A REFLECTION ON TREY ANASTASIO’S BEACON JAMS.
I’ve always said that in joining the Trey Anastasio Band, now over a decade ago, I gained two siblings and 5 uncles, and so flying back to NYC this past November felt nothing short of a family reunion. Sure, the travel brought about Covid-related anxiety as the NY travel restrictions caused my flight to change 3 times, and the week I finally flew out happened to be the week that cases exploded just about everywhere. So, it wasn’t exactly easy, but once we were there it just felt so natural and good to be playing music again, like no time had gone by since our last tour and the last 9 months had just been a bad dream. I had a newfound appreciation for simply being able to play in a band again, relishing each opportunity to connect with my musical family.
I flew out a week in advance, to quarantine and receive a mandatory negative Covid test before I was allowed to leave my NYC apartment. During that time, I brushed up on the old song catalogue, while new ideas for never-before-TAB’ed songs started to take shape over band text threads. Several times during those weeks, I’d wake up to 3 new tunes in my inbox and would use the Uber ride from my place in Washington Heights to the rehearsal space in midtown to drill the new parts into my head, putting demos and rehearsal tapes on repeat in my headphones as I read the charts all tiny on my iPhone. It was exciting to be challenged again, after 9 months of an empty gig calendar!
The first day when I got to the rehearsal space (after yet another nose swab and negative rapid test result), my excitement probably rivaled my very first day of TAB rehearsal when I was only 18 years old. There were also nerves, as I hadn’t spent any time indoors with anyone but immediate family for months and I had no idea how things would go. Are people going to want to hug? Give the elbow bump? What should I do? When do I take off my mask to play? Will my “Covid Bazooka” of a trombone (as Trey coined it later) freak people out? Should I try to empty my spit valve out of sight? I was so happy to see everyone, catching up with the band and crew as they filtered into the socially distanced rehearsal setup, but once Jen Hartswick came in the doorway we couldn’t resist a big hug, knowing that we’d be playing our “Covid Bazookas” next to each other for the next two weeks anyways. So, the horn section became my new quarantine pod, and I will cherish the few hangs we had, now going into these winter months of hibernation and staying at home once again.
Trey kicked off rehearsal with some classic TAB songs (Mozambique, Curlew’s, etc.) before digging into the newer undertakings (Petrichor, Harry Hood, Lifeboy). It felt amazing to really get to play again, but I also felt insanely rusty. No amount of apartment-room practice sessions, constantly worrying about the bleed through the walls bothering my neighbors, could prepare me for playing with a loud band again, and after only an hour or two of playing my heart out as we ran the new songs over and over again, my face was completely dead. Many musicians, including Trey, have zero concept of what chop fatigue is like on brass instruments. We just can’t play for 5 hours without a break as easily as guitarists and pianists can. So, band practice and the first show back after a break can feel like boot camp even in ordinary times, when I’d be gigging regularly several nights a week and keeping my chops in shape. But with “quarantine chops” the horns needed ice-packs on their lips after our first day back (I’m only slightly exaggerating ). I quickly learned to pace myself a little bit better and save some steam for the end of the day. But by show time on Friday, the rigors of rehearsal and soundcheck had steeled me for the first livestream. The ritual of Jen and I hanging out as we did our hair and makeup felt so fun, and where other times curling my hair might have felt like a hassle, it was just so nice to have something dress up for, for a change!
It felt so calm before the show. Almost too calm. Normally, backstage you can feel the empty house slowly fill with people, going from a soft hum to a roar in the last hour before showtime, the temperature in the building rising as it fills up with people ready to get down and dance. I’m sure it’s part of what subconsciously starts to amp up my adrenaline and energy ahead of a show. Instead, it was eerily silent: we could just walk up on stage and warm up right in our spots, then wait for Gary Brown at FOH to count us down to the start of the show. From there, we slipped right into Camel Walk and it was just like old times. In the jams, Jen, James, and I continued to complete each other’s musical sentences when making up horn lines and hits on the spot. It really felt like the band was firing on all cylinders, and everyone seemed extra joyous and appreciative of the musical moments too.
The family reunion atmosphere of full TAB getting back together was also amplified by the interaction between songs, reacting to Twitch comments and bantering back and forth across the stage. Each bandmate’s humor and quirky comments, usually only visible to fans in glimpses, now was being beamed right into everyone’s living rooms, and the images of the viewers in their pajamas (or underwear, as Trey mentioned in one of the streams), folding their laundry and hanging out with their kids, made everything seem disarmingly more casual than a regular concert. It kind of felt like we invited 100,000 people into a band rehearsal and we were free to be our wacky, goofy selves.
Though it was easy to forget at times that there was a pandemic raging on outside, the atmosphere was certainly noticeably altered due to the extensive safety protocols in place. I am so appreciative that TAB management and crew went to such great lengths to keep us safe throughout the process. It was certainly a huge undertaking. The backstage hang was definitely not the same, as most folks retreated to their hotel rooms on breaks. Jen and I had a dressing room on a different floor entirely, so I had to actively make a point to go down a floor to check in on the guys in the band (masked), otherwise we could go through a whole day without actually talking.
One day, I had the good fortune to get a freaking amazing care package of seafood from my favorite spot The Lobster Place in Chelsea Market. I had ordered some branzino from them for Thanksgiving the next day and my friend Dave, the head fishmonger there, snuck lobster rolls and oysters for the whole band in with my order! With everyone spread out and social distancing it was actually hard to be a good little lobster fairy and track down the guys to make sure they got their seafood treats! Everyone did end up getting a fully loaded lobster roll, and with so many New Englanders in the band, the delight was visible even from six feet away.
In normal times, there would always be a little post-show hang, either backstage or on the tour bus before everyone went to bed. And this is the part I missed most, as after the livestream ended it was hard to manage to say goodbye and “great show” to everyone before they went their separate ways. This aspect of the Beacon Jams was the most bittersweet: feeling this pure joy and powerful connection on stage and in the music followed by the coldness of isolation, also knowing how rare and precious said joy is in these times and how none of us really know for sure when we will feel it again.
Bittersweetness aside, I left NYC fully reinvigorated by the uplifting power of playing music with human beings you love and trust. In my Zoom lessons the following week, even my students noticed a change in my energy (“You look so happy/well-rested” and “NYC agrees with you”). I’m positive I wasn’t the only one who felt uplifted by The Beacon Jams, and the astounding generosity of the folks who donated re-affirmed that there are more good people in this world than bad, and that we really have such a positive impact when we come together to support a great cause. I am so proud to be part of a band fronted by such a generous and compassionate man, who has gone to such great lengths to help those struggling with addiction. We’ll miss coming together each Friday, but that good energy will seep into the rest of our lives and certainly and keep us going for weeks to come.