A little more than a year after Phish officially announced their hiatus, keyboardist, Page McConnell’s new band, Vida Blue, will close out the year with two shows, December 30th in Burlington, Vermont, and New Year’s Eve in New York.
“This New Year’s Eve show came about as kind of a last-minute thing,” McConnell explains. “Last year, I didn’t have anything to do New Year’s and I wanted to have some plans, and the other band members [drummer Russell Batiste and bassist Oteil Burbridge] were available also. New York City is the greatest city in the world, so you might as well play it New Year’s Eve.”
The debut shows also mark the first time the keyboardist fronts a band both on stage and in the studio. “I like making the decisions,” McConnell admits, somewhat sheepishly. “It’s very different experience for me just to be the go-to guy. You’re between songs and everyone looks at you and goes, ‘What do we do next?’ I’m really enjoying it, not even just the musical side of leading the band but even just every decision that goes into it, whether it’s photography or anything. I’m really enjoying not having to refer to everyone else every time you make a decision.”
For the debut shows, McConnell is expecting to play material culled from Vida Blue’s upcoming release. The band name, borrowed from a former Oakland A’s star pitcher, (“He had a great style of pitching and I always really liked his name a lot”) evokes the sound McConnell achieved. “I think the some of the music we’re doing harkens back a little bit to the Seventies and has some of the same textures.”
The band began recording in a New Orleans studio in September. McConnell says he wasn’t exactly sure what the band’s sound would be, but was surprised when dance elements turned up in the almost-finished product. He is now finishing writing lyrics for some of the songs and expects to complete work on the record by the end of January. “The songs that have the lyrics on them have a little bit more of a traditional rock sound,” he says. “I wouldn’t say jazz, but there is that influence. The specific instruments I play — a Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer and clavinet — really evoke that Seventies feel to me. A lot of the instrumentals have a little bit of a techno feel to them. I played some of it for Trey [Anastasio] the other day and he said ‘human techno,’ which I thought was a nice way to describe a lot of the jamming, because rather than some of the loops and synthesizers there’s real musicians playing.”
Aside from working on Vida Blue, McConnell has also turned up on recent releases from Gov’t Mule (The Deep End, Vol. 1) and Tenacious D’s self-titled release. “It’s an honor to play with the D,” McConnell says.
Phish recently reunited to play at the wedding reception of a member of their management company. “It was completely spur of the moment,” McConnell says. “I would not have predicted it. [The wedding polka band] asked us if we wanted to play, so we played ‘Wolfman’s Brother,’ ‘Boogie on Reggae Woman,’ and a request from the bride for, ‘Loving Cup.’ But just because all four of us are at a wedding doesn’t mean we play [laughs.”
McConnell is also using the Phish break to gain some perspective on the band. “I’ve really enjoyed the time off,” he says. “The whole Phish thing had been quite a ride and letting that all coalesce in our minds and appreciate what we did and the scale of the things we did and the number of things we did. It’s hard to recognize it during the middle of it. But with the door shut it was still the same four guys it was twenty years ago, sitting in a room. So there was a certain continuity that ran through the whole thing that made us feel young and not too big or different. But also, part of what the appeal for Phish was a sense of community. And that we did try to do things our own way and that itself was always probably one of our biggest statements. And that’s what we tried to inspire people to do.”