There and Back Again (Columbia) / Vida Blue (Elektra)

Phil Lesh & Friends / Vida Blue 

There and Back Again (Columbia) / Vida Blue (Elektra)

This month, the surviving members of the Grateful Dead revive their tie-dyed circus as the Other Ones. A month later, jam-band king Phish will reunite after a two-year hiatus for a New Year's Eve gig in New York. Given this news, 'heads of all ages have reason to rejoice, but bassist Phil Lesh's second post-Dead solo effort offers little cause for celebration. Phil and Friends' concerts have dipped liberally into the Dead's catalog, aided by keyboardist Rob Barraco's haunting ability to channel the voice of Jerry Garcia. Unfortunately, the group stumbles as soon as it sets foot in the studio. Built on a double-lead, Allman Brothers-style attack and boasting ten original tracks, There and Back Again falls into an unexpected morass of classic-rock clichés and fails to evoke anything remotely Deadlike or uniquely new. Even the lone Garcia/Hunter gem in this collection, "Liberty," fails to sparkle.

As keyboardist Page McConnell's brainchild, Vida Blue stands as his essay on "How I Spent My Two-Summer Vacation from Phish." Teaming with Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge and Funky Meters drummer Russell Batiste, McConnell explores the more jazz-oriented side of his musical personality. The result is a playfully earnest -- albeit short -- studio excursion that strikes a somewhat staid but engagingly eclectic pose. McConnell pens lyrics for four of the disc's seven tracks, allowing his limited but quietly appropriate voice to find a comfortable home. Though Phish frontman Trey Anastasio might have made a bigger splash with fans with his recent solo debut, which contained a few truly sublime moments, McConnell's effort proves to be the more consistently crafted of the two. Stellar Dead or Phish-related studio efforts are rare, and McConnell shows simplicity just might be the key.

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