For bassist Tony Markellis, the current incarnation of the Trey Anastasio Band is the best one yet.
If anyone can gauge this, besides Anastasio himself, it’s Markellis. The Saratoga Springs musician was the first invited to join the Phish guitarist and frontman’s solo band in the mid-’90s, and also brought drummer and longtime friend Russ Lawton to the fold.
That trio initially toured in 1998 as Eight Foot Flourescent Tubes before evolving into the classic lineup of the Trey Anastasio Band (TAB).
Anastasio dissolved the original band around the same time that Phish split in 2004, after a five-year run in which the group expanded to 10 members, including a five-piece horn section.
“Early on with the trio, we were really making it up as we went; it was a new thing for all of us,” Markellis wrote via email, while preparing for a short run of January shows with TAB — mostly make-up dates from October that were cut due to Hurricane Sandy — that includes a stop at the Palace Theatre on Saturday night.
“As the size of the horn section gradually increased to five and Cyro [Baptista, percussionist] joined us, a good deal of chaos followed — both musically and personally. After Trey pulled the plug on Phish, he spent a couple of years exploring a few different avenues with a variety of bands.”
Trey Anastasio Band
Where: Palace Theatre, 19 Clinton Ave., Albany
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
How Much: $42.50
More Info: 465-3334, www.palacealbany.com
It wasn’t until 2008 that both bands became active again — in TAB’s case, the original trio, plus keyboardist Ray Paczkowski, reunited for performance at All Points West Music & Arts Festival at Liberty State Park in New Jersey in 2008 that led to further touring in the ensuing years.
The reunited “Classic TAB” has expanded once again in its second go-around. For the band’s tours in 2011 and 2012, the group grew to a septet, and is now an octet again with the re-addition of Baptista, who originally played with the group from 2002-2004.
On even keel
Except now, the chaos that Markellis described seems to have subsided, even as the lineup continues to evolve.
“I couldn’t imagine better musicians be playing with, or a more agreeable group of people to be stuck on a bus with for weeks on end,” he said.
“Everyone is completely different, but respectful of each other’s differences. Our good friend, saxophonist Russell Remington, left the band just before the fall tour, but we gained the great James Casey from Lettuce in his place. We now have three great young horn players (Jen Hartswick, Natalie Cressman and James Casey) who all sing and play keys as well; this has allowed us to perform some of the more elaborately orchestrated pieces from the CD.”
That CD is Anastasio’s ninth solo album, “Traveler,” which is also the first studio recording to feature TAB since 2002’s “Trey Anastasio” — although the band has played on a few live recordings, including 2010’s “TAB at the Tab,” recorded at the Tabernacle in Atlanta.
The album finds Anastasio in typically eclectic form, even covering The Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood,” but with a stronger emphasis on tightly composed material versus improvisation. This means less room for the band to improvise on the songs live, but fans seem to be getting into the more structured material.
“There’s quite a variety of material, so everyone’s bound to like something,” Markellis said. “Since a lot of this new material is more composed than improvised, so far we’ve been staying pretty true to the recorded versions. A real showstopper has been our cover of the Gorillaz song ‘Clint Eastwood.’ Our incredible trumpet player Jen Hartswick rap/sings it, and she tears the roof off the place every time out!”
The writing and recording process was much different this time out than for the self-titled album. On that record, Anastasio, Markellis and Lawton wrote many of the tracks together; “Traveler” features songs primarily written by Anastasio with help from friends such as Tom Marshall. The album, co-produced by Peter Katis and Anastasio, also features guest spots from Bon Iver member Rob Moose, The National’s Bryan Devendorf and Matt Berninger, Kori Gardner of Mates of States and others.
“In fact, this wasn’t actually a TAB project at all,” Markellis said. “Some of the band members barely appear on the record. Trey and producer Peter Katis crafted something that is very much a ‘studio’ project, and the rest of us just played as needed.”
In a career that has spanned close to 40 years, Markellis has played on more than 100 albums, including records for Anastasio, his bands the Unknown Blues Band and Kilimanjaro, and Saratoga musicians Bob Warren and Michael Jerling.
Originally from Helena, Mont., Markellis got his start in music touring with the David Bromberg Band in 1973 and 1974. He relocated to Saratoga soon thereafter.
Anastasio began going to Unknown Blues Band shows in Burlington in the ’80s, and followed the band throughout his college years. However, Anastasio and Markellis didn’t play any music together until they got together in Eight Foot Fluorescent Tubes.
“I had been playing around Burlington with those guys for a few years, and Trey came up there to look at colleges,” Markellis said. “His first night in town he came out to Hunt’s where we were playing and instantly became a fan; after that, he would come out to see us whenever we played. He brought Sue, who is now his wife, out to see us on their first date; a few years later we played at their wedding.”
Today, Markellis continues to perform with various groups in the Saratoga area and beyond, including with Warren, Jerling, acoustic trio Markellis-Haskell-Maul (formerly known as No Outlet) and Street Corner Holler. Kilimanjaro is still an ongoing concern after over 30 years. The day after the TAB show at the Palace, Markellis will perform with the Bob Warren Band at the Community Center in Wells, Hamilton County, at 2 p.m.
Markellis also just completed new albums with Boston-based roots rock band Jo Henley, Jamaican singer Minna and guitarist Ed Gerhard, and is working on a new Street Corner Holler album.
“Variety is one of the most appealing parts of what I get to do for a living — I don’t think I’d last a week at a 9-5 job,” Markellis said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to get to be choosy about who I work with, so if you see me playing with someone, it’s usually because I genuinely like what they do.”