It’s now a month since I saw Trey Anastasio’s “Ghosts Of The Forest” at the United Palace Theater in New York, and it’s been processed and run through the mental rock tumbler. The calendar on ramp to the show was personally fraught with emotion — the loss of my father in law, my friend and Phish tour buddy George, the 9/11 first responder husband of a co-worker, whose line of duty service had been observed that very morning — leaving me in a somber and more than usually reflective mood. On a tangential note, I was also scientifically moved by the first-ever image of a true black hole, something in which I’d had interest and more than a few cultural references (Chandrashekar Radius for the point at which junk can’t leave your basement, and of course Rush’s Cygnus X-1 pieces) since the 6th grade. It was a complex week, worthy of a complex show.
“Ghosts” is part Peter Gabriel, part symphony, part extrusion of Phish, and part Little Feat. It’s deeply moving, emotionally and musically, capturing vignettes of a life buffeted by large scale forces. There were times I was drawing comparisons to the thematic development and reprise of a Yes song like “Close to the Edge” and other times when the fundamental elements of blues — love, loss, and redemption — soared out of Trey’s phrasing. “Drift While You’re Sleeping” in particular could easily have been a progressive piece — it starts in a fugue state and ends in an anthem of love.
With a hat tip to Josh Fleet (@phishtalmud) “Ghosts of the Forest” is equal parts celebration of a higher power — a musical Yizkor — and a public confessional — the “viddui” prayer of Yom Kippur. Together, the songs celebrate paths that veered from the destination, things gone wrong, moments that escaped and times when you wish you were a better friend in retrospect. Trey had publicly introduced the songs as a tribute to his late friend C-Cott, further refined when Trey Anastasio Band keyboardist Ray Paczkowski was diagnosed with a brain tumor and left his spring 2018 tour.
The “ghosts” in the songs are not the same mental intrusions as the subject of the Phish “Story of The Ghost,” which I’ve always heard as a channeling of Carlos Castenada’s shaman “ally” from his Don Juan teachings, albeit with less peyote and more minor scales. The new “ghosts,” starting in the title track, are the visual persistence of a life lived brightly. The flash appears in peripheral vision, but also the overlay, the amalgamation, the superposition of so many images that produces sensory overload. As “Ghosts Of The Forest” draws to a conclusion, you’re hit with a decade of drowning cultural references — a very public confession of vulnerability.
Songs progress through additional after images, moving from land to sea and stars. They share reference points but different context with “Wading in the Velvet Sea” (although Phish fans of a certain vintage will forever associate “Velvet Sea” with the nadir of early Phish), the salty tears of “Wedge,” or the weakly navigated “Prince Caspian.” The sea references bob, bounce and weave; if life is a metaphorical journey then the sea is the worst perturber of that trip. In “Ghosts” the stars are fixed — as they have been for those crossing the seas by sextant for hundreds of years. The paths and lines are the anchors — course corrections when we veer, over and across topology of friendship found and lost.
Trey dances on the event horizon throughout the show, so close to the inescapable spiral down the gravity well of pain, anguish and lost potential. As the “Ghosts” themes echo in the closing numbers, you realize the journey is a celebration, not a destination, and you are stronger for having made the crossing.