Mike Gordon | The Higher Ground | 12/30/2008
As the thermometer's mercury spends more of its time below freezing than above, I have a warm spot inside as, in my imagination, I concoct endless paths that Phish may take on their summer tour following the recently announced dates in June. Perhaps all the rumors of the phearsome phorsome headlining Bonnaroo Inc. are just meant to throw us off the scent of their real path. Of course, a multi-day festival here in the North Country is what is at the end of each of my imagined tours and, as an obsessive-compulsive Phish fan (redundant, I know), I begin to think about set lists. After all, such a festival would be for Phish, by Phish and all about Phish. They need no support to guarantee 100,000 fans of their own, but from where will their artistic inspiration stem? The music the band created in the day of single word album titles will always flow through their sets. It is the base of what makes them the institution they are today. But, where else? One possible answer came the night before we celebrated the changing calendar, when I heard the music Mike Gordon has been playing over the past few years. It was then that I had the realization that Mike still has the creativity, that uncanny ability to find a groove, from that time past, even in the rest of the boys have gone in different directions under the auspices of jam.
As a reporter of the event as much as the music of the night's main event, I feel a necessity to check out the opener whenever possible. It's for you, my readers, that I do labor so. Otherwise, how could I accurately convey the feeling of the scene as a whole? But on this night, after enjoying a hearty meal with some fellow concertgoers, the last thing I wanted to do was suffer through a shitty opener. Who was The Rubblebucket Orchestra anyway? I had my doubts based on this name, of which the most intelligent reviewer could make no sense. My preliminary research, yes I do research, had offered little to no insight into this incessant opener. But, my dedication to the craft forced my hand, and body, and Laura and I arrived early enough to catch the bulk of their set.
But alas, this interesting, eccentric 9 piece horn and rhythm band turned my head, and the heads of so many around the already packed room. It was psychedelic- or at least as psychedelic as a horn driven band with a default-calypso style can be. Looking as if they had defeated the Salvation Army and taken it's clothes and instruments as spoils of their victory, the group moved all over the stage, with only the drummer, keyboardist and percussionist remaining in their stoic triangle at the outer edges of the stage. The rest of the band danced, laughed, talked and jived- oh did they jive- playing a host of originals. It was music that had its vocal roots in the east, with elements of chant over top of the driving trance rhythms and funky horn riffs. Controlled chaos. At times the percussionist changed to an indigenous harp with neon green strings. It was novel and one of a kind, and I am sure the band hangs its hat on this definitive originality. But the music he was creating transcended this marketability. It was dark and solidified that the many different styles of music created by the different sections of this band were only layers of a stronger whole.
When the lights came up, I took it as an opportunity to move throughout the room. After so many made the mad dash for the door to pray to the almighty tobacco, the floor was comfortably spacious. Quickly I realized I was an outsider at a hometown reunion for older heads. Mainly men. Many balding. Many more bearded. Round bellies. Big smiles. Hugs instead of handshakes. Not a show for the college kids- not just marked by the calendar, but marked by the room's average age. Moments before the lights went down Laura pointed out to me that the tinsel hanging in front of the stacks of speakers had drooped to form an "M", an inadvertent nod to the night's headliner. The energy reminded me of my first Phish show in 1993. Do you remember what that felt like?
Mike Gordon and his minstrels humbly took the stage and quickly launched into the fanciful music that has defined Mike since his days as an antelope. It seemed the band was out of sorts during the first song of the night. Perhaps it was the emotion that was emanating from the onlookers that took the quintet by surprise. Perhaps they were the type of players who needed some practice swings before hitting the ball out of the park. Whatever the case, 'Another Door' was not was not the most memorable tune of the night.
