Call it a New Orleans-infused cousin of the Oysterhead supergroup of Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, Primus bassist Les Claypool, and ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland. Drummer Russell Batiste, the stickman for the funky Meters, Papa Grows Funk, and his own band, Russell Batiste's Orchestra From da Hood, has recently added a new band to his portfolio: Vida Blue, a trio consisting of Batiste, Phish keyboardist Page McConnell, and Allman Brothers/Aquarium Rescue Unit bassist Oteil Burbridge. Vida Blue recorded an album's worth of material in New Orleans at Piety Street Studio last September, and the band recently played a New Year's Eve gig in New York City.
Batiste's Vida Blue gig is the latest evidence of the phenomenon of national jam bands' love of New Orleans music and musicians -- and the ripple effect of local bands making their mark with the national jam-band audience. Vermont-based Phish commands the largest national fanbase (despite currently being on hiatus), and its members are no strangers to New Orleans. After the band's 1996 Jazz Fest booking, guitarist Anastasio's Oysterhead project made its debut with a 2000 New Orleans show during Jazz Fest. Last year, Phish drummer Jon Fishman played with the Jacques-Imo Café All-Stars, a New Orleans traditional jazz ensemble that quickly sold out two performances at the Oak Street restaurant.
Phish's New Orleans connections are just the tip of the iceberg. The multi-night Halloween stand by Georgia's Widespread Panic at the Kiefer UNO Lakefront Arena is one of the band's most anticipated annual shows, and frontman John Bell has gotten into the local spirit by dressing as Ignatius Reilly. Branford Marsalis guested on Widespread Panic's 1998 live CD, Light Fuse, Get Away, and the band recruited the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to play on its subsequent albums 'Til the Medicine Takes and Another Joyous Occasion.
The connections are getting so ubiquitous that playing six-degrees-of-separation with New Orleans ties to the jam-band scene never takes that long. For example, Los Hombres Calientes' Bill Summers used to play with drummer Mike Clark in Herbie Hancock's Headhunters. Summers and funky Meters bassist George Porter Jr. toured this year with Clark's Prescription Renewal, which also featured legendary James Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker. Parker's James Brown bandmate, Fred Wesley, was recently joined by Galactic bassist Robert Mercurio in an all-star jam in California. Mercurio's Galactic bandmate Stanton Moore recently jammed with Medeski Martin and Wood's Chris Wood in New York City. Wood played with the North Mississippi All-Stars (NMAS) in the new band The Word, and NMAS guitarist Luther Dickinson has jammed onstage with Galactic.
There's no debating Galactic's stature as the foremost New Orleans representative on the national jam-band landscape. Drummer Moore's connections with scene stalwarts such as saxophonist Karl Denson and guitarist Charlie Hunter (who play on Moore's forthcoming debut album for Verve) continue a cross-pollination of fans that support the ever-growing network. And Galactic -- along with diverse peers such as Govt. Mule, Soulive, and Robert Walter's 20th Congress, who all sold out shows in New Orleans in 2001 -- is helping redefine the parameters of the phrase "jam band."
"The audience that appreciates this type of music are some of the most devout and consistent fans of music in general, who go out and see bands, and they'll see the band more than one night 'cause they love the band so much," says Tipitina's promotions manager Lee Frank. "They love bands like Medeski Martin and Wood, moe., and (Grateful Dead cover band) Dark Star Orchestra -- and that audience is starting to appreciate things other than bands in the Dead diaspora. Galactic and Karl Denson fall more into the funk thing, and once you go from the hippie bands to funk, you're not that far from jazz, which is great for New Orleans."
That trend is proving a boon for some New Orleans clubs, and not just during Jazz Fest. Maple Leaf owner Hank Staples reports that his New Year's Eve show with jam-band icon Col. Bruce Hampton's band the Code Talkers was his best New Year's Eve ever, and Tipitina's was packed for the recent two-night stand of the North Mississippi All-Stars. Considering that NMAS' Mississippi hill-country blues-rock is a far cry from Phish's extended jams, it's proof of the clout of the jam-band audience -- and perhaps a sign that it's time to retire the "jam band" tag. Consider Batiste's experience playing with Vida Blue.
"Page just called me out of the blue, and I met him for the first time the day we walked into the studio," says Batiste. "We're three different people with three completely different musical backgrounds, putting it together as one group. I think people just know us as individuals and picture us together and imagine what we would sound like -- and people went nuts at the New Year's Eve gigs. Until you mentioned it, I'd never even heard the term 'jam band.'"