Of the many musical virtues Phish has to offer, funkiness isn’t among them. The mighty mass-cult band from Burlington, Vt., know how to accommodate a wide range of styles — from country hoedown to knotty prog-rock throwdown — but whenever they’ve tried to get on the good foot, they’ve stumbled. Case in point: their wan take on blues guitarist Son Seals’ ”Funky Bitch,” a tour staple that can be found on Live Phish, Vol. 9, one of six new entries in their concert series.
With its hemmed-in, faux-greasy groove, ”Funky Bitch” provides damning evidence that white men can’t booty-bump. Sure, Phish’s rhythm section is fleet and proficient, but no one would ever hire drummer Jon Fishman, bassist Mike Gordon, and keyboardist Page McConnell to prod a room full of wallflowers to the dance floor.
What a surprise, then, to find Trey Anastasio, Phish’s guitarist, main songwriter, and de facto leader, settle comfortably into some seductive get-downs on his solo debut, Trey Anastasio. Perhaps he needed a little distance from the temporarily disbanded Phish to find his inner B-boy. Anastasio has expanded his musical palette considerably, rounding out the usual rock lineup with horns, a percussionist, backup singers, and, on two tracks, a string section. The larger ensemble gives him the tools he needs to nimbly venture into uncharted territory.
For the most part, the album is an ebullient musical Mardi Gras, with Anastasio’s dexterous, hard-driving guitar work the unifying thread. In the spirit of Phish’s excellent 2000 release Farmhouse, Trey Anastasio revels in pared-down song structures and a light lyrical touch. It also reveals the guitarist’s talent for large-screen arrangements; the spiky, playful horn charts sprinkled throughout echo Sign O’ the Times-era Prince.
The opener, ”Alive Again,” is a tempest in a tiki lounge. A calypso workout punctuated by cowbell accents and punch-drunk horns, it’s a completely unforced genre experiment. That blithe, gently funky vibe is carried over into ”Cayman Review,” which features a chicken-scratch guitar riff that wriggles though a deep-dish backbeat, and ”Push On ‘Til the Day,” which boasts a syncopated vamp (good God!) that would do James Brown proud.
”Night Speaks to a Woman” and ”Money, Love and Change” are as close as Anastasio has ever come to straight-up R&B. Both songs are powered by serpentine guitar figures and big booming drums, with soulful vocals by Anastasio, who sounds as if he’s been studying old Staple Singers albums.
Despite the album’s tent-revival vibe, Phish-heads will by no means feel betrayed. Anastasio leaves a wide berth for focused jamming on tracks like ”Push On ‘Til the Day” and ”Last Tube.” ”Mr. Completely,” a drone-y, spacey shot of psychedelia, brings Anastasio back around to his Revolver roots. ”Drifting,” a loping country-rock ambler, could have been an outtake from Farmhouse, while the closer, ”Ether Sunday,” is a tender declaration of peaceful, easy feelings with busy-doing-nothing lyrics that connect Anastasio to poets of the prosaic like Victoria Williams and Guy Clark.
Still, the CD’s huge stylistic leaps may prompt some to ask whether Anastasio will forsake Phish’s rock-prog-country thang for Buena Vista funk. Regardless of the group’s future, Anastasio proves he’s no longer a slouch in the pocket.
Those who prefer to pick over old Phish bones can always turn to the Live Phish series. A wildly ambitious attempt to sate hungry fans with an abundance of recordings every six months, this latest batch brings the total CD count to 34. A lot of Phish standards get multiple play, but with wildly varying results: Vol. 11’s ”You Enjoy Myself,” for example, trumps Vol. 7’s mangled version of the song. And the band’s trademark covers are hit-and-miss: Vol. 8’s take on Los Lobos’ ”When the Circus Comes” is affecting, while Vol. 7’s cover of ”Purple Rain” is a train wreck.
For sheer anthropological interest, Vol. 9 — which was recorded at a 1989 Vermont family picnic — is the most compelling, ”Funky Bitch” notwithstanding. Young Phish sound endearingly tentative at the gig, originally captured on cassette. And you’ve gotta love Anastasio’s set-concluding stage patter: ”Play miniature golf, and we’ll be right back.” B+