Spam Allstars / Vida Blue

The Illustrated Band

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Vida Blue never felt like a side project, but a real band with its own funky, electro-injected style and only sonic hints of each member's "other" bands (Phish, the Allman Brothers, and the Funky Meters). Tape traders can tell you the gigs have been getting better and better, and the band's debut album pointed them in the right direction. Their second full-length, The Illustrated Band, makes for a funky good-time listen, but it's not the big payoff one would have hoped. Pieced together from jam sessions with the already multi-genre Spam Allstars, the album bridges Vida Blue's top-notch jamming with Spam's lively Afro-Cuban textures. It has more than its fair share of good ideas but they rarely pay off, and the whole thing feels like the first set of the night (a time when a lot of jam bands spin their wheels before delivering a driven and focused second set). Keyboardist and Phisherman Page McConnell handles production, giving so much of the spotlight to the Spam Allstars one has to wonder why they don't get a big credit on the cover. McConnell is actually the least heard on the record, leaving Vida's Oteil Burbridge and Russell Batiste with more airtime than previously, and numerous solos from Spam flutist Mercedes Abal appear throughout. DJ Le Spam pulls out some fitting samples, but it never turns into a frenzied scratch session. Things really pick up on the closer, "Little Miami (Reputation)," and if the rest of the tracks were as well-constructed it would make the album a winner. Sometimes it sounds like it's going to turn into Miles Davis' On the Corner without the grit, other times Mongo Santamaria's Watermelon Man. With so much funk, Latin jazz, and scratching being executed so well and with plenty of heart, it's hard not to like the album while it's playing. A little more to latch onto would have warranted repeat listening.

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