:: Page McConnell :: Fox Theatre :: July 16 ::
By Timothy Dwenger
It has been nearly three years since four of Vermont’s most famous musicians took their final bow on the stage of their final festival, Coventry. Those four men have gone their own ways and are now seeking new musical identities. Page McConnell, possibly better known as “The Chairman of the Boards,” has finally broken his silence with a self-titled solo album rather than in the form of his hiatus project, Vida Blue.
After that final bow three years ago, McConnell more or less went home and said, ‘now what?’ “As a member of Phish for so many years that kind of became my identity, even to myself to a degree,” McConnell said, speaking with The Marquee while getting ready to head out on the road for the first time in several years. “I don’t think I even realized how much that was the case until some time had passed and Phish wasn’t around and it was just me. At that point in my life, to have everything completely cleared off the table and to have a blank slate in front of me isn’t an opportunity that everybody has and I wanted to make sure that I appreciated that.
“Fortunately I wasn’t in a situation where I had to run off and put together Vida Blue and hit the road again. What if I wanted to switch careers entirely and look at some other profession? I didn’t do it, but it was important to just acknowledge it and to spend some time realizing that I was at one of those points in my life that maybe comes along only once, where I had the ability to look around and say, ‘What is it that I want to be doing now?’” said McConnell.
As he ruminated over these thoughts, McConnell began to toy with writing songs again. “As much as I enjoyed Vida Blue — and maybe someday I will get that together again — this (self -titled) album was really more about me in my own home studio writing. That is really where it all came from,” he said. “I wanted to do something different; I wanted to be comfortable in my own place.”
Though he seems to have gotten comfortable, the songwriting process has never been easy for McConnell, who wrote his senior thesis on “The Art of Improvisation.” “It took me a long time to write the songs for this album ’cause I am just kind of a slow writer. Each song on the record was really a labor of love and just kind of plugging away at it and working and reworking the lyrics until I got something that I was happy with. If I didn’t have the time that I had over the past two years making this record it probably wouldn’t have happened like this. It was something I was doing for myself and I wrote more songs for this album than I’d written in my life collectively up to this point.”
The album is much more of a singer/songwriter project than some might have expected from the architect of some brilliant 10-plus minute piano solos, but it still retains McConnell’s signature vocal quality. Old fans will be calmed and new will be welcomed by the personal quality that saturates his high tenor.
While this very welcoming voice appears on eight of the album’s nine tracks, the one instrumental piece, “Back in the Basement,” which McConnell testifies was written “within hours of the recording session,” has been counted by many as their favorite track on the record.
Joining McConnell on “Back In the Basement” and two other tracks on the album is legendary session drummer, and Beatle chum, Jim Keltner. “I’d always liked his playing a lot and basically made a call and he decided to help me out,” McConnell remembered. “It was a huge thrill.”
In addition to Keltner, each of McConnell’s three former bandmates makes an appearance on the album, though he is quick to point out that “none of them were in the same room at the same time.”
“Their playing is so unique and great and recognizable that their contribution to the album is immense, but they were involved for a relatively short time in comparison to the 18 months I spent on the project,” said McConnell. Anastasio visited the studio for about 90 minutes with his guitar and laid down a solo, Mike Gordon added his bobbing baselines to three tracks and John Fishman’s distinctive drums are audible on six.
While no one knows where any of these three may show up on tour, none will be officially joining The Chairman’s band on the road this summer. “It will be a five piece band including myself,” said McConnell. “Adam Zimmon, a friend that I met playing with the Spam All-Stars, is playing guitar. Gabe Jarrett is playing drums, Rob O’Dea is playing bass and Jared Slomoff, who co-produced and engineered the album with me, is playing keyboards and singing.”
“We are a very young band, we’ve only been together for a couple of months, and the responsibility of entertaining for two sets is … well … daunting.” When the band first hit the road this spring they drew almost completely from the new record. Though the sets on this summer’s tour will focus on McConnell’s new album, he and his band have been able to work a few covers and old favorites into the set and presumably more will rear their heads as the band logs more miles. “We’ve expanded the repertoire considerably since our first shows and while we will focus on the album because that is what I am heading out to promote right now, we will make every show different.”
While the shows will not be a trip down a musical memory lane for Phish fans, McConnell has thankfully decided to do his best to ensure that many new musical memories are made. “I’ve really enjoyed myself over the last couple of years and grown comfortable with where I am and I’m happy about this project and where I landed.”
:: Page McConnell ::
:: Fox Theatre :: July 16 ::
Spectate if you Gravitate:
• Bruce Hornsby