Page McConnell
Page McConnell


After the long career of Phish came to its definitive close (not once, but twice), their excellent keyboard player, Page McConnell, was faced with the usual problem: What to do now that he was a grown-up? His instrumental bravura is, of course, a given (he's one of the few players working today who are able to play both "classic" and "modern" instruments very well, regardless of "style"); plus, with Phish he had been a nice singer. There was a problem, though: his productivity as a composer had never been something to shout about; hence, the fact that quite a few writers expressed their uncertainty about his viability as a solo artist supposed to be about to release a solo album.

Those doubtful writers had totally forgotten about the first album by Vida Blue. Released in 2002, after Phish broke-up for the first time, the album had not been greeted with much attention. Which was in some ways understandable, given the fact that the highly exuberant and very prolific Trey Anastasio was considered as the real torch-bearer of his (former) group. Though the attention he received was just a fraction of the one given to Phish (in a somewhat similar way to the David Gilmour/Pink Floyd usual ratio), Anastasio did his best in a very unstable musical dimension. What about Vida Blue?

I really don't know how this came into being, but McConnell started playing with two excellent musicians who - very important, this - had a very different musical approach than the one adopted by the rhythm section in Phish: Russell Batiste was the drummer in the Funky Meters, while Oteil Burbridge (the sticker on the CD obviously introducing him as a member of the Allman Brothers) had played in a lot of different situations (he's also on Surrender To The Air, the collective album released under Trey Anastasio's name in 1996). On an album featuring instrumental jams and songs, pushed by a funky rhythm section that's strong but also elastic and perfectly capable of playing with finesse at the same time, McConnell found new life in those trusted Fender Rhodes electric piano and Hohner Clavinet, coupled with a nice and intelligent performance on synth (if I'm not mistaken, an Andromeda by Alesis). The whole was not too far from Phish in their "space jam" mode, but here everything sounded fresh and "modern" all the same; also a few nice songs.

I'm quite sorry I have to say that those who were skeptical were right. I don't know what happened, so I can only guess: maybe the fact of having signed a new record contract, the perception that "now's for real", the impulse to be different from Phish but not too much, and too much studio work on his own (owning a personal studio proving to be a double-edged sword one more time) made some qualities appear that are not necessarily among McConnell's best. Details will follow in a minute, but I'll anticipate that the choice of musicians was not the best, given the results one can hear.

What is gonna happen now? McConnell is on tour in the United States, with a line-up featuring Adam Zimmon on guitar (on the album he plays competently but without much personality), Jared Slomoff on guitar, vocals and keyboards (a former technical collaborator of Mike Gordon, he co-produced the album), a bass player whose name I don't know, and Gabe Jarrett (Keith's son) on drums. As it's to be expected for this kind of music, those concerts will tighten the material, making it better. But provided things will turn out for the best, the final result will be Phish, but not so fresh. Will it be worth it? We'll see.

Working on his own, McConnell has created a large keyboard canvas where (in so differently from Vida Blue, but just like Phish) piano and Hammond organ are to the fore; the end result shows many traces of synthetic bass and drum parts of great intelligence and quality. Maybe because he wanted to sound different from Phish, here McConnell featured not much guitar (Anastasio plays on just one track, and he's quite subdued, and impossible to recognize). On some tracks, Mike Gordon plays bass, and Jon Fishman drums - but not on the same tracks. A perverse choice, good Jim Keltner sounds absolutely out of place, especially so when he plays as a team with Gordon (their ideas about where to place accents could not be more different).

Beauty Of A Broken Heart is a nice opener, and Heavy Rotation is not bad, offering, starting at about 4' (after an edit that sounds really brutal), a jam with a nice piano and the absurd rhythms of the couple Keltner/Gordon. Maid Marian is maybe the best song here, reminding this listener of Elton John circa Tumbleweed Connection (an album that was very influenced by American music - for instance, The Band - and which proved to be an influence itself on a lot of American music - for instance, Bruce Hornsby and Ben Folds), with a nice bridge. Close To Home is nothing special.

We have a nice track, Runaway Bride, while the jam in Back In The Basement has a good piano and the Keltner/Gordon rhythm section.

Sounding quite "classic rock", Rules I Don't Know is nice. Complex Wind is the other very good track, with a synth playing flute and vibes parts, and a nice melody. Everyone But Me is a nice good-bye.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2007 | May 15, 2007