I suppose it takes a talent as singular as Mike Gordon to produce an effect as positively unsettling as what I get from his gigs.
This November marks the third time in three years I found myself walking in a way from a Mike Gordon Band show, knowing I'd definitely be back, but in the days that followed found it challenging to explain exactly why.
In over fifteen shows this fall, Mike and the band cranked out two sets of music a night, mostly original, drawn from a substantial repertoire. Like the show I saw at the Park West, most took place in nightclubs or small theatres -- sell outs were uncommon. Despite being part of a legitimate arena-sized act, fan reaction to Mike's solo jaunt has been relatively muted.
In coming to terms with why, I keep stumbling on answers that I don't quite expect.
As a "side-project" you might think that Mike might try to contrast his work in Phish with something completely different. Indeed, he has often mentioned in interviews a desire to avoid the trappings of a jamband with this project.
Noble, but instead, this solo effort feels more like he is actually amping up one particular aspect of Phish, the ability to walk the line between the connected and disconnected, the grounded and the weird. These songs, in this context, almost feel like they could be Phish songs, and good ones at that. The only three things they don't have: Trey, Page and Jon.
As bandleader, Gordon has assembled the backbone of fierce funk band (Robert Walter on keys and Johnny Kimock on drums), but seems to purposely avoid falling too far into funk, or really anything all that accessible. Guitarist Scott Murawski can follow Mike's weird and improvise lengthy solos, but falls short of anthemic, major key rock jamming.
What fills that hole is the bass, of course. A powerful, penetrating low-end, enough to vibrate the hell out of these small rooms and everybody in them. It's a sound that's comfortable driving jams and finding new places within them.
There is a deliberateness to everything that accompanies it -- as purposefully trying not to sound like anything than trying to sound like something. It makes things obtuse, difficult to latch on to. Hard to talk about. Definitely hard to write about. But it also makes it something else: worthwhile.
The fact that the audience, myself included, isn't as familiar with this material is actually quite winning. From kinda-sorta half-forgotten Phish material ("Babylon Baby") to off-kilter hooks that dive headlong into deep improv ("Long Black Line"), it dissociates you from nostalgia, while producing sounds and stimulating senses that are assuring nonetheless.
The songs are a little familiar but not universally internalized. Mike presents the band as a canvas, with the physical setup -- all black equipment, arty backdrops and lightboxes -- emphasizing the ability to project whatever you want on them.
That's something you don't always expect out of music, but for the right type of listener, can be everything you need.
Selist (via Phish.net)
Set One: Say Something, Jumping, Waking Up Dead, Morphing Again, How Do I Know, Another Door
Set Two: Babylon Baby, Sleep To Dream, Long Black Line > The Maker, Just A Rose, Normal Phoebe, Tiny Little World
Encore: How Many People Are You