Porter, Batiste & Stoltz w/ Page McConnell | The Higher Ground | 9/27/08
When Phish broke up the first and second time, there was a large void left in my life. Yours too, otherwise you probably wouldn't be reading this article. As I've eluded to in past reviews, the nomadic nature instilled in me by that foursome from the north lead me on many a fruitless, and sometimes fruitful quest to find new, interesting, dynamic and hypnotic sounds like those that I still long for. Yet, all the while, I kept tabs on the boys, hoping that they would reunite, or at least bring their individual talents out for their faithful to enjoy once more.
One by one they began touring. Trey returned to the scene, horn section in tow, in what seemed a logical departure for the Crimson Dego. Still, as Trey said it from the stage of Red Rocks, he was experimenting and appreciated the fans for "embracing a new path." Fishman broke out with Jazz Mandolin Project and he was, once again, earning his chops in a new melodious vein. I remember a friend of mine telling me that, when he saw Fishman packing his own drums, he understood that the music was the driving force that brought this drummer form such high accolades back to the club circuit. Mike was the next member that I saw, touring in a pseudo-vaudevillian way as the straight man with Leo Kottke. Finally, Page broke onto the scene with Vida Blue and the transformation was complete. All four had come to a crossroads together and all four had branched off in their own way, yet not one of them stayed on the path that Phish had set in motion.
The pairing of Page McConnell with Porter, Batiste and Stoltz followed this same divergence, yet seemed very natural for Page. Much of what he brought to the stage with Phish bore the postmark of New Orleans. PBS, this power trio of funkadelic road warriors who have played with everyone you know and most everyone you don't, didn't need Page to make their sound, but are adaptable professionals and allowed the addition of his keys to compliment the sound they've been creating on their own for years.
Even still, at this show, I realized that Page was not only bringing his talents to this new endeavor, he was bringing leadership. Often times I felt like Page was overshadowed on the stage with Phish. This was not a detriment, but it did make the occasional role as bandleader on this night that much more of a welcome surprise from what I had come to expect.
U-Melt opened the show and, as I hope to give them a full review as a headlining band later in the year, I will not be dedicating much space to this quartet, except to let you know a couple of things. A) When the band told us they are from Brooklyn I had to ask my wife is she heard that too, because when I think of Brooklyn I think of Jay-Z, not jammy. B) Their drummer George Miller is solid, and last night he was playing the best sounding drum set I have heard in a while. Kudos to the sound guy from The Higher Ground for showing such dedication to his craft to help me hear every tom, cymbal and high hat crash from the opener. C) They played happy jams, lacking space and at times cluttered, but that type of haste often comes with being in a time-constricted slot. D) 'Get Down On It' by Kool and The Gang? I'll admit, it was an original cover, but one I might expect at a wedding. Like I said, I'll be seeing them again as a headliner.
The near capacity crowd, who had a few more miles on their odometer's than the normal Higher Ground clientele, had filled out the floor and most of the bar area by the time that PBS and Page took the stage.
Page made a statement with the first song of the night, leading the rest of the band in with funky, fat tones from the lower register of his synthesizer. The McConnell original 'Most Events Aren't Planned' allowed for Page to welcome this hometown crowd. George Porter Jr. picked up the bass line where Page left off and began singing the nearly prophetic lines, "Fate extends a hand/ It seems that most events aren't planned." Perhaps Page was letting us know that this outcome for him as a musician was not an accident at all. His years on the road with Phish allowed him to become the player, while the years since necessarily taught him leadership. These steps were all preordained, although the path looked unsystematic.
A quick segue out of this first tune reminded the crowd that, Russell Batiste may not have been the captain of this ship, but he was steering. Few drummers can elicit as much personality through two sticks as Russell. To clarify, as the stick tossing wore on through the night, it may actually have been 4 sticks. This jam took me in a new direction. No longer in a psychedelic space, I was now feeling more intentional musical tension, as if I was watching a Steve McQueen movie and the chase scene was upon me.
After this jam, PBS made a statement of their own. Page may have sold most of the tickets to the Burlington faithful, but PBS had their name on the marquee and 'I Got To Get My Name up In Lights' served as a tongue in cheek reminder of this. Straight New Orleans funk was oozing from all four men on stage, and the bands answer to Page's opening statement set the tone for a dynamic night of music.
The assuredness of PBS as individual musicians, with very little to prove, allowed wide-open spaces in the music for Page to explore. And explore he did, building his jams slowly, reaching unthought-of places on the chromatic scale, while leveling out with softer, gentle tones, The directions of these jams were very much in contrast to what he had done with Vida Blue. If his first solo effort allowed him the musical freedom to explore the happiness that had been created while he was with Phish, then PBS was letting him see the dark swampy places that have existed for all of time in New Orleans.
The rest of the first set followed suit, with one of Page's favorite covers 'Instant Karma' by John Lennon. Page lead and Russell beamed. By now, more people were dancing then were not and after a melodious version of Dylan's 'Meet Me in The Morning' in which the B3 and slide guitar went together like peanut butter and jelly, PBS seized this marketable opportunity, closing the set with the high energy, albeit formulaic, single 'I Get High' off of their new album 'Moodoo'.
After such a strong showing by Page and PBS, both individually and collectively in the first set, it was no surprise that the energy was not as strong at the beginning of the second set. The foursome opened with 'Cars Trucks and Buses', chock full of spacey jams and room to roam. Page was in the lead, but there was much room for Brian Stoltz to jam as well. A few more songs off the new album slowed the fevered pace of the night up until this point. Even a cover of Pink Floyd's 'Us and Them' could not serve to revive this set. But there was no need to worry. Mike Gordon came to the rescue.
Sans purple pants, Mike joined the quartet for the rest of the set and pumped the blood back into the veins of all four members, but especially George Porter Jr. The backbeat once again became distinctly New Orleans and Mike, rather than trying to play over George, augmented the notes George was playing. Gordo was tickling the higher register and playing in the thunderous holes George's rumbling strings created. It was easy to recognize that Mike is not only a superb player, but a humble student of those who have paved the way for his sound, such as George Porter Jr. Mike knew what George was going to play based on instinct derived from listening to his playing over and over through the years. On top of this, Page had risen up out of his seat, clearly energized by the presence of his old band mate and began calling out changes and choreographing a bass duel between Mike and George where the only cleat cut winner was the audience. The fevered pace caused George to break a string, a rarity on the bass.
Once George was refurbished with his alternate weapon during the encore, he did it again! The experienced veteran threw his hands up at this point, knowing that the funk had been too much for these inanimate objects to handle. Mike happily took over for the two-song encore and the night ended on a Vermont-funk swing.
I will continue to follow the gentleman formerly known as Phish, but with each new project, I am learning that they can all stand alone just as easily as they stood together. PBS, the consummate professionals and humble virtuosos knew that they were getting a player who had made a decision at his musical crossroads and they had been happily waiting for his path to lead into their swamp all this time.