Many Phish fans describe seeing the band live as a religious experience, so it was appropriate that singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio made a place of worship the D.C. stop on his first extended solo acoustic tour.
It didn’t take long for Anastasio’s two-hour set at Chinatown’s Sixth and I Historic Synagogue on Valentine’s Day to take a spiritual turn. Three songs in, after the instrumental “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday,” where you could hear his fingers squeak as they slid up and down the fretboard, Anastasio segued into his first-ever solo performance of “Avenu Malcanu,” a Hebrew prayer song that Phish puts its own spin on.
“I wasn’t sure if I should play that or not,” Anastasio said after the song, sitting in a chair below a Star of David. “When [Phish bassist] Mike [Gordon, who is Jewish] taught us that, he taught us what the meaning of the words were so we wouldn’t just be singing them, which is very nice. But I’m Catholic, so I spend most of my time wondering if the body of Christ is gluten-free.”
Anastasio returned to the topic of faith during one of several bits of storytelling banter he peppered throughout the show.
“I’m doing this Catholic thing, I feel like I need to confess things,” Anastasio said. “This isn’t even a funny story but I have this memory: Mike and I burgled together when we were young. We burgled. It’s such a funny thing to imagine.”
In the early days of Phish, Anastasio and his three bandmates were their own road crew, he said, loading their gear in and out of a box truck at every show, which was difficult to do without a ramp for their truck. So Anastasio and Gordon tried to steal one from U-Haul.
“Now, I’m saying this in the eyes of God,” Anastasio said. “Mike and I dressed in burgle clothes: ski masks, probably put some black makeup on. Played the ‘Pink Panther’ theme. And then we went down to U-Haul — I’m serious — and snuck around and went and got this ramp, tried to pull it out and they’re locked. Apparently people burgle the U-Haul ramps on a regular basis, so they locked it. So we didn’t get away with it. We burgled in our heart.”
For the capacity crowd of 800, who are used to seeing Anastasio with Phish or his eponymous solo band, the extended stories are part of the appeal of these solo shows. This felt like hanging out with an old friend in his living room.
Anastasio, who had never played a full solo acoustic show until last March, clearly relishes the format: He was in a cheerful, chatty mood, smiling throughout the performance. And for a guy who is known more for this improvisational guitar chops than his songwriting ability, it was refreshing to see him put the focus so squarely on his tunes.
The acoustic setting brought out the beauty of many of these songs (and of the 53-year-old Anastasio’s voice, which has matured in a way that suits this type of performance). Before “Water in the Sky,” a 20-year-old ballad, Anastasio said he had to play it simply because “this is a beautiful room.” “The Inlaw Josie Wales,” an instrumental that has been a staple of the acoustic tour, showcased his skills as a composer. As he fingerpicked the gorgeous melody, the audience, mostly in pews, sat completely silent.
He dedicated another ballad, “Strange Design,” to his wife, Sue, who was in attendance, for Valentine’s Day, revealing that he wrote it in 1995 next to her while she was nine months pregnant with their first child. Other songs, like “Farmhouse,” perhaps Phish’s most well-known track, “The Curtain,” played solo for the first time, and “Bouncing Around the Room,” inspired by West African folk songs, became singalongs, with the crowd adding respectful harmonies.
And, of course, given that this was a Phish-related show, there were jams. Using a looping device and effects pedals, Anastasio created ambient soundscapes where he could — quite literally — jam with himself, extending songs like the funky “Wolfman’s Brother,” the New Orleans-inspired “Blaze On” and the newer “Everything’s Right.”
But it was a pair of tracks from Phish’s 2016 album “Big Boat” that helped prove that Anastasio’s songs are more than just vehicles for jams. Stripped down to just guitar and his voice, “Miss You,” written after the death of Anastasio’s sister, Kristy, was particularly poignant and powerful.
Anastasio closed the evening with latter-day Phish anthem “More,” leaving fans with a positive message of spreading “love and light/ in a world gone mad” as he walked off to a standing ovation.
Phish will play Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., on Aug. 11 and 12. Tickets are available here.
Stream a full audio recording of Trey Anastasio’s Valentine’s Day show at Sixth and I from DC Music Review’s Will Urquhart below: