Five weeks into The Beacon Jams, Trey Anastasio’s eight-week fall residency at New York City’s iconic Beacon Theatre, the jam luminary faced a dilemma.
For the fifth installment of the weekly Friday livestreaming series on Nov. 6, Anastasio had coaxed Phish drummer Jon Fishman from Maine to New York, where the two musicians, joined by several of Anastasio’s solo collaborators, had recreated Ghosts of the Forest, a 2019 album and tour that honored his late friend Chris Cottrell.
Anastasio already had his eyes set on week six and a set full of Phish songs he couldn’t dream of playing live without Fishman by his side. But Fishman, a father of five, had to return to Maine for family reasons.
“He was like, ‘I gotta go home, brother,’” Anastasio tells Pollstar from his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he’s spent most of the pandemic. “I said, ‘I love you. Go home. I’ll figure it out.’ Then I woke up the next morning, Saturday morning, and I was like, ‘I have nothing for week six. Nothing.’”
Anastasio improvised, asking backing vocalists who had joined him for the Ghosts of the Forest material to stick around for another week and instructing his arranging collaborators to reimagine several songs, including Phish’s monolithic “You Enjoy Myself.”
“It’s moments like that where he really thrives,” says Red Light Management’s Patrick Jordan, who has co-managed Anastasio and Phish since 2005 and 2008, respectively. “You know, OK, rip up the book and start over.”
“Art lives by limitation,” Anastasio says. “I had to live by limitation.”
Anastasio opened the following Friday’s show with a mammoth, 15-minute “You Enjoy Myself,” a Phish song that, like “Tube,” “Billy Breathes,” “Bouncing Around the Room” and “Wading in the Velvet Sea,” received its Trey Anastasio Band debut on Nov. 13. The fresh arrangements were a smash – which Anastasio knew almost instantaneously, as audience comments on Twitch, the residency’s streaming partner, rolled in on a monitor before him.
“Thank you!” Anastasio exclaimed after reading one from a 15-year-old in Utah who said her parents were using the shows to introduce her to his music. “I can’t wait to see you on tour. Full disclosure: I’m ready to get back on tour.”
Still, even without touring, Anastasio was doing important work. While his stage banter that November night was mostly lighthearted – his Jets fandom, his cat Joey – it periodically turned darker. After all, Anastasio had conceived The Beacon Jams to generate donations for the Divided Sky Fund, a new initiative that will finance an addiction treatment facility in Vermont.
When a commenter named Andrew from Burlington, Vt., shared that he was struggling with alcoholism, Anastasio, who has been sober since 2007, offered words of comfort.
“I can relate – I had big problems, and I really get it,” he said. “COVID has not been good for drinking and addiction. It’s been very rough for people. Andrew, who just wrote in, you’re not alone. Just hang in there.”
“Not alone” was an understatement. Over eight shows livestreamed on Twitch, The Beacon Jams garnered 1.8 million viewers and were viewed for 49 million total minutes. Anastasio raised roughly $100,000 during the Nov. 13 show alone, en route to the impressive $1.2 million that fans donated across the residency.
“My theory from the beginning was that, if it was free and then we were gonna do this treatment center option, that people would be excited to be part of something so positive during a year when all the news has been negative,” Anastasio says. “That turned out to be the case, more than we ever could have imagined.”
Anastasio rang in 2020 onstage with Phish at Madison Square Garden, like he had eight of the nine years prior. The band’s four-night New Year’s runs at the arena have become legendary, and the sold-out installment that ushered in the new decade was the most successful yet, moving 76,079 tickets and grossing $6.7 million.
Every year since its 2009 reformation, Phish had appeared on Pollstar’s top worldwide tours chart, and it seemed poised for another banner year in 2020. The band staged the fourth edition of its Mexican destination festival in February, had dates for its annual summer tour onsale, and Sigma Oasis, its first studio album since 2016, was on the way.
Outside of Phish, the ever-restless Anastasio spent January playing theaters with Trey Anastasio Band, and reformed Oysterhead, his supertrio with Primus’ Les Claypool and The Police’s Stewart Copeland, in February. Beyond Phish’s itinerary, both acts were booked for summer festivals – and Anastasio had more dates planned for June, fronting orchestras including the Boston Pops at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass., and the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
But packed calendars don’t mean much in a pandemic, and Anastasio soon found himself isolated in his Upper West Side apartment, as coronavirus roiled New York in March and April.
To pass the time and satiate his musical appetite, Anastasio poured himself into various creative projects, finishing up Sigma Oasis and a Trey Anastasio Band live album culled from his January shows, released in April and September, respectively. He also took to Instagram, performing new songs that ultimately became Lonely Trip, the solo album he released in July.
“Lonely Trip was a gift in itself throughout the horror of the pandemic, in that Trey had never really had time to sit and write and do a process that harkened back to his early days as a teenager, when he’d just be writing and sharing songs instantly with his friends via cassettes,” Jordan says. “He had never really spent any time on social media, and all of the sudden he’s filming these little videos. It really became a great creative tool for him. It was as much for him as it was for the fans that he was sharing the music with.”
Meanwhile, like audiences around the world, Anastasio was awed by the artists innovating in the absence of physical touring.
“Do you remember there was that dance party going on that Michelle Obama kept going to early in the pandemic?” says Anastasio, alluding to D-Nice’s star-studded Club Quarantine DJ streams. “That was my inspiration. I was like, ‘I want to do that.’ Why? Because it’s very similar to what Phish does. We have an audience that’s very similar. Everybody’s dancing. It’s fun.”
Phish had opted against livestreaming new performances, but Anastasio’s stance eventually mellowed – partly due to the popular weekly archival streaming series “Dinner and A Movie” that Phish launched in March. Anastasio and his bandmates would tune in and trade texts analyzing their playing from eras past.
“This is going to sound really geeky: I’ve never seen Phish,” Anastasio says. “It was like, I want another chance now.”
“I think his words were like, ‘The best birthday gift you could get me is to get me playing by my birthday,’” says Jordan, recalling a voicemail Anastasio left him in August, weeks before his Sept. 30 birthday. “He just was so excited to play again. So, I put down the phone from that call and called Richard [Glasgow, Phish’s touring manager].”
STREAMS BECOME REALITY
Anastasio might have had a change of heart, but what exactly livestreamed Trey Anastasio concerts would look like had yet to take shape.
Earlier in the pandemic, Jordan had suggested Anastasio go live from his home studio, Rubber Jungle, but says that “like many things with Trey, the conversations snowballed” into the idea of playing with other musicians.
“Initially, we were talking about doing something smaller, more manageable, and, once again, things always snowball,” he says. “Richard was doing research on different rooms that we could possibly get and block out, which was actually a viable concept, given that nobody had anything going on. Of course, we’re going to call our friends at Madison Square Garden.”
Phish and Anastasio’s relationship with MSG goes well beyond New Year’s – the 13-date summer 2017 Baker’s Dozen run at the Garden grossed $15 million and stands as one of the band’s high-water marks – and the company was receptive.
Trey “really wanted to connect with his fans outside of his apartment, and do it in a different way,” says Darren Pfeffer, MSG Live executive vice president. “It’s around the corner from his apartment, and we just really wanted him to be in a space where he felt he could be creative.”
MSG has long championed the residency format at its venues, from Billy Joel at the Garden to Josh Groban at Radio City Music Hall, and the pandemic presented a unique possibility: With typical touring on hold, Anastasio could do one load-in and one load-out, keeping equipment in place and returning every week. The format would “keep Trey in the mindset of this is his home for eight weeks,” Pfeffer says.
But Anastasio had parameters. Some suggested he pre-record performances so they could be edited before they streamed.
“I didn’t like that idea,” he says. “I wanted it to be live-live.”
Others advised that, due to the challenges presented by COVID safety protocols and budget realities, Anastasio record multiple performances at once, and then release them weekly.
