Page McConnell casting about

[13 June 2007]

By Jon Bream

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

Like George Harrison, Page McConnell was the quiet one in the quartet.

Look what the other members of Phish have done since the jam band extraordinaire broke up in August 2004: Singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio has made two solos albums and undertaken two tours; bassist Mike Gordon has done a second duet album (and tour) with Leo Kottke, and drummer Jon Fishman has toured and recorded with Anastasio.

And what has keyboardist McConnell been up to?

Well, he took some time off and then began noodling around with music on his own in January 2005.

“I didn’t have any intention to make an album necessarily,” he said recently. “I didn’t have a band, I didn’t have a (record) label, I didn’t have a manager. Working in a home studio was just my way to express myself and start creating again.”

About a year into the project, he felt his material was worthy of being released.

Along the way, after working with drum machines and synthesizers, McConnell finally invited some musicians to play on the project. In fact, the first call was to Fishman.

Then when McConnell booked a session in New York with his dream drummer, Jim Keltner (who’s played with John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and George Harrison), he needed a bassist on short notice. So he called Gordon.

Eventually Anastasio approached McConnell and asked if he could add guitar on one track, “Back in the Basement,” an instrumental featuring three Phish guys.

“Page McConnell” was released last month, and now he’s hit the road for a 12-show tour. If you’d asked McConnell a year ago whether he’d be on tour, his answer would have been “probably not,” he said. His band is so new that he couldn’t compare it to touring with Phish or his side project, Vida Blue.

“There’s a sense of excitement and freshness about it that’s really nice,” the keyboardist-singer said by phone after the first night of the tour. In fact, two of the band members from Vermont have never toured before.

“I’m more relaxed now,” he said. “I don’t feel like I have so much to lose. I’m not like a taskmaster. I’m mostly about the group collective, and there seems to be a good feeling among the five of us.”

The quintet’s repertoire includes the tunes from “Page McConnell,” something from Vida Blue, a few covers and possibly a Phish tune done solo.

If the new album has a theme, it’s about “moving on.” The opening track, “Beauty of a Broken Heart,” seems to speak to his divorce, while “Heavy Rotation” addresses the breakup of Phish.

“Nothing is completely literal; they’re songs,” he said. “Certainly the transitions I’ve gone through in my life are what this seems to be about - both personal and professional.”

Of course, he’s still in touch with his Phish mates.

“We’re all friends,” he said, “which is kind of a remarkable thing for a band that has been together that long and still be friends. You can’t look to too many bands for which that is still the case.”

Gordon, who has been doing a lot of songwriting, played with McConnell’s band the night before in Burlington, Vt. McConnell talks to Anastasio regularly but less often to Fishman. (“He’s got a lot of family stuff going on.”)

How is Anastasio doing after rehab following his arrest in December for heroin possession and illegal possession of prescriptions?

“Trey’s doing well,” McConnell said. “I think he’d say he’s in a good place now and we’re having nice conversations.”

The judge in Anastasio’s case reportedly would not allow him to honor his engagement at the 10,000 Lakes Festival next month in Detroit Lakes, Minn., so he had to cancel.

McConnell’s future is not much more clear.

“I’m doing this two-week tour and another two-week tour in July. And maybe we’ll do some dates with this band in the fall,” he said. “I don’t know what the future holds. I started to do a writing session for a month last fall - ideas for another project. What it is I do next I don’t know. By the time next year comes around I’m not sure where I’m going to be.”

Have the Phish guys talked about hooking up again?

“No, not really,” he said. “Everybody’s got their own stuff going on right now.”

Even the quiet one.

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