For close to two decades, the band Phish has become synonymous with endless “jams,” outlandish stage antics and throngs of colorful, tie-dyed fans, loyally following them around the world.
During their self-imposed hiatus, fans were treated to new side projects featuring former members of their favorite band. Keyboardist Page McConnell was one such member. He hooked up with two talented musicians to form the electronic groove machine known as Vida Blue. Luckily, before Phish reunited and began to tour again, McConnell and Vida Blue were able to record more music that steps outside the realm of that other band. The Illustrated Band is the result of their efforts.
The large group of sidemen enlisted by McConnell is impressive. The core members of Vida Blue are Oteil Burbridge (of the Allman Brothers Band) on bass, Russell Batiste (of the Funky Meters) on drums and McConnell on keys.
But on this album, the trio is joined by the Miami sextet, The Spam Allstars, who are a mix of traditional Afro-Cuban horns and percussion, plus a DJ spinning turntables and running a sampler.
The album’s four tracks clock in at more than an hour, so you can expect some longer, more improvised passages.
The key to making this work is not only the ability of the soloists, but also the ability of the remainder of the band to adapt and move with the solo voice. This group is certainly capable turning a groove inside-out and back again, without being too overbearing or boring.
The song, “Charmpit,” ventures from a solid, up-tempo Latin nightclub feel to an ambient stroll down the streets of Havana, peppered with percussion and thinly-veiled synthesizer echoes. The transitions from each mood are the true, subtle beauty of this song. Burbridge and Batiste form a solid rhythm section, and it is their tight dynamics that control some of these jam-influenced tracks.
McConnell has the ability to sit back in the sound of this group and not muscle his way around based solely on his name or past accomplishments. The opening track, “The Illustrated Band,” is a perfect example.
A velvet-sounding Rhodes electric piano melts away into the horns and driving rhythm section during the short introduction phase. McConnell’s stellar clavinet solo is a highlight and a reminder that he is a deadly serious musician.
Turntables and samplers, courtesy of DJ Le Spam, are used heavily but tastefully. During the title track, the turntables are equally used as a melodic sound and as a harmonic texture.
Don’t buy this album expecting a Phish clone band. The Illustrated Band is an electronic adventure into a space never explored by the massively popular jamband. The horns and added percussion sparkle throughout, and the DJ is another exciting new element. But the innate ability of all these musicians to create and recreate textures and musical moods is the ultimate highlight of this album.