“I also didn’t like that idea,” he says. “Patrick and I agreed on that one – that if it was really once a week, we would get comfortable, and also every week would be sort of a creative journey.”
“In the initial budget, it would have been a lot more fruitful to do it the other way,” says Jordan, citing the stringent and costly safety procedures implemented for The Beacon Jams. “But we knew instinctively that there would be a lot to gain from him being able to sit back and grow and really embrace the format and get better. That’s obviously what happened.”
And, perhaps most crucially, in this time of financial hardship for so many, Anastasio insisted the streams be free, rather than pay-per-view. MSG was in, but any streaming partner would have to meet Anastasio’s key guidelines.
At the pandemic’s outset, few would’ve predicted that Twitch, at the time largely considered the realm of gamers, would be hosting jam-band royalty by the fall. Then concert promoter Peter Shapiro got involved.
As The Beacon Jams took shape in August, Shapiro, who publishes Relix magazine, was orchestrating a Twitch deal of his own to bring a channel curated by his publication and featuring performances from his venues (the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., and Brooklyn Bowl locations in Brooklyn, Las Vegas and Nashville) to the platform. He caught wind that Anastasio’s team was looking for a streaming partner – one with deep pockets to help offset production costs, ideally – and saw a possible match in Twitch, which wanted to bolster its jam and jam-adjacent content.
“If you want to introduce 35-year-olds and 45-year-olds who don’t know what Twitch is to your thing, there’s no better way than eight weeks of Trey,” Shapiro told Brian Rucker, Twitch’s director of premium music content.
Within days, Twitch had struck a deal to stream The Beacon Jams – a partnership that “fell out of the sky, thanks to Pete Shapiro,” Jordan says.
Under the arrangement, Twitch would stream the concerts and provide substantial financial support; nugs.net, which has hosted live audio and video content from Phish and its members on LivePhish.com since 2002, donated its services and equipment to produce the gigs and made the shows available after their initial broadcasts.
Once Anastasio familiarized himself with Twitch – “I didn’t know what Twitch was,” he admits – he became enamored with the “looseness to the chat.”
Anastasio’s interest in being an early adopter didn’t surprise nugs.net founder and CEO Brad Serling: “In the way that, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Grateful Dead were always pushing the envelope with technology and sound reinforcement and recording, that’s the way Phish has been with the internet since day one,” he says.
“It was a great format for Trey,” says Shapiro, who has booked Phish and its members for 20 years. “He needs people. He feeds off humans. That’s why it worked. This was a way, although virtual, through which he was able to interact with the audience.”
‘WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU PANDEMIC…’
“I’m sort of a music history nut,” says Anastasio, stepping back for a moment to contextualize The Beacon Jams. “One of the most fascinating things about music history is how often music and the distribution of music has progressed based on technological or cultural or social change.”
He rattles off several examples. Igor Stravinsky wrote his seminal chamber work “L’Histoire du soldat” in 1918, when the flu pandemic had rendered larger performing ensembles unviable. The introduction of radio allowed local folk artists to be heard widely, sparking the birth of country music. Dance bands reigned before World War II, but government rationing and a nationwide war effort took the craze offline.
Likewise, Anastasio predicts that “the pandemic will end and there will be a seismic shift in the entertainment industry.”
Anastasio saw the potential of Twitch, but wanted to merge the platform’s homespun, intimate feel with the stagecraft that has defined his career. To that end, he enlisted 201 Productions and director Trey Kerr, who produce Phish simulcasts, and lighting director Marc Janowitz.
“With Trey and the music and the production, that’s his way of bringing his art to life,” Pfeffer says. “Marc was unleashed and really looked at the Beacon Theatre and came back with this rendering of flipping the production around, where Trey and his band were facing the upstage wall, versus your traditional [COVID-era livestream] facing a no-fan audience.”
What Pfeffer calls “the ultimate backdrop” proved crucial to the residency’s aesthetic.
