Phish keyboardist takes center stage | AspenTimes.com

Phish keyboardist takes center stage

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen, CO Colorado
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ASPEN ” When Phish, one of the most successful and ambitious rock bands ever to crank out a 15-minute improvised jam, took its latest last bow, nearly three years ago, Page McConnell, the band’s keyboardist, took some time off to regroup and contemplate the next stage of his life. It didn’t take long for him to come to the conclusion that, after spending most of the preceding 21 years in the quartet, his fate was to play music. McConnell expended some energy trying to envision other ways of spending his days, and arrived at the conclusion that there was no better alternative to music.

“Apparently not. Apparently this is it for me,” laughed the low-key 44-year-old, when asked if there was another interest he was pursuing post-Phish. “If I did, I could certainly make the time for it.”

McConnell had ample warning that Phish might not last forever, and plenty of opportunity to plan for a career outside of music. The 2004 breakup of Phish was actually the second for the Vermont-based foursome. Following a concert in early October of 2000, the band left the stage for a previously announced hiatus of unknown duration. Phish didn’t return until its New Year’s Eve concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Dec. 31, 2002.

Back then, it was evident that McConnell knew he had more music in his fingers. Early on in that break, McConnell met Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge and Funky Meters drummer Russell Batiste, and pulled them together to form his first project outside of Phish, Vida Blue, named for the noted major-league pitcher of the same name. With McConnell focused on electric piano rather than the grand piano that was his primary instrument in Phish, the trio recorded a pair of albums, made a DVD, and formed an alliance with the Spam Allstars, a Miami-based Latin ensemble with forward-leaning creative tendencies. The band lasted more or less until Phish reunited.

The current breakup ” or hiatus, the status remains uncertain and “phans” still hold out hope ” was different for McConnell. He was neither planning his next solo project, nor looking to get away from music. He built a studio in his home, near Phish’s longtime base of Burlington, Vt., worked on some songs he had started while Phish was still intact, and began writing new material. Over a year’s time, without much conscious planning, an album began to emerge, with McConnell playing all the instruments and programming the drum machine.

“This pretty quickly jumped into being the next big thing,” said McConnell in a phone conversation. “Writing material, setting up a studio ” it was the need to keep making music, not thinking about an album, not right away.”

But an album it became. “Page McConnell,” released in April, marks the next step in the keyboardist/singer’s path. The recording features McConnell not only on numerous keyboards ” organ, piano, Wurlitzer, clavinet, accordion ” but also on bass and drum programming. Where McConnell contributed just a couple of handfuls of songs to Phish’s sprawling repertoire, he wrote all nine tunes on the solo album, which he also produced.

McConnell says the creation of “Page McConnell” was “a very solitary project most of the time ” just me and Jared Slomoff,” who co-produced the album and added some guitar and backing vocals. Still, there are a few notable names in the credits. Three of those are Jon Fishman, Mike Gordon and Trey Anastasio ” the drummer, bassist and guitarist, respectively, in Phish. Fishman was the first to be contacted; in one afternoon, he recorded the drums for five tracks. McConnell wanted a bassist for several tunes that had been recorded with drummer Jim Keltner. Gordon said he was up for the gig, and laid down bass parts for three songs. The prolific Anastasio, who has headed up the trio Oysterhead and several versions of his eponymous band, and also composed classical music in his time away from Phish, called McConnell to ask if he could be included on the album. Anastasio added guitar to “Back in the Basement,” a funky, Meters-esque instrumental that runs to eight-and-a-half minutes.

Making his own record was a far different endeavor for McConnell than making a Phish record ” and not just because, in Phish, he had to meld his vision with three others. “It’s all very different in that I was touring around, especially in the last few years, playing arenas, being very busy with Phish stuff,” he said. “This hearkens back to what I was doing in Vida Blue. It’s more reminiscent of that for me. Making this was the big thing.”

McConnell recently did a two-and-a-half week run of shows on the East Coast and in the Midwest ” the first-ever tour under his own name. The next leg of the tour hits the West Coast ” including a headlining set at the High Sierra Music Festival last weekend in northern California ” and Colorado. McConnell’s band ” with bassist Rob O’Dea, drummer Gabe Jarrett, guitarist/vocalist Slomoff, and Adam Zimmon, who played guitar for Colombian pop singer Shakira for a decade and appeared on “Page McConnell” ” hits Aspen’s Belly Up tomorrow night. It will be McConnell’s first Aspen date since Phish played the Wheeler Opera House in 1991. It may also be his last for a while; he says his future plans do not include extensive touring.

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At least part of the current phase of Page McConnell’s musical life is putting the last one to rest. About the songs generally on “Page McConnell,” he says, “I wouldn’t say it’s autobiographical. They’re songs not about what we went through. It wasn’t a goal of mine to write an autobiographical album. But there are emotions and transitions. There has been a lot of transition in my life.”

