Vida Blue w/ Spam Allstars / Jazz Mandolin Project, Roseland Ballroom, NYC- 1/10
NYC ROLL-TOP: Beating the ChillMay Jah rain blessings upon Johnny B. Fishman's pointy little head. Besides his impossibly low-key country-funk outfit, Pork Tornado (not to mention his work with quasi-outsider metal GJ. Willis Pratt) the Phish drummer hasn't engaged in many side projects, and certainly none with the ambition of his bandmates. So, it's always nice to see Burlington buddy Jamie Masefield pull the increasingly defrocked musician off his family-bound keister and out on tour with the Jazz Mandolin Project. Because, well, that means that we get to hear Fish play jazz (or somethin' like it), and it means that Masefield gets to have one of the most compatibly sensitive musicians on the planet play behind him. It was due to the aforementioned ambitions of Phish keyboardist Page McConnell that the Jazz Mandolin Project opened for McConnell's Vida Blue at New York's Roseland Ballroom on January 9th — a step up for the rotating cast of Masefield's compatriots, who usually find themselves in smaller rooms. It was a happy surprise, then, that the JMP – comprised this outing of Masefield, Fishman, bassist Danton Boller, and trumpeteer/keyboardist Mad Dog – translated so well to Roseland's echo chamber. Fishman's drumming was clear and precise behind Masefield's mandolin abstractions, which have been getting further out in recent years, while still retaining the old-fashioned romanticism of his chosen instrument. It is ironic, in a way, that – of all the Phish-related projects – it is their drummer's which is the least groove-oriented. Or maybe it just makes perfect sense. But, either way, the JMP's set was incredibly fluid, though reigned in by Masefield's occasionally dissonant melodies. In a perfect world, they would've been headlining, instead of the other way around. Which isn't to say that Vida Blue's set wasn't fun, which it was, it just wasn't – perhaps – the most amount of fun one could have with all of the given components. Yes, back to ambition. For his second album as a bandleader, McConnell recruited the Miami-based Spam Allstars, a drum-machine driven Afro-Cuban collective led by DJ Le Spam, to accompany himself and the rhythm section of bassist Oteil Burbridge and drummer Russell Batiste. The resulting album, The Illustrated Band, is good fun, but nothing particularly special — which is to say that it's sort of generally special (or maybe particularly normal, but whatever, the music sounds familiar upon first listen and doesn't yield too many hidden pleasures, it's just a good time). He brought 'em along on tour, too. The stage at Roseland was bloody well packed — McConnell at the far right, with his baby grand piano and Phish accoutrements, Burbridge and Batiste lost in the coterie of Spammers: two percussionists, a DJ, a guitarist, and a couple of horn players. At its best, the music was airy and light, propelled by a half-dozen or more interlocking parts, and sounding – in places – like the expanded band that played on the Talking Heads' Remain In Light (and its accompanying tours). But, unlike the Heads in the early '80s, who had David Byrne's neurotic vocals and Adrian Belew's righteously freaked out guitar squalls, there was nothing to focus Vida Blue. For better or worse, as the marquee name, McConnell was jacked up in the mix. It was nice to hear, but it's as if he just doesn't have it in his nature to aggressively lead a band. The irony is that Vida Blue and the Spam Allstars is the group Trey Anastasio occasionally seemed to want to be leading with his own hippieified big band, but was too much of a control freak to let develop. Vida Blue was fluid, but all fluid — even McConnell's cover of Radiohead's "Subterranean Homesick Alien" and his dips into the Phish songbook couldn't snap the evening into shape (though his solo rendition of "Strange Design" was charming). But, in the end, it was a good night. It was a fine excuse to get out of the house (or wherever one's been locked up lately to beat the cold) and dance (to stay warm) and drink (the more you drink, the better they sound, as I discovered), hang out with people (any Phish-related gigs tends to urge people outta the woodwork, so there's always good company), and be merry (hey, it beats workin'). And that's nice, right?