“We didn’t want people to have a nostalgic feeling, ‘I’ve seen this band in that room,’” says Anastasio, who headlined the Beacon four times with Trey Anastasio Band between 2012 and 2019. “We weren’t trying to recreate a live concert, and flipping the stage was the first decision that really led to the success. I kept thinking about Johnny Cash’s variety show. There are a lot of artists who have had these moments in their careers where they embrace a different format.”
Or, as he put it during the Oct. 23 Beacon Jam, “when life gives you pandemic, make pandemic-ade.”
All that remained were the jams, and Anastasio was committed to making the most of his first shows in months.
Before COVID, “I had to have three different tours in order to access all the aspects of my musical career,” he says, explaining the configurations he deploys for orchestra shows, solo acoustic gigs, Ghosts of the Forest material with backing singers, his Trey Anastasio Band setup with horns and Phish.
For The Beacon Jams, he synthesized them, working with arranging collaborators Don Hart, Carmel Dean and RAab Stevenson to rethink his catalog with backing vocalists and a small contingent of strings dubbed The Rescue Squad. The morning after every Beacon Jam, Anastasio says he would wake up “buzzing from the Friday night” and immediately begin conceptualizing the next show, compiling a longlist of potential songs to arrange and test out at extensive rehearsals.
Jeff Tanski, the Broadway veteran who Anastasio met when working on the 2012 musical “Hands on a Hardbody” and teamed with when learning the Grateful Dead’s songbook for 2015’s “Fare Thee Well” shows, helped to plug any eleventh-hour compositional holes onstage.
“He’s a natural-born collaborator, and is just nonstop in that sense,” Jordan says.
“With each passing week, we got more comfortable, all of us,” Anastasio says. “Everyone was making discoveries.”
Not every idea stuck – Anastasio’s vision of having an orchestra’s worth of strings behind him, socially distanced throughout the Beacon’s seating, was a COVID no-go, and updated arrangements of several songs, like Phish’s “Free,” didn’t quite gel – but the ones that did were revelatory.
“My head was blowing up every week!” he says, clapping as he recounts loading up Phish classic “Harry Hood” with strings and horns. “In terms of my future, think what that means. I’m jumping for joy about it. If COVID hadn’t happened, this never would have happened.”
Anastasio’s growth over the eight Beacon Jams wasn’t just musical.
“That first week going live and seeing how fast that chat was moving and knowing our goals in terms of capturing that and getting it on Trey’s screen, it was a lot,” Jordan says.
For that, Anastasio turned to his 25-year-old daughter Eliza, who along with a small team cherry-picked the highlights from what Serling calls “the tsunami of Twitch comments” and patched them through to her father’s monitor.
“The livestreams that we’ve seen that are very successful on Twitch, they’re incorporating Twitch into the performance itself,” says Tracy Chan, Twitch head of music.
“You think about Heather McDougal, who is a healthcare worker on the frontlines and made a comment to Trey,” Pfeffer says. “Then, Trey turns to his bandmates and they perform a song” – titled “Heather McDougal Song” on LivePhish’s download of the Nov. 20 show – “following that. And now, Heather becomes this national hero for the Phish and Trey Anastasio community.”
“So many moments that I remember just came about naturally from a fan comment,” Jordan says. “At the end of the eight nights, I felt closer to everybody in that chatroom and everybody watching at home.”
Since Anastasio emerged from the throes of addiction in 2007, he’s remained active in the sober community.
“There was probably a seed of an idea years ago” for funding a treatment center, says Beth Montuori Rowles, who co-founded Phish’s WaterWheel Foundation, which houses its various charitable efforts, in 1997, and serves as its executive director. “It really started picking up steam a year ago this past fall.”
When Anastasio played two solo acoustic gigs at New York’s Carnegie Hall in October 2019, he made the pitch to Jordan and Red Light Management head Coran Capshaw.
