memory at this point.) But the most impressive part of “You Enjoy Myself,” believe it or not, was how the orchestra interpreted the vocal jam. Taking the parts of the band members’ “voices,” the strings (plus?) imitated the section with staccato phrases that fit congruently with each other, clearly patterned after an actual vocal jam.
Trey’s emotion of the night was summed up in the way in which he performed a solo chant over this final section. Eyes closed and stepping slightly away from the orchestra, Trey soulfully chanted over the music in a way he debuted in a hallmark performance at Carnegie Hall on 9/12/2009 . A very special evening was topped with an instrumental encore, “The Inlaw Josie Wales,” and ended in multiple standing ovations for all involved. For Trey, the dream continued, and for the LA Philharmonic—a symphony that, in the words of Conductor Laureate, Esa-Pekka Salonen, is “interested in the future” and “not trying to re-create the glories of the past”—their vision was fully realized.
I: First Tube, Water in the Sky*, Divided Sky*, Brian and Robert*, Goodbye Head, Guyute (Orchestral)^, Let Me Lie*, Stash
II: Time Turns Elastic, If I Could*, You Enjoy Myself
E: The Inlaw Josie Wales*
*Trey on acoustic
^Trey on acoustic > electric guitar > acoustic