That said, there is at least one song that specifically addresses Phish’s run. “Heavy Rotation,” which McConnell acknowledges is “definitely about the Phish thing, more or less literally,” is a glimpse at the band’s final years, marked by intense ambivalence about continuing the run that started in the mid-’90s by four music-minded students at the University of Vermont and nearby Goddard College.

“A night’s worth of memories that have come up again, the second time’s no fun at all,” sings McConnell in “Heavy Rotation.” And later, “Engagements that paid the bills with nothing but time to kill.” The 10-minute-plus song has a happy groove, and expressive, almost maniacal keyboard work by McConnell; it’s no stretch to call it the centerpiece of the album. But the lyrics paint a dreary portrait of a band hanging on for the money, for the memories, for lack of knowing where to turn next.

That, however, is Phish in its final stages, following the first hiatus. The rest of the band’s ride, however, swimming upstream from Vermont keg dorm parties to throwing some of the biggest rock gatherings the country has ever seen, is a cherished memory for McConnell.

Asked how he looks now at Phish, McConnell says, “That it was a great band. And I was lucky to have had that experience. It was great chemistry we had, a rare thing.”

Perhaps most enjoyable was the exchange between the act and the audience that went beyond hordes of fans following the band from show to show. Phish had ongoing chess matches with its fans, with one move being made at each concert. The band and its fans played musical games too, with certain songs having a built-in call-and-response. In many ways, Phish built on the model of the Grateful Dead ” touring often, switching up its set lists nightly, taking songs to new places. Unlike the Dead, who remained remote from the crowd, however, Phish engaged its audience.

“There was some real communication occurring between the band and the audience. There was a real community that we were part of. A magical thing that most people don’t get to enjoy,” said McConnell. “It’s a rare opportunity to have the encouragement of the audience ” they wanted us to push, wanted us to try new things. That might have been the rarest thing of all, to be experimental and go our own route. I think that’s a really cool legacy for sure.”

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In Phish, Anastasio was the extrovert; his wife’s nickname for him was “the Relentless Communicator.” Fishman was the kook, habitually dressed in a frock and occasionally playing a vacuum cleaner. Gordon was artistically omnivorous ” he made films and videos, wrote a book, formed several bands outside of Phish ” and known for an offbeat sense of humor.

McConnell was seen as Phish’s “quiet one,” akin to George Harrison in the Beatles and John Entwistle in The Who. Especially juxtaposed with his bandmates, he typically appeared clean-cut and mild-mannered. Still, McConnell, a New Jersey native and prep-school product whose father was a doctor who helped develop Tylenol, was born to rock.

“On one level, it’s all I ever wanted in my life,” he said. “Ever since I was little, I loved rocking.”

But McConnell probably was not destined to be outfront of a huge band. Of his current project, and his leading role in it, he said, “I enjoy it to a degree. I try to get players who are great, whose playing I like, so I don’t have to lead them too much. It’s something that takes a little getting used to. And it’s something I’ve had to work at. But the shows have been great.”

McConnell was the last to join Phish, in 1985, two years after Anastasio, Gordon and Fishman played a Halloween dance for the residents of an ROTC dorm at the University of Vermont. After playing college gigs, and then around Burlington, the band began to branch out in the late ’80s. Geographically, Phish started making trips to New York and Massachusetts. In July 1988, they made their first journey outside the Northeast, to play a handful of gigs in Telluride. Those concerts were released last year as the three-disc set “Colorado ’88.” Musically, the band experimented with extended, complex compositions that touched on progressive rock and jazz.

The band’s rise in the early ’90 was swift. By 1992, Phish was playing amphitheaters as the opening act for Santana; a year later, they were headlining some of those same venues. In the mid-’90s, they began throwing some of rock’s biggest parties in remote locations. The Clifford Ball, in 1996, drew more than 70,000 people to an abandoned Air Force base in upstate New York. For the millennial New Year’s Eve, Phish staged a weekend-long event, Big Cypress, on a Seminole reservation in southern Florida. The gig drew 85,000 people and culminated with the band playing a seven-and-a-half hour set, from midnight to sunrise.

“I don’t know if I ever could have imagined it went down the road it did, and getting as big as it did,” said McConnell. “But communicating, playing well ” I thought we were the greatest band. To be part of that was a great honor. I enjoyed pretty much every moment.”

The question that still hangs over the band is whether there are more moments ahead. The members never had a big blowup, at least not in public. They have played on one another’s recent albums. When asked about a reunion, there have been no “when hell freezes over” comments. In an interview last year with The Aspen Times, Anastasio said about the subject, “We’re all open-minded.”

McConnell won’t shut that door. “Never say never. Anything’s possible,” he said, noting that he and Gordon meet twice weekly over a chessboard. “I think it’d be a shame if, at some point, we never got back onstage together. We spent so much time developing our ability to communicate with each other.

“Having said that, if that was how we decided to close the book, that would be incredible too. We didn’t have the fights over money and girlfriends that usually breaks up bands.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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