Lead guitarist Scott Murawski's sustained notes sound a lot like those of Trey. I am sure that the similar Languedoc designed guitar can attest for this musical emulation. But his style is much more of a simple and true blues. While it does not take you on the rollercoaster ride like that of Mike's more regular guitar player from years past, and soon to be present, it is the yin to Mike's improvisational yang. The set's opening tune segued into 'Midnight' and Murawski became more confident in his blues playing, showing little emotion, yet increasing his comfort at the grooving center from which Mike was taking flight within each small solo.
After 'Midnight', Mike tried his hand at spoken comedy, as opposed to the musical comedy he has always infused into his performance. He lamented that Trey had been bragging to him that the all time single night alcohol sales record occurred the night he last played The Higher Ground in October. Mike then made his plea to the audience to start drinking and to buy a few for the band too. True, it wasn't the funniest thing I had ever heard. It wasn't the funniest thing I'd heard since arriving in Burlington that night; the folks I ate dinner with are side splitters. Still, it served to loosen us up. Mike was one of us, just as often a part of the crowd as a part of the band here in South Burlington. He had rallied his troops. We may not of broken that booze record, but we were energized, and now that the tension between the artist with an incredibly high set of expectations in this town, and this town, had gotten comfortable. We were ready to follow him on the upbeat cavalcade through his catalog of originals and covers.
And, oh, what remarkable covers! Mike's first interpretation of the music that influenced him was a take of Stevie Wonder's 'Livin' For The City'. Stevie Wonder, Mike ain't. He knows it and we know it. He doesn't have the melodic prowess of this legendary performer. But, damn if he didn't give it his all. It is times like these when a fan can truly appreciate Mike. Clearly, when he is playing bass, there are few that can equal what he does. But when he sings, he is truly working. He is pushing himself as hard as he can, and when he does it in the shadow cast by a vocal giant, you have to tip your cap to him for the effort alone.
Mike Gordon is liquid. In the jams he initiates he slowly works outward, like water from a spring. He finds the outer parameters of the jam and fills its entirety. Once the jam's restrictions have been discovered, he begins to recreate the sound within the space. He redefines the parameters, just as a spring will eventually push through the ground. Thus, the groove's space ebbs and flows. Slight changes become larger changes and the area becomes all new. The whole process begins again. It is organic music at its purest. Mike orchestrates.
The cohesion continued to grow. The individual notes each player was creating seemed to lessen, allowing the collective creation to become more streamlined and less congested. Mike was pulling Murawski into driving climaxes in his solos. As I eluded earlier, I have always felt that much of the music that Mike creates is not intended to be taken too seriously and the bohemian love song 'River Niger', despite its tense Eastern jam that built and built, drawing me to my toes and my hands into fists, was playful. Mike never missed a note and I realized that his playing is rarely short of perfect.
There are those who still only come to see Phish side projects for a fix. The type of people who are always looking at the side of the stage to see who might be coming out. For the past few years they have been consistently disappointed, with the occasional "you shoulda been their" moments, as was the case this past summer at Rothbury. But, for those musical junkies, Mike's 'Meat' offered appeasement. Even if it was only a bit, these closed-minded people had enough to last them until they venture down to Virginia in March and pay hundred of dollars for a couple of hours of music. I envy and loathe them at the same time.
All of the players got their chance to sing, signifying that the set was beginning to wind down. But, it was a cover of 'Things That Make You Go Hmm' that got that entire crowd bouncing for the impending end. Even Murawski and Gordo did some bouncing of their own on stage, reminding me of the playful nature of Mike and Trey in their heyday. Mike has never given up that innocent pursuit of the purest joy that he finds when he is sharing in that groove.
There were no huge sit-ins. The new songs were expected and the old songs were polished. The jams were where this show lived and the evening encore of 'Dancin' In The Streets' with Dave Grippo on alto sax and Amber DeLaurentis on vocals satiated those who wanted memorable titles in the nights set list. But it left me a bit disappointed. Why? I would have been content to hear the band experiment on a four bar jam and see which directions they could take it. They had been doing it al night. This experimentation, this freshness of notes that have been played in nearly every combination possible, this true jam, this is the essence of Mike Gordon.