“He sat us down backstage at Carnegie Hall and said, ‘I really want to open a treatment center,’” Jordan says. “I was like, ‘What? That’s not what we do.’ But Coran was there at that meeting. He’s the guy who doesn’t blink. He was like, ‘OK, let’s figure out a way to make it happen.’”
With his bandmates’ approval, Anastasio launched the Divided Sky Fund under WaterWheel’s umbrella to create such a facility in Vermont. The need for a treatment center increased in Anastasio’s eyes as he observed how the pandemic had exacerbated the struggles of those struggling with addiction. The Beacon Jams offered a way to fund the facility, while also giving a lifeline to fans isolated at home.
“The beauty of what Trey did was that he talked to his fans about their struggles and how they’re getting support,” Chan says. “When you have recorded media, you think, ‘It has to be perfect.’ But in the live setting, it can be more authentic.”
“Those moments would often spur something in Trey, where he would open up even further than he already had,” Jordan says. “I felt personally reminded of just how lucky we are that he got to the other side of that disease.”
When viewers got inspired, donating was simplified by Tiltify, a livestreaming fundraising platform that Twitch has integrated into its service as an extension. Anastasio’s decision to make the shows free proved prescient; several within his camp agree that if the shows had been pay-per-view, rather than pay-what-you-want, they would’ve raised less money.
“Everybody came together in the community, and it was beyond our wildest dreams that we would raise $1.2 million in donations,” Anastasio says. “It shifted our whole concept of how we were going to open this place. … It’s sort of readjusted our goals, based on the amount raised. Now the goal has become to raise enough money to own the space outright.”
To answer Pollstar’s call, Anastasio had taken a break from personally writing thank-you notes to donors.
Jake Silco – Fish On Friday
Phish bandmate Jon Fishman joined Anastasio for the fifth Beacon Jam on Nov. 6, 2020.
PAST, PRESENT, PHUTURE
Despite their success, Anastasio was downcast after The Beacon Jams wrapped.
“That was the worst week of pandemic for me,” he says. “I didn’t even know what to do with myself. Empty the cat litter. Walk in a circle. Empty the cat litter. Watch the tiger show.” (Yes, Netflix’s “Tiger King.”)
The gigs gave Anastasio direction in an uncertain time, and he’s emphatic about his desire to do more livestreaming going forward. Just don’t expect Phish’s other three members to join him.
“I traditionally am a little bit more restless than the other guys,” he says. “My role in Phish has always been the cheerleader. … I get excited and call everybody up. I’ve tried that throughout the pandemic.”
Some of the overtures have succeeded, from Fishman’s Beacon appearance to “December,” a suite of music that Anastasio and Phish keyboardist Page McConnell recorded at The Barn, the band’s longstanding rehearsal and recording space outside of Burlington, Vt., and released on Christmas Eve. Phish almost gathered there earlier in the pandemic – but determined the lengthy quarantine times legally triggered by crossing state lines weren’t worth what would’ve amounted to only a day of music.
Anastasio sees Phish “holding out” until physical touring returns, but describes it as an “extremely nimble band … meaning we can play anywhere you put us.” As out-of-the-box post-COVID touring formats inevitably crop up, Phish may be particularly well-suited to take advantage of them.
Naturally, Anastasio’s already contemplating how to apply the lessons of The Beacon Jams.
“Why can’t I talk to somebody on their iPhone from the stage?” he says, envisioning the comments that might roll in at a Phish arena gig. “‘I’m going to go get a pretzel in Section 217, whatever you do, don’t play “Split Open and Melt,” that’s my favorite song. I’ll be back in six minutes.’ Then I say into the microphone, ‘Hey Bill, you better hurry because we’re going to start that song! You’ve got four minutes to go to the bathroom.’”
Anastasio chokes up, recalling tears shed with McConnell at The Barn after their recent session and considering how emotional Phish’s proper return will be.
“As soon as it’s feasible, we’ll be back,” he says. “Just tell me where to be. I’m there. I’ll ride my bike with an amp on my back, if you let me.”