Page McConnell outdid himself at Higher Ground on the opening night of his tour. This two-hour performance featuring his new band may have been the most complete personal statement made at the South Burlington venue since the final night of Gov't Mule's three-night run in 2005. That night‚ Warren Haynes appeared to have finally exorcised the ghosts of the late Allen Woody. Phish's "Chairman of the Boards" confronted his own demons on May 30th and did so confidently and authoritatively-and with a lot of joy in the process. McConnell's humility didn't preclude him from taking some chances‚ in contrast to his studio album‚ where he often seems tentative at best.
Perhaps most importantly‚ the man had his priorities straight from the very start. Beginning the show with "Heavy Rotation‚" McConnell led the band into an absorbing improvisation that forged a unity that only became more obvious as the night went on. This quintet loves playing together and they all play to serve the songs‚ an approach that allowed tunes such as "Maid Marian" to both expand-hear the wry wordplay? -and benefit the band itself by structure that fosters open-ended playing.
The emotional expression of the material took multiple forms as it simultaneously elicited all the band's strengths. Covering Talking Heads' "Memories Can't Wait" allowed McConnell to growl and wail‚ as he does not usually sing with such force. And it's probably no coincidence "Beauty of a Broken Heart" followed immediately after‚ as the more familiar understatement in his vocal functioned as its appropriate means to an end: the playing of the band. Lyrics to new songs such as "Rules I Don't Know" hold meaning that becomes fully articulated when the group then jams before and after the vocals.
McConnell took turns at all the keyboards surrounding him at Higher Ground‚ but concentrated mostly on piano and organ. In doing so‚ he reminded a sold out crowd that stayed till the end how eloquent and soulful a musician he can be. Page's particular virtues contrasted clearly with those of guitarists Adam Zimmon and Jared Slomoff: the edge each utilized as the set progressed brought an increasingly cerebral quality to "Close to Home‚" and culminated in the ominous air of "Everyone But Me." The former Phishman's emphatic repetition of the refrain "You listen to everyone but me" became ripe for interpretation‚ especially as it was followed by an encore that included "Strange Design" (written by Trey Anastasio).
The odd (or perhaps not) choice of Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle with You" only served to further the impression of an artist proffering particular point of view. This pop tune of ambivalence and dislocation might've been the song closest to McConnell's heart all night‚ yet it seemed to suggest a reflection on times past‚ not present. And the way he finished that song so emphatically and concluded with the comment‚ "That's it… We'll see you again." as he walked offstage‚ it did not sound like an idle promise.
You'd want to see Page & Co. again after the group has further solidified their chemistry. The appearance of bassist Mike Gordon on "Back in the Basement" was one of the most intense intervals of the evening‚ but his appearance‚ as much as it thrilled the audience‚ sacrificed the unity of the core group. When Rob O'Dea returned to play bass‚ you noticed the difference in respect to the camaraderie as well as the shortfalls in the sound: Slomoff's keyboards weren't really discernible‚ and while you can always tell Gabe Jarrett's swinging behind his kit‚ you couldn't always hear him down to the kick drum.
But those are technical tweaks easily remedied given the fact the more challenging aspects of Page McConnell's solo career have already been addressed. He'd do well to offer a recording of this show as a download from his site. It might make purchase of his album redundant but the way he and band played on their home turf‚ they've already rendered it effectively obsolete.