The story goes that Page McConnell, keyboardist for Phish and leader of Vida Blue, was on vacation in Miami Beach when he caught a gig by the Spam Allstars, eventually sitting in with the band for a night. He was so taken with their sound that he proposed a collaboration. Over a two-day recording session in a South Beach studio last spring, The Illustrated Band was quickly born.
At first listen the album sounds an awful lot like the Spam Allstars, no great surprise considering that McConnell's Phish is the mother of all jam bands, with its sprawling songs and marathon concerts. Nor is it much of a departure for Vida Blue, whose self-titled debut employed a similar format to that of the Spam Allstars, albeit by updating their jam band sound with live electronica. The main difference with The Illustrated Band is its Afro-Cuban and Latin flavors, embodied by Tomas Diaz's timbales and Lazaro Alfonso's congas. The Spam Allstars' imprint is all over the album: Its open and organic four songs sound like a live Spam set, totaling more than 61 minutes. There's DJ Le Spam (Andrew Yeomanson) himself scratching beat breaks and interpolating bits of found voice-overs from educational recordings and other back-of-the-bin records into the mix. There's the funky noodling by master improvisers A.J. Hill (saxophone), John Speck (trombone), and Mercedes Abal (flute). But the music is held together and pushed along by the hard-driving rhythm and blues stylings of Vida Blue, particularly bassist Oteil Burbridge (a member of the Allman Brothers Band and Aquarium Rescue Unit) and drummer Russell Batiste (a member of the Funky Meters). McConnell's playing is more understated, though he frequently jumps in with piano, Fender Rhodes, organ, clavinet, and synthesizer to fill out the sound.
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The long songs inevitably fall into a lull several times as the two bands seem to lose the thread on where to go next. But one of Spam's horn players usually picks up on a theme to go with his background samples and the Vida Blue rhythm section, re-energizing the track. Mostly that's what this album is: The Spam Allstars jam with an amazing rhythm section behind them. Either way, it's a lot of fun and a natural collaboration.