Ghosts of the Forest (photo: Joshua Huver)
On Saturday, April 20, 2019, the hills of Berkeley came alive for an evening of powerful, transformative, and ultimately groovy rock and roll. Houston-based three-piece Khruangbin returned to the Bay Area five months after wrapping their own headlining tour last November. They opened the evening ahead of Ghosts of the Forest, the latest project from Trey Anastasio, lead guitarist and vocalist for the jam band giant Phish.
Consisting of guitarist Mark Speer, drummer DJ Johnson, and bassist Laura Lee, Khruangbin has been making huge strides in the global music world. This opening performance at the Greek, for example, followed their Friday Coachella appearance.
Khruangbin’s set began around 7pm, and lasted through the beginning of the sunset — about 50 minutes. Opening tunes included the sultry groove and snap of “Bin Bin” followed by “The Infamous Bill.” “Bin Bin,” appearing as a hidden track on the groups’ 2015 debut The Universe Smiles Upon You, is a favorite opener for Khruangbin.
“Mr. White,” a slow, churning groove with a high energy hi-hat beat eventually gave way to the tragic goodbye and final dance of “Two Fish and an Elephant.” Both selections also came from their debut record. Late in their set they wheeled out tracks from Con Todo El Mundo, their sophomore release from January 2018.
“Evan Finds The Third Room” gave way to a hip-hop medley. Even though the hip-hop medley is a staple of their set, the energy was infectious and it was an excellent addition to the wafting 4/20 vibes throughout the crowd. Songs sampled include “Regulate,” “Next Episode,” “Footsteps in the Dark,” selections from Snoop, ODB, A Tribe Called Quest, and more.
After the sun had set and the city lights lights came up, a long, drawn-out drone was played over the PA. The drone continued in lieu of set break music — an interesting choice that definitely helped set the introspective mood of the show ahead of us. By 8:15, the lights went down and a three minute, pre-recorded piano melody signaled the start of the show. The Ghosts of the Forest started coming out to play.
Trey Anastasio has been one of the biggest figureheads of touring rock music since the mid-’90s, when Phish exploded in popularity following the death of Jerry Garcia. The band has been through hiatus, break-up, and all members engaging in numerous side projects. In 2018, Phish sold out nearly 20 nights at Madison Square Garden in New York. Thirteen of those shows were part of a “Baker’s Dozen” run where each night was themed after a different style of donut.
Ghosts of the Forest is different, though. It was written for Anastasio’s childhood friend Chris Cottrell, who passed away from cancer at the end of February. After spending the final days together, Anastasio called a few of his bandmates and closest friends to record an album he thought Cottrell would have loved. It was built off of Jimi Hendrix-style psychedelic guitar liftoffs, ambitious arrangements, and extremely personal lyrics.
“One of the things that was sort of extra sad about the loss was that he was my friend outside of all this — a long-before, boyhood friend. He was my tether to childhood and to a life before Phish happened,” Anastasio told Rolling Stone. Anastasio employed some of his closest longtime friends to work on this with him. Phish drummer Jon Fishman and Trey Anastasio Band bassist Tony Markellis joined together to work together for the first time in 30 years.
As the pre-recorded piano melody played, the band members filtered onstage one by one. Unlike Anastasio’s other projects, he has stuck to the same script for all of the Ghosts of the Forest set lists. With Phish, for instance, they don’t even write a set list before they go out onstage.
In a word, the performance rocked. It was heavy. Light moments of reprieve lifted the spirit before plunging back into the depths of the ocean. Sometimes we were blasted through a black hole or pioneering the infinite space between the sound of atoms. Ghosts of the Forest took more than a few plays from the Pink Floyd playbook, too. The songs felt larger than life, and the presentation was world-class.
Overall, the show was spectacularly moving. There was a wave that ebbed and flowed and there were little, if any, true breaks in the music. Each of the musicians involved proved themselves indispensable. The atmospheric worlds of Ray Paczkowski’s keyboard were sometimes lost in the live mix. But overall they combined with a meticulous cacophony of percussion from Fishman and Markellis, standing out when Anastasio wasn’t. They often stabilized each other, allowing the soaring guitar to soar between the dancing vocals of Jennifer Hartswick and Celisse Henderson.
Anyone in the audience that has ever known true friendship was moved. Anyone in the audience that appreciated master-class level musicians performing at their peak was moved. Add an appreciation for simply elaborate and aesthetically appealing stage production, and Ghosts of the Forest had something for everyone.