It goes without saying that when a member of the biggest band in recent history (Phish) decides to do something the music world will pay attention. And it goes without saying that it will most likely have some musical merit... but it doesn't necessarily mean it's actually going to be all that good.

Enter Vida Blue. Allow me to preface this by saying that Vida Blue - Page McConnell, Russell Batiste and Oteil Burbridge - are all great musicians, and Vida Blue puts on a fun show. But to me that is where it ends. This is not inspired playing; this does not find any individual at the top of their game. It is what it is: a nice look at some of your favorite players from other bands.

Let's start with tickets prices, shall we: $20-25 dollars. Not an exorbitant price (in light of the ridiculou$ $ummer $hed $hows), but fairly spendy in comparison to many shows on the market. Now this ticket price can quickly be forgotten if the band throws down and sends you home grinning ear to ear with sore legs and a light head. But what happens when the band plays a bunch of covers and soft love songs for just over an hour? Well then, you get a review like this.

OK, so the price of the ticket seems like a bit of a rip-off for a little more than an hour of music. Now let's look at the songs they are playing in their one short set. Pretty much every show seems to be roughly split between covers and originals. Granted, the covers are fairly entertaining selections, albeit predictable, but fun nonetheless. The list goes something like, "No Quarter" (Led Zeppelin), "Jealous Guy" (John Lennon), "Instant Karma" (John Lennon), "Light Up Or Leave Me Alone" (Traffic), "Sheep" (Pink Floyd), "Stir It Up" (Bob Marley). So the covers are being drawn from all the usual suspects, and the originals for the most part left me wondering, "Is this really what Page has been thinking about during the hiatus?"

The sentimental love ballads like "Who's Laughing Now" can find their way into the trash can and keep the air waves clear for more songs like "Most Events Aren't Planned." The groove that Vida Blue hits during their most impressive song, "Most Events," touches on something of interest. It might not be on "the cutting edge" because a bunch of younger bands have been pushing this electronic-infused dance style for years, but at least it proves that Page hasn't been asleep for the past two years.

Now I don't mean to sound too critical; for the most part the music Vida Blue is making is better than most of the crap that is bouncing around out there. But there are also a plethora of young bands that are letting it all hang out every night, playing until the venue turns off the lights while their sound screams talent.

You might ask "Why isn't Vida Blue more impressive? Why aren't they blowing shit up?" There are a few things at work here. First off, you have three wonderful musicians, but three musicians who play supporting roles. Oteil: the guy is sick, it's basically a fact; but he isn't a lead man, he has been the rudder for many a band but never the center piece. Russell: well respected top-notch New Orleans drummer; but again, he plays the classic role of the rhythm section, keeping things on track, driving. Then there is Page. Page is, has been, and always will be a fabulous supporter. He did play sidekick to arguably the most impressive lead man in decades for more or less his entire career, a role he filled with flying colors, but he is no bandleader, and Vida Blue makes that even more apparent.

If Vida Blue added that lead voice, a searing guitar, a strong horn - but it would have to be a true lead horn like that of a Karl Denson, Jessica Lurie or Topaz, or maybe Steve Bernstein could make things interesting with an entire horn section. I don't know, but if there was a lead voice and band leader coming through, the music would have some power, direction and force! But as it stands now, it's more or less just a few guys with talent playing some music.

In light of this the question begs to be asked, why? Why has one part of the biggest thing since sliced bread (Phish) decided to bring this half-assed gig on the road? Perhaps Page was sick of being in the shadows. Think about it. You have the legend Trey kicking ass all over the country with an amazing band. Mike is making movies and exploring his artistic visions while sitting in on bass all over the place. Then there's Fishman, doing the Jazz Mandolin Project, working with Pork Tornado, and apparently taking it easy enjoying life with out Phish. So Page was sitting back watching Trey make headlines and Mike explode into film, maybe Page wanted some of the limelight. I have to assume that is what's going on when he gets on stage sings these sappy ballads and hits a few covers. But there is a gleam of hope when comparing Trey to Page here because, when Trey first came out two summers ago with this line-up, it was sub-par. But the vision was there, the compositions and ideas were apparent, it just wasn't coming together. Page, on the other hand, seemed to throw this trio together with little material and close to no inspiration.

In this humble music freak and writer's opinion, if you want to see inspired music make sure you check out the opening band, The Slip. (Same holds true for MOFRO, who just jumped off to open up the slot for The Slip). These opening bands are not resting on their laurels. They have everything in the world to prove and they get on stage and play their asses off with a "look at how fucking good we are mentality." It's the same mentality that Phish used to take in the early '90s when they were foaming at the mouth to prove how sick they were. When you have something to prove like The Slip, it changes the dynamic of your sound. When The Slip plays they let their souls sit on stage with them, and when they do a cover it becomes their own, they are truly making music.

Vida Blue is on the other side of the coin, sitting pretty playing decent, very short shows for big money to sold-out crowds who ooh and ahh at every song. It reminds me of the documentary/movie on Phish "Bittersweet Motel" when Trey is arguing the notion that appears in a local newspaper that claims the band can more or less piss in the listeners ear and they will drink it up. I assure you if a young band was playing covers and singing ballads no one would rush to see them. But when a member of the almighty Phish goes on tour, girls will jump on stage and their boyfriend will walk out saying, "Man that was the sickest shit ever!"

For those of you interested in really seeing some music, make sure you get your money's worth and get there early to see The Slip or Jazz Mandolin Project.

Justin Space
JamBase | USA
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[Published on: 7/17/02]

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