Vida Blue: Page McConnell & The Return of a Rookie
Vida Blue was a perennial all-star. The left handed pitcher led the Oakland A’s to three consecutive World Series in the early seventies, and in 1971 took honors as both the American League Cy Young Award winner and the MVP.
Blue’s current musical namesake is something of a rookie. However, this newcomer is more akin to a Deion Sanders or a Bo Jackson, someone who enters the league with a storied past. Or maybe the apt analogy would be Jim Morris, whose MLB debut came at age 35.
Okay, okay, enough with the baseball references. What we can say is that Vida Blue is Page McConnell on keys, Oteil Burbridge on bass and Russell Batiste on drums. This is a project that McConnell put together last year and the trio debuted during a two night New Year’s stand before the group’s current tour. In addition the band has completed a studio recording set for release this summer. Vida Blue’s sound references the band member’s other projects (Allman Brothers Band, Aquarium Rescue Unit, funky Meters, Peacemakers, Phish) yet it is situated in its own jazz/funk realm with some other flavors and textures as well.
Mark Pantsari recently spoke with McConnell about the trio’s current plans and future endeavors.
MP: I recently got a copy of Vida Blue’s New Year’s Eve Show, and Elektra sent me a copy of the track Most Events’ from the album. Can you tell me how the techno influence came about?
Page McConnell: I didn’t really plan for it to go that way necessarily. The last few years I’ve been getting more and more into synthesizers, and it just kind of happened really. We (Burbridge and Batiste) got together last September and started recording down in New Orleans, and it wasn’t really set out to be that way, that’s just what it ended up being. We did some recording and I and did a lot of stuff on acoustic (piano) and a lot stuff on the Hammond. In the end it was that synth-sound that seemed to be the most unique and it seemed to come the easiest for us for some reason.
M: Well when I heard of you guys getting together down in New Orleans especially with Oteil and Russell’s big New Orleans funk influence that was kind of what I was expecting. The human techno’ sound was a little bit of a surprise.
P: Yeah, it’s really different than I had expected too (laughs).
M: Do you play the piano at all with Vida Blue?
P: Well, there’s no grand piano. I play digital piano on a couple of songs. I still prefer playing acoustic, but logistically, we’re doing clubs and it’s just not very possible.
M: How did you hook up with Oteil and Russell?
P: I’ve known Oteil, we used to play together when he was with the Aquarium Rescue Unit. So I’ve known him since about ’88 or ’89. Russell and I met when I played on a benefit CD, I did a track on a benefit CD for New Orleans musicians [Editor’s note: Get You A Healin’]. It was Mike Gordon, myself, Russell, and Art Neville. That was where I first met him (Russell) about a year ago. I’d just always really liked his playing with The Meters. And he had never met Oteil before, and those two definitely are just awesome players.
M: Can you tell me a little about what each of them bring into the fold?
P: Well, other than providing a really solid foundation on which to play, just as much as anything it’s about personality and character and how everybody can try to fit together and figure that out. We do some of Oteil’s original material and some of Russell’s original material, we do a couple of songs that I’ve written, and some other stuff we do is just sort of jamming. So when you only have three people, everybody’s got to bring whatever they’ve got I guess. I’m not sure if I really answered your question, but they’re just bringing themselves really.
M: How many tracks are going to be on the album?
P: I think it is 7 tracks on the album, it’s about 45 minutes long.
M: And they’re all new originals?
P: All new originals.
M: From what I’ve heard of the New Year’s show there were some instrumentals and some vocal songs, is it a mix on the album?
P: It’s a mix on the album, I guess there’s 2 or 3 songs that are instrumentals and the rest have vocals.
M: Well the songs with vocals, are these songs you had in the can with Phish?
P: No, I wrote for this project after writing songs around last summer I guess. I’m just starting to try and do it, so it’s a new process for me as well because I’ve never been the sole writer really, and that’s what’s been one of the most challenging steps about this project for me.
M: As far as your role in Phish versus your role in this band, is it any different being the lead figure in the band?
P: Yeah it feels a little different. I do enjoy it and it’s really a challenge. Last night was our first night of the tour, and we did those two shows around New Years, but they were kind of isolated. And now we’re out just on a regular old tour. You know when the songs stop and then somebody’s gotta say something it’s gonna be me (laughs). That’s kind of a new experience for me.
M: Yeah well you definitely weren’t the in-between-song banter man for Phish.
P: We weren’t really an in-between-song banter band. So that and just really playing in a trio as opposed to playing with four people, there’s just a little bit different action there too.
M: How did you settle on the name Vida Blue?
P: I’m a big fan of the pitcher and have always just really liked his name and it just felt right for the name. I contacted him about using the name, and it worked out where he signed off on the name for merchandising and things like that. But he was very agreeable and I hope to meet him in San Francisco, maybe he can throw out the first ball or something. He didn’t have the longest career. But he was around in the early 70’s, at a time when baseball was kind of losing interest, attendance was down and that sort of thing. And he really revitalized it, and was a very exciting pitcher to watch. He was a real fluid player and had a lot of talent.
M: Have you been looking forward to getting back on the road?
P: I am actually enjoying and getting used to it. Being on the bus and being in hotels, it’s been a while since I’ve done it so I’m still getting my sea legs back.
M: What’s it like for you getting back into some of these smaller rock clubs as opposed to the bigger venues you’ve played with Phish?
