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Published: 2003/09/28
by Benjy Eisen

The Illustrated Band – Vida Blue

Sanctuary Records 84660

Phish keyboardist Page McConnell's approach to his instrument is usually
dictated by how he sees his role in that band. That is to say, he's a team
player who knows when to pitch and when to hit. He likes to bat more than
throw, and catch more than bat.

Vida Blue's self-titled 2002 debut gave him a chance to bust out his curve
ball and exercise his pitching hand. And with two tours under its belt, the
group played McConnell's outfield game. He called the shots and sang the
tunes.

The Illustrated Band is not like that. Recorded in just a couple
weeks this past spring, the disc is the edited result of jam sessions with
Miami Beach's Spam Allstars, a Latin-groove collective including horns and a
turntablist. The Spam Allstars' Afro-Cuban influence considerably enhances
Vida Blue's palette, and the extra instrumentation allows McConnell the
freedom to be himself again.

Let me restate that: The Spam Allstars are all over the album. McConnell
takes on the role of producer and, we are to assume, creative captain. But
there are many moments throughout the album where, if you're not listening
closely, McConnell is barely a part of the equation. Admirably, this suits
his style. And it drives home the point that, although McConnell may be (in
some ways) the bandleader, Vida Blue is not a solo project, nor is it a
Phish side-project; Vida Blue is a band. Not only are they a band —
they're an all-star band. But on The Illustrated Band, Vida Blue
sometimes becomes more like the Invisible Band. Bassist Oteil Burbridge is
tighter here than ever before and drummer Russell Batiste brings the New
Orleans' beat because he is the New Orleans' beat. But, as with
McConnell's contributions, sometimes if you're not listening closely, Vida
Blue itself is barely there.

Technically, the Spam Allstars are "special guests" on the album; the liner
notes in the advance promotional copy simply read: "Featuring the Spam
Allstars." It doesn't even bother to mention their individual names. Yet,
let there be no doubt, this is a Spam Allstars album. I say that having
never heard the Spam Allstars. For all I know, they could play Canadian
folk-rock on their own albums. It wouldn't matter. The Illustrated
Band still serves as a launching pad for the Allstars' melodic
improvisations. Much like his role in Phish, McConnell's keyboards are an
integral and defining part of the music, yet he has no problem letting
someone else steer while he paddles. As a result, The Illustrated
Band is filled with improvisations that, despite radical differences in
tone and intent, share some basic characteristics with Phish jams: A groove
is established. Then, a melodic pattern is established, locked in,
repeated, and then abandoned in search of something else.

Whereas Phish take their time finding this something else, and often get
wonderfully sidetracked along the way, The Illustrated Band goes
right from one to the next, with some groove-oriented improvisations, horn
solos, keyboard tinkers, and, occasionally something from the ones-and-twos,
such as a vocal sample or record scratch.

Here, the jams often meander horizontally rather than vertically. There
aren't any real peaks or valleys. With McConnell's Phish or Burbridge's
Allman Brothers, 20-minute jams are captivating and transportive. The
Illustrated Band's 20-minute jams aren't quite as engrossing. That would be
missing the point. They're wonderful collages really. The four tracks are
clearly cut from open-ended jam sessions and edited into open-ended songs,
by McConnell in the studio. Thus, The Illustrated Band is Vida Blue's
Siket Disc.

That said, it is radically different from anything McConnell, Burbridge, or
Batiste have ever released in their respective careers. And it's pretty
darn cool for that accomplishment alone.

It's also just pretty darn cool. The Spam Allstars should be proud of
themselves. They've made an entertaining album. And McConnell should be
pleased as well, for orchestrating such a project.

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