By Steve Morse, Globe Staff
LOWELL - The Phish tribes descended on Tsongas Arena Saturday, looking to catch Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio's latest project, Oysterhead. It's a grass-roots ''supergroup'' with bassist Les Claypool (of Primus fame), and drummer Stewart Copeland (formerly of the Police). The talent speaks for itself, and despite a few rough spots, the music did not disappoint.
Fans had to wait up to 45 minutes outside while dealing with the rigorous security checks that are a sad fact of life since Sept. 11. But once inside, the sold-out, 7,000-plus crowd - the largest on Oysterhead's debut tour - heard a band that rocked harder than expected (definitely harder than its album, ''The Grand Pecking Order'') and suggested a bright future if they can keep it going. (Anastasio will release a solo album next year and tour next summer as a solo act, which would appear to put Oysterhead, and Phish, on hold.)
Oysterhead has played some cover songs on tour (including The Who's ''My Generation'' and Led Zeppelin's ''Immigrant Song''), but stuck solely to Oysterhead tunes in Lowell. However, they extended some with new jams and twists that put more fire in them, thanks especially to Copeland, whose presence has grown since the songs were recorded rather spontaneously in Anastasio's barn in Burlington, Vt.
Copeland still has the difficult task of merging the two distinct styles of Anastasio's hippie-psychedelia and Claypool's eccentric, funk-bottom grooves - but he is now doing it with more authority. Copeland basically took the band and drove it like an express train, unleashing a rhythmic torrent that dwarfed almost anything he did in the Police. After composing artsy film scores in recent years, Copeland seemed ecstatic to be rocking again.
This felt more like a true ensemble show, rather than the bits-and-pieces feel of the CD. The show started aggressively with ''Pseudo Suicide'' (with Zeppelin-like soloing by Anastasio) and ''Owner of the World,'' which went from a John Lee Hooker boogie to a Dead-like jam. That was followed by the tongue-in-cheek ''Army's on Ecstasy'' (''It's hard to kill the enemy on 'ol MDMA,'' Anastasio sang wryly) and Claypool's satirical ''Grand Pecking Order.''
Some of the show got too cutesy (''Rubberneck Lions'') but it was a solid, thumbs-up performance overall. ''Oz is Ever Floating'' paid homage to psychedelic researcher Dr. John C. Lilly, and ''Wield the Spade'' had Anastasio playing his custom guitar with antlers on it (he calls it ''the Matterhorn'') to trippy effect. And opening act Lake Trout played a set with a musical scope that mirrored Oysterhead's own adventurousness.
This story ran on page B9 of the Boston Globe on 11/12/2001.
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