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Published: 2004/01/19
by Mike Greenhaus

Take Two: Vida Blue w/ Spam Allstars / Jazz Mandolin Project, Roseland Ballroom, NYC- 1/10

For some reason it seemed fitting: Jon Fishman wore a Phish t-shirt while he jammed with Jazz Mandolin Project.

At first, Fishman tried to hide his brave fashion decision, tucking his cotton shirt behind Jazz Mandolin Project’s cramped drum riser. But two-thirds of the way through the quartet’s opening set, Fishman quietly revealed his wrinkled Phish attire, eliciting thousands of cheers and taking what might be the world’s first "t-shirt" solo. Sure, some wrote off Fishman’s move as self-indulgent, but, a year since Phish’s hiatus, the astute drummer seems to realize something: Phish is once again the Vermont quartet’s primary musical outlet

In many ways, it makes sense that Fishman is the first member of Phish to publicly come to this realization. After all, even without Fishman, Jazz Mandolin is a fully functional project. A critically acclaimed unit able to pack clubs on their own, Jazz Mandolin Project has built their reputation on Jamie Masefield’s jazzy mandolin and the homegrown group’s revolving door lineup of musicians. A stripped down, acoustic blend of mandolin and upright bass, JMP has always been largely a string band, using additional instrumentation to fill out the groups’ sound, not to lead its jams. Fishman’s role in the group has traditionally been as a supporting player and Jazz Mandolin has, thus, always been the least threatening Phish side-project.

During their fifty-minute opening set, Masefield used Fishman’s gentle, brush drumming to help create an ethereal, Adirondack atmosphere. A throwback to a more acoustic-based, hard-bop sound, Jazz Mandolin Project never seemed comfortable next to the legion of jazz-funk groups falling under the jamband moniker. Yet, the recent inclusion of North Country renaissance man Mad Dog Mavridoglou on keyboards and horns has rounded out Jazz Mandolin Project’s sound, allowing the quartet to veer more towards the music of modern, electric groove bands. Even with his shift in focus, Jazz Mandolin Project has kept Masefield’s mandolin as its primary ingredient, while still giving the mandolin axe-man a new instrument to duel alongside.

Yet, throughout Jazz Mandolin Project’s set, it was hard to ignore Fishman’s presence. Though clearly playing a supporting role musically, the drummer oozes a celebrity aura, leading 2,000 fans in a cheer as he revealed his t-shirt. Joking about Fishman’s magical powers, Masefield even introduced the drummer as the mysterious "purple wind," an unknown force, silently driving the group.

In contrast, Vida Blue seemed a bit bloated when they rolled onto Roseland Ballroom’s stage. Musically, Vida Blue’s current sound is a far cry from the "human techno" that characterized their eponymous debut. With the Spam All-Stars spicing up their songs as omnipresent featured players, Vida Blue veered more towards the afro-beat groove of the Trey Anastasio Band than their original tight-knit trance trio format. While Page McConnell’s piano and DJ Spam’s turntables still add a bit more space and electronica to the group’s musical strew than TAB, Vida Blue has placed a new emphasis on its party-groove.

Though not necessarily a negative change, Vida Blue and the Spam Allstars new sound often seems so busy, it’s easy to forget just how much new music is being created. Moreover, the Spam Allstars salsa-party mix tends to bury Vida Blue’s playful techno touches. At times this contrast in styles gives birth to utterly beautiful music, allowing electronic sprouts to emerge from beneath a sea of world-beat earth. But the mix of styles also loses a bit of Vida Blue’s individual essence, appearing like a watered down mix of Fela Kuti and Kid Koala.

Vida Blue was just a baby last time the trio rolled into the Roseland Ballroom. That said, the group’s venue history is a bit hard to define. Though technically more proficient, Vida Blue seemed to loose a bit of their artistic edge this go around, instead trying to fill the large ballroom’s airy atmosphere. Held on New Years Eve 2001, Vida Blue’s first Roseland visit was aided by holiday energy, as well as a large balloon drop and two surprise Phish ringers. Thus, drummer Russell Batiste and bassist Oteil Burbridge were able to play more subtlety, focusing on a close-interplay between the two primarily rhythmic players. But placed within a sea of percussionists and groovy horn players, Batiste seemed to lose track on the group’s collective beat. Similarly, Burbridge’s six-string bass and trademark scat solos were a bit out of place when juxtaposed with the collective big-band swing that characterizes the new Vida Blue. The Spam Allstars themselves are built on their unique instrumentation, which uses DJ Spam’s turntables as an electronic bass, and the two rhythm sections tended to clash at times during Vida Blue’s performance.

On the other hand, McConnell seems more comfortable as an equal player in a big-band, in lieu of leading a small combo. Fading out his sweat-vocals and lead synthesizers, McConnell embodies the role of secret weapon quite well. Coloring each of the group’s jams, McConnell acts as a happy father, proud to let his kids play by themselves and offering them occasional guidance.

Perhaps the most interesting musical moments of the entire evening arrived towards the end of Vida Blue’s two-hour show. Concluding Vida Blue’s set with a cover of Phish’s "Cars, Trucks, and Buses," McConnell made it clear that Vida Blue grew out of Phish. Initially hailed as the most unique Phish side-project, Vida Blue is now locked into Phish’s cow-funk, adding bits of afro-Cuban techno to the quartet’s psychedelic groove.

The Vida Blue originals McConnell chose to include in his set list were also somewhat surprising. Selecting only one track from the newly releases The Illustrated Band, "Little Miami (Reputation)," Vida Blue instead focused on better known material from the group’s eponymous debut. Kicking off his set with "Most Event’s Aren’t Planed," McConnell revealed drastically new versions of Vida Blue staples like "CJ3 and "Russell’s Tune." While the basic blueprint of each song was still in tact, each number has been refashioned into longer, more groove oriented dance number, full of solos and horn arrangements instead of subtle chords and phrases. Likewise, covers of John Lennon’s "Jealous Guy," and Gary Numan’s "Cars" were stretched out like comfortable originals, proof that the newly united groups are already comfortable with their new groove.

In a bold move, McConnell closed his show with four songs that fall outside Vida Blue’s official canon. Opening his encore-set with a solo acoustic sing-along version of "Strange Design," McConnell appeared naked in front of 2,000 fans. No longer an equal part of a big-band, McConnell allowed his vocals to carry the long, delighting many a "Page Phan" in attendance. Quickly jumping into "Army of One," a somewhat bare-bones ballad that straddles both Phish and Vida Blue’s repertoires, McConnell also made a bold statement on his compositions. Like Anastasio, McConnell is not restricting his new material to a single band, changing the very nature of Phish side-projects. Like Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir’s initial solo efforts, Phish side-projects should not be seen as rival bands, but instead should be viewed as additional ways to try out each band member’s newest material.

This relationship was further exploded during the evening's final two-numbers: "Lawn Boy" and "No Quarter." Jazz Mandolin Project joined the pianist for an acoustic rendition of "Lawn Boy," a gentle rearrangement of the Phish standard that provided a subtle twist to a somewhat stagnant song. Furthering Phish's Led Zeppelin fetish, both Jazz Mandolin Project and Vida Blue played on "No Quarter," a somewhat messy, but up-tempo conclusion to an enjoyable evening. Simple, fun, and a bit sloppy, Vida Blue is just what a side-project is supposed to be: a way for a musician to experiment with some new sounds, styles, and songs. In Fishman's case, it's also a way for him to show his audience that he is still, after all these years, a Phish fan.

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