Trey Anastasio has done a lot of different projects over his 38 years as a professional musician. He’s best known as the lead singer and guitarist for Phish, of course, but he has also worked with Broadway shows, symphony orchestras, avant-garde jazz musicians and roots-rockers. But his Ghosts of the Forest project is unlike any other.
It began in early 2018, when Anastasio’s best friend Chris Cottrell died of adrenal cancer. Soon after, Ray Paczkowski, the original keyboardist in the Trey Anastasio Band, came down with a brain tumor. Suddenly death and the threat of death were all around, and Anastasio wanted to respond differently than his standard operating procedure.
He wrote a suite of nine songs that seemed to tell a story, beginning with Cottrell hunting elk in the Rocky Mountains, as he so often did. The title song of the project’s eponymous album, “Ghosts of the Forest,” is told from the perspective of an elk who accepts his looming death — and the subsequent songs find Anastasio struggling to find a similar acceptance. “We’re gone in a heartbeat, fleeting, it’s gone,” he admits on “Drift While You’re Sleeping.”
Anastasio feels as if he’s “About to Run” from his feelings but realizes the ghosts follow him everywhere he goes. “This place is too quiet without you,” he adds on “Halfway Home.” Finally, on “Brief Time,” he asks himself, “What was I so worried about?... Such a beautiful world and such a brief time.” On the 23-minute finale, “Beneath a Sea of Stars,” he concludes that the living and the dead are “all here together and the weather’s fine.”
When Anastasio’s new ensemble, also called the Ghosts of the Forest, performed this music on a 10-show tour in April 2019, it played the same set list every night because the sequence was crucial to the narrative. Twelve more songs were sprinkled into the set to provide some more uplifting energy, but they, too, were played in the same order every night — a sharp departure from the Phish practice of radically changing the set for each show.
Staging “Ghosts of the Forest” became a theatrical event as much as a musical one, much like David Byrne’s “Stop Making Sense” or “American Utopia.” Anastasio even hired Byrne’s designer, Abigail Holmes, to create the set.
Hungering for the stage, Anastasio created an event called ‘Beacon Jams,’ which would stream eight shows in October and November of 2020 at Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre to raise money for the Divided Sky Foundation.
After the 10 scheduled shows, that was supposed to be it. But then the pandemic came, and everyone’s plans changed. Hungering for the stage, Anastasio created an event called “Beacon Jams,” which would stream eight shows in October and November of 2020 at Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre to raise money for the Divided Sky Foundation to help those suffering from alcoholism and other addictions. Each show would be different, with the fifth one, on November 6, an unexpected reprise of “Ghosts of the Forest.” That is what we see here.
There are some differences from the 2019 excursion. The core quartet of Anastasio, a fully recovered Paczkowski, Phish drummer Jon Fishman and Trey Anastasio Band bassist Tony Markellis is the same. Ditto the setlist. But the chamber-music quartet, the Rescue Squad Strings, has doubled in size to play on eight of the 21 songs. And the two gospel-soul female singers (Celisse Henderson and Jennifer Hartswick) are joined by a third: Jo Lampert.
Holmes’ three vertical panels of abstract visuals are gone. Instead, film director Trey Kerr makes the unusual decision to turn the band around so it faces the back wall of the Beacon. Behind the risers supporting Fishman and the three singers, we see not a backdrop but the chandeliers and curving balconies over the now-empty seats. Anastasio seems to be talking to the wall during the show, but he’s actually responding to a screen that posts the internet comments from the live stream.
As always with Anastasio’s music, the lyrics don’t contain the meaning of the song so much as they point to the message in the instrumental music. The push-and-pull of our feelings about dead friends and warm memories are most powerfully felt in the improvisations of the core quartet. The leader still sounds like Jerry Garcia at times, but he now betrays a new debt to George Harrison’s melodic motifs, and the possibilities of those phrases are expanded in revealing ways by the three singers and eight string players.