If there is a stupider band name in the entire world, says Judge Adam Arseneau, it would have to be "Jerry Springer and the Final Thoughts."
"I thought I had gone big-time when my name was in the New York Times crossword puzzle. What topped that was [when] I was on the Jeopardy! board. But what has topped that is…I mean…how many people have a band named after them?"—Vida Blue, after meeting Vida Blue
Vida Blue, for those not in the know, is the infamous Oakland A's pitcher who helped lead the franchise to three back-to-back World Series championship victories in the 1970s with his mind-numbing fastballs. In his first year in professional baseball (1971), Blue won the American League MVP and Cy Young Awards, with a 24-8 record and an 1.82 ERA for the season, and helped the AL to victory in the All-Star Game that year. Not only that, he is one of only ten pitchers to top three hundred strikeouts in a single season.
Oh yeah…one more thing. Vida Blue is also a side project of Page McConnell, the curly-haired keyboardist from prog-rock band Phish. (What, did you think this was a baseball DVD? Had you going there for a second, didn't I?)
Anyway, Vida Blue (the band, not the baseball player) merges the psychedelic Rhodes keyboards of Phish's Page McConnell with two downright dirty rhythm performers, Oteil Burbridge (the Allman Brothers Band) and drummer Russell Batiste (the Meters) and emerges with a laid-back, jazzy funk experimental sound reminiscent of jazz trios like Medeski, Martin, and Wood or the Philadelphia Experiment.
At some point, Page crossed paths with the Spam Allstars, a Miami-based
Afro-Cuban group that melded hot horns, Latin percussion, and DJ turntablism
into a dynamic and fluid sound. It wasn't long before light bulbs started going
off in both bands' heads. The two groups soon intermingled with one another,
becoming a gigantic ten-piece tour de force of Cuban rhythms, hip-hop, funk, and
jazz, recording in the studio together and touring around the country.
Recorded live in San Francisco, Live At The Fillmore captures the now-unified band in all their majestic, funky glory. The following tracks made up the concert:
• "Vida Intro"
A Phish-head I'm not, so I approached this material from a neutral ground without any preconceived notions of the band, the musicians, or the style of music they played. To my infinite pleasure, it was like opening up a DVD and discovering hundred-dollar bills stuffed underneath the disc.
Jazzy, funky, and astonishingly talented, Vida Blue With The Spam Allstars simply blows down the house. These guys are good, and I mean really, really, really good. They perform with such relaxed ease that the entire performance feels like a spontaneous jam session of funk and jazz, without a single misplaced note. Page's band brings a space-rock jazz vibe, like a band playing psychedelic Pink Floyd songs exceptionally funky (which they do, in "Sheep"), while the Spam Allstars bring a more rhythmic, percussive flavor to the table with Cuban woodblock rhythms, funky horns, and turntable scratching.
Combined, these two different bands come together in a totally natural way, a head-smacking shock of musical clarity, a "Holy cow—how has nobody thought of this before?" sort of revelation. Of course, other bands have thought of it before, but that is beside the point. The eclectic blend of jazz drum beats, turntable scratching, Rhodes keyboards, and a full-out horn combines the jazzy three-piece experimental range of bands like Medeski, Martin, and Wood with the P-Funk All-Stars, topped off with some Buena Vista Social Club or even Maceo Parker (on a particularly languid and laid-back day) thrown into the mix.
The beauty of this particular ensemble is how there are clearly two dynamic and distinctive bands working together in harmony, complementing each other marvelously. It is pretty easy to distinguish the Spam Allstars songs from the Vida Blue songs, but they both harmonize with each other so flawlessly they could have easily sprung from a single band's creative loins. The collaboration simultaneously makes each band not only more energetic, but also more laid-back, both at the exact same time—which up until this point, Einstein's theory of gliding hotel furniture stated was explicitly impossible.
To summarize: This 94-minute concert flat-out rules.
Interjected between songs are smash-up footage from Team Vida Blue, a stock-car racing and demolition derby team (don't even ask), and some short band interviews, but they do not disrupt the flow of the performance even slightly. But to be honest, I am more a fan of the band's music than I am of Page's vocals. He is certainly a serviceable singer, but his harmonic range simply cannot compete with the sheer musical talent in his band, and the songs he sings are the weakest part of Vida Blue. To my ears, the band would be much more enjoyable as a straight instrumental act, but they do enough non-vocal numbers to balance out Page's singing.
The transfer is solid, with excellent detail and black levels—the only exception being the handling of scenes with heavy red lighting (of which, unfortunately, there are many). During the all-red lighting sequences, the image bleeds a fair bit, but barring this tiny imperfection, the transfer is quite passable for a concert film. It's not the sharpest I have seen, but definitely falls under the "very good" category.
Audio is downright tight, with a decent-sounding Dolby Digital 2.0 track and a marvelously dynamic and active 5.1 Surround track. Both are heavy on the bass, crystal clear and with marvelous fidelity, but the surround track is simply superior in every way possible—cleaner, louder and richer. The mix utilizes all channels to distribute the instruments throughout the sonic space to great success. Technically, Live At The Fillmore is a grand slam. Well, okay…maybe a three-run in-the-park homer.
Two extras are included on this DVD. The first is a seven-minute featurette entitled "Team Vida Blue Racing," which highlights Page's Vida Blue team of stock and demolition cars doing what they do best—stocking and demolishing the heck out of one another. It is entirely pointless, but altogether enjoyable. The second, a nine-minute feature entitled "Who's Laughing Now?" features a bonus performance by the band recorded in Los Angeles playing said song from Vida Blue's self-titled album.
The only critical point of contention I could come up with (and I spent half an hour trying to come up with one) is the lack of anything interesting going on in the concert. These guys play really, really well, and the direction and camerawork capture them in fine form, but all they really do is stand there and play for an hour and a half. The music is incredible, but in terms of visual stimulation, it gets slightly repetitive. You kind of secretly want the bass player to jump in the air and do a flying kick, or the drummer to leap over his set and tackle the saxophonist, but sadly, everyone remains stationary, seemingly content to keep on playing really, really well. If this sort of thing does not bother you, and you can appreciate the talent and musicianship of the performers without any stage theatrics, then there are literally no problems with this DVD. Even those with short attention spans would be hard-pressed to part with the disc, if only for the outstanding audio performance.
Having reviewed a number of concert DVDs for this site recently, I quite possibly have enjoyed this one the most. The music is fantastic, the presentation is excellent, and Vida Blue himself (the baseball player, not the band) even shows up at the concert to meet the band for the first time, and toss balls into the crowd. How cool is that? Be you a Phish fan or not, Vida Blue With The Spam Allstars: Live At The Fillmore is just too much fun to ignore.
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• Featurette: "Team Vida Blue Racing"
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