By: Josh Potter
Mike Gordon :: 06.30.08 :: The Iron Horse :: Northampton, MA
There are few musicians for whom I'd jump in my car, cross state lines and stand outside a venue with my fingers crossed for a ticket I might not get, just to be close to the joy and genius I'd experienced in this presence. It would be dishonest to say that such an adventure could be nostalgia-free, but four years after Phish called it quits and five years after Mike Gordon's Inside In, the longing is not for literal eras-passed so much as the spirit that drove them and drove everyone sharing this presence to reverence and ecstasy. Trey's clean and Page has spoken candidly about the potential for a Phish reunion, but Gordo, the member who pushed hardest to keep the band alive, has ridden the band's momentum most fluidly into a solo career. Through his country band Ramble Dove, collaborations with Leo Kottke, the Benevento/Russo Duo and a movie, Mike has carried his geeky charm, adolescent wonder and singular musicianship into middle-age. The Green Sparrow, his forthcoming solo album arriving August 5, is merely the latest project for a creative mind as unrelenting as the basslines it produces. On a Monday night in Massachusetts, his brand new band played its very first gig. It was well worth the drive and the wait.
|Mike Gordon by Allison Murphy|
Over the years I've learned to trust Mike's good taste, so when Bow Thayer & The Perfect Trainwreck launched a blazing banjo hootenanny to open, it didn't surprise me in the least. A four-piece from Vermont, the band passes instruments with the best in down home stomp-rock. It's no wonder they've found another ally in Levon Helm, who would host them a couple nights later for his 100th Midnight Ramble.
The room was all smiles when Mike's salt and pepper mop worked its way onstage. Like a surprisingly well-oiled machine, the band dropped immediately into a sunny groove not so dissimilar from "Mike's Song." It was gritty, happy, unapologetic and, most of all, funky – funkier, in fact, than probably anything I've heard since Mike last came around. With the trademark, woody tone of his Modulus, he pushed the outer limits of the pocket in a manner that threatened to rupture the groove but instead gave it shape. A lesser band would have been derailed, but with the small-kit consistency of drummer Craig Myers and Todd Isler on percussion, the whole thing moved forward at the pace of Mike's bobbing head.
|Mike Gordon by Josh Cole|
His wasn't the only bobbing head owned by a Gordon, however. In the balcony, Mike's father was in attendance. Having grown up only a short distance from Northampton, Mike's choice to premier his new band in this venue gave it a discernibly homey quality. After world tours and festival heroics, Mike was visibly excited to introduce new friends and new tunes (whose titles remained ambiguous throughout). Gordon's dad appeared, likewise, charmed to see his son back in his element.
From a quirky, atonal intro, the second tune broke into a vocal strut, like a greasy "Halley's Comet." It was here that Scott Murawski, the egregiously underrated Max Creek guitarist, let his chops shine through. Armed with a Paul Languedoc custom hollow body and a tone not so dissimilar from another Languedoc-slinger, Murawski systematically deranged his blues phraseology to fit the cubist funk lines Mike provided. The whole thing dissolved into an oblique piano solo from Tom Cleary before clattering into a coda.
After rolling up his t-shirt sleeves, Cactus made his triumphant return with a country ballad. He crooned about how funny love can be before Cleary drove the lilt into a sleek fusion vamp. Knowingly smooth, it felt like the tropical level of a racecar videogame.
While it would have been easy for this band to achieve a sense of spectacle through celebrity and merely go through the motions, Mike's characteristic sense for innovation delivered the band some truly complex arrangements, for which cruise-control would have been impossible. Bouncing between time signatures, modulating keys and delivering on-the-dime segues, the performance became much more than the Mike Gordon show. And while it could have been easy to close one's eyes and picture a different lineup delivering the set, it was more fun to watch this particular configuration give one of the more inspired, happy, healthy shows I've seen in some time.
|Mike Gordon by Tony Stack|
After a full-throttle rendition of The Beatles' "She Said She Said," a refracted breakdown and triumphant return to the refrain, "I know what it is to be dead," Mike threw some dorky high-fives and stepped forward to address the crowd. He told the story of driving to Murawski's house with a bunch of basslines he figured would be too hard to sing over. With the band assembled and the project coming together, though, he was overcome with "intense thankfulness, happiness, and jubilation." It was kind of like, he said, falling in love.
It only took a few moments for the band to return after the end of their set. From the first notes a cheer went up for what everyone was secretly hoping to hear. With "Meat," the band dipped deftly into one of the quirkier regions of the Phish catalog. Having stuck the angular outro, the band launched a rocker that pushed Murawski up and over the top to end the night.
Maybe it's been a Bush-administration thing, but these past few years have felt really dark. It would be crazy to think that one bassist alone could pull us out of this, but Mike Gordon's music certainly provides the sort of elevation we need right now. And if we can read his grooves like tea leaves, there may be hope for us yet.
Mike Gordon tour dates available here.
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