It’s been a busy week at the Orpheum Theatre, where Mott the Hoople and Trey Anastasio delivered different versions of nostalgia in separate concerts that each exceeded expectations in many ways.
Anastasio was introducing his one-off project Ghosts of the Forest, which—with the inclusion of his Phish mate Jon Fishman on drums—effectively combines half of Phish with half of the Trey Anastasio Band. But the guitarist/singer didn’t touch songs from either of those groups on Wednesday, instead showcasing new material that was rooted in a Ghosts in the Forest album to be released two days later.
The nostalgia came from that album’s emotional genesis, the loss of Anastasio’s lifelong friend Chris Cottrell, who ended his cancer battle last year with the guitarist at his bedside. Around the same time, keyboardist Ray Paczkowski—a member of the Ghosts of the Forest group as well as TAB—underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. And a decade earlier, Anastasio lost his sister Kristy to cancer, inspiring the Phish song “Miss You,” whose sentiment and simplicity hasn’t always clicked next to Phish’s more abstract adventures in concert. But Anastasio clearly dug deeper as a writer for Ghosts in the Forest, conjuring broad waves of emotions and dynamics at the Orpheum that could engage fans of his past work while pushing forward.
Opening song “Ghosts of the Forest” set the lyrical tone immediately. Anastasio sang “I’m drowning in my own mind,” citing memories, regrets and images that bridge yesterday and tomorrow. And “Friends” took a reflective soul-blues turn, capped when he sang “Why do we have to wait until it’s gone to know what love is?” with a strained falsetto note that fit such a moment of vulnerability.
Yet, in addition to contemplations of grief and hope, Anastasio led the band through a range of musical fireworks across more than two and a half hours. He lashed “Sightless Escape” with surf-rock slides down his guitar neck as Fishman chopped up the groove over Tony Markellis’ steady bass pulse. Then Celisse Henderson—an underused secret weapon who teamed with TAB’s Jennifer Hartswick on backing vocals—unleashed a fiery soul-diva coda.
“About to Run” grew darker and edgier, with Anastasio’s stabbed guitar howls evoking the Jimi Hendrix solos that he used to enjoy with Cottrell, while LED walls behind a swirling origami scrim panned fractured images of the guitarist, the only miscue on an otherwise atmospheric backdrop. “Ruby Waves” rolled into another ebb-and-flow escalation, with Anastasio subtly quoting John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” And a middle section of the lengthy “Beneath a Sea of Stars,” broke into spacey, feedback-tinged improvisation like one of Phish’s better “Tweezer” jams.
Anastasio balanced the darkness with softer acoustic tunes and later embraced “A Light Beyond the Dream,” singing “Don’t give up hope. Keep on dreaming!” If that looks overtly optimistic on paper, it was welcomed by his supportive following at the sold-out Orpheum. And for fans daunted by all that new material, they can look forward to July 5-6 at Fenway Park to feast on Phish nuggets, even if newer songs increasingly crowd that field to mixed results. Between last year’s Halloween album by fake Scandinavian band Kasvot Vaxt and other unrecorded tracks with Phish and now Ghosts of the Forest, Anastasio has seemingly woven a mid-life crisis into the most prolific period of his career.
For nostalgia in a more traditional sense, Mott the Hoople ’74 (referring to the band’s final year and edition) rolled into the Orpheum on Tuesday—a full 45 years since its last U.S. tour. The English rockers were more popular at home, hitting the spot between pub rock and the glam of David Bowie (who penned their most popular song “All the Young Dudes”), but that didn’t stop stateside diehards from celebrating in a barely three-quarters-full Orpheum. And the ’74 core of frontman Ian Hunter, guitarist Ariel Bender and pianist Morgan Fisher didn’t disappoint, seamlessly blended into Hunter’s steady, seasoned Rant Band as an eight-piece unit toasting (to cite their opening salvo) “The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Ever clad in sunglasses, the curly-maned Hunter—amazingly about to turn 80 in June—proved in great voice. He showed his Dylan-esque ballad style on “Rest in Peace,” then turned “I Wish I Was a Mother” into a hearty singalong. “Is there a happy ending?” Hunter sang, only to pose “So far, so good?” to the crowd. James Mastro took a sweet mandolin break in that song, then switched to tenor sax for the sexist “Sucker,” which Hunter slyly dedicated to the #MeToo movement.
And the Hoople mined and nodded to its rock ‘n’ roll predecessors. Hunter cued the chords to “Sweet Jane” on his acoustic guitar and took the dynamics low on the verses, while beret-capped Bender—who often waved one hand with a flourish—added thumbed squonk for a solo. Echoing its shows in the ’70s, the band closed the set with a 15-minute medley of originals and covers, which included snippets of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “You Really Got Me.”
The deal was sealed before an anticipated encore of the hits. But Fisher teased and frolicked at the piano through “All the Way From Memphis,” and “(Do You Remember the) Saturday Gigs” brought the crowd in for the shouted response “We do!” Then came inevitable sing-along “All the Young Dudes,” with LA’s also-recharged opening act the Dream Syndicate joining in for the gang vocals.
Hunter led Def Leppard and Queen’s Brian May in that song to close last month’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction. Queen opened for Mott the Hoople on tour, leading Freddie Mercury to sing “Down in the city, just Hoople and me” in “Now I’m Here.” While they’re not young anymore, the dudes still proved vital, Boston fans clearly thankful that Hoople was here and they were there.