P: Well it is what it is you know? It’s what we are and where we are now. It’s all so new and different in so many ways for me that it’s hard to discern because every aspect of it just different than with Phish. It all feels new and different and exciting. It’s definitely unknown, uncharted territory.
M: How did you hook up with the New Deal for this tour?
P: People have recommended that I check them out. I’ve never seen them actually. They were one of the names that was being thrown around from the time we planned these shows. They were available and I look forward to meeting them.
M: Any plans yet to tour this summer?
P: Yeah we do have a tour planned for the month of July. The album comes out on June 25th and the tour should last for the month.
M: What kind of venues will you be playing for that?
P: Different stuff. A little bit more of the big cities. I think we start in Seattle and do Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, LA, Denver, Chicago—mostly the major cities.
M: Are there plans to be at the big Bonnaroo Festival?
P; I don’t think so. We won’t be on tour at that point.
M: Well that should quell a lot of the Internet rumors.
P; Oh, ok (laughs).
M: How aware are you guys of all the hearsay and conjecture spread by fans and Internet geeks?
P: I don’t have a computer so I’m not really tapped into that world. Are you?
M: Well I have some friends that are really dedicated fans and they’re always keeping me informed of different rumors. People thought Vida Blue would be at Bonnaroo and the first big Phish reunion would be there.
P: I had heard that we were gonna announce a comeback on the Simpsons.
M: I heard that too. I heard Bart was going to write out tour dates on the blackboard in the opening.
P: (laughs) You don’t think anybody really believes that though do you?
M: I think some might have.
P: Well, I guess it’s great that people are talking about us (laughs).
M: Yeah, I think there were some pretty big hopes for that Simpsons episode.
P: I thought that was a pretty good episode.
M: How good a time was it working on that?
P: It was funny because I had to fly out to LA to record 2 lines of material and then come back. I did get to sit in a room and watch the cast read through a script of a different episode. And just to sit in a room with the entire cast and hear all the characters was pretty incredible.
M: Well Phish has dropped a lot of Simpsons references through the years, is that show a pretty big part of ya’ll’s leisure time as well?
P: Sure, sure.
M: Can I ask you a few hiatus-related questions?
M: I’ve read interviews with Trey where he talked about his thoughts on what brought the hiatus about. What were some of your reasons for wanting to take a break from Phish?
P: Actually I’m not sure that I can sum it up that easily. It was much more of a gut feeling that it was the right thing to do at the time. The fact that I put this band together, whether it’s successful or if people like it or not, it was a really good thing for me to do. I’ve really enjoyed doing it and I’ve grown quite a bit from it. This is something that couldn’t have really happened if we (Phish) just kept pushing forward. And the same goes for all four of us. But that’s really only just the project side of it and it’s so much bigger than that, you know? But if you just take that as an example that there were things in our lives that we needed to do, take care of, and work outall 4 of us that is. And this is one concrete to way to say well look, they all have solo projects in their careers.’ That doesn’t even really sum it up, but it is more of a microcosm of maybe other things that, other waysyou know, it’s relevant and you could draw from it that there were other parts of our lives that we needed to attend to. It’s all encompassing, we had been doing it for so long and it just felt like the right thing to do at the time.
m: Well I’ve definitely been paying attention to everyone’s side projects. I’m really anxious to see Mike Gordon’s film on the Gov’t Mule album. What was it like working that with that huge pool of talent?
P: Well I was only in there for my one session, which was with John Entwistle. I know Warren real well and he is just one of the nicest guys in the world, genuinely, he really is just a sweet guy. We had talked about doing stuff together in the past. It was a nice project and it was a really tough situation and something really positive came out of it. I was kind of freaked out because I was a huge Who fan growing up and playing with John Entwistle was pretty intense actually (laughs). I think we got a really good take and thought it was really good. I really did enjoy it. Mike’s also got an album coming out with Leo Kottke and the track I’ve heard is really good.
M: You did some work on the Tenacious D album as well, didn’t you?
P: Yeah I played on a few cuts of that record. That was an awesome and very different experience also. I like those guys and I’m a big fan of their show and it was a riot (laughs). I really felt good about that project and I was happy with the way it turned out.
M: At the same time, you’ve also played a pretty big role in the Live Phish releases too haven’t you?
P: More so on the first 6 releases. The last 6 that came out, I’ve been so busy with Vida Blue that I haven’t heard them yet (laughs). People say they actually like this 6 better than the first 6, so I guess that tells me I should stay out of it. As much as anything it was just getting the process going,
M: How often do you see or talk to the other guys in Phish?
P: Pretty frequently.
M: Have you guys been rehearsing or talking of any reunion plans?
P: Everybody’s definitely positive about Phish. It’s hard for me, just because I’m just starting off this tour and I have a lot on mind about this, you know I’ve already got another tour planned with this band. So it’s just a tough time, honestly nobody knows what’s going to happen. (laughs)
M: I was just trying to fish out some rumor fodder.
P: All I can tell you is that we’re all really good friends and we talk really frequently. And everybody is really positive in the hopes of getting to play together again.
M: As far as the future of Vida Blue, is this something you’d like to pursue long term?
P: The future of Vida BlueI like that. Like I said we have this tour, got the album coming out, and will probably do something with some club re-mixesthat type of thing. A lot will be told when the album comes out, to see how well it does, the interest it generates and see how the tours do. But you know, we are a band. We are a band and it’s a real thing. We got an album, we’ve toured, maybe we’ll tour again, maybe do more albums. I’m trying not to look too much more than a couple of months in advance right now in everything.