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Mike Gordon

by Jeremy D. Goodwin on December 14, 2011


Guitarist (and chief songwriter) Trey Anastasio has long been the true rock star of Phish. He’s the one with the most ambitious solo career outside of the band; he’s currently working on a musical, and is certainly the most likely to turn up with arrangements of his songs for symphony orchestra. But many fans have come around to the view that it’s bassist Mike Gordon who’s currently making the most fresh and compelling rock music outside of his main gig.

He and his five-piece band concluded a five-city tour with a two-set affair at the Egg on Sunday. With general-admission seating and a shortened stage to make room for some dance space down front, the venue felt transformed—and the Egg itself was the perfect habitat for Gordon and his famously offbeat sense of humor, leading him to repeatedly promise the audience he’d speak only in three-letter words. (Alas, this is the one promise on which he didn’t deliver.)

Gordon and friends saved the best for first, exploding with a monster first set that featured, in its 90-plus minutes, a chunk of nearly an hour with no pause in the proceedings. Songs flowed together with great ease, segues varying from the quick and deftly executed to slow builds that almost miraculously twisted from point A to point B. Afterwards, the second set felt like a prolonged warm-up; there was plenty of thrashing rock & roll energy, but it seemed the fireworks had already exploded. (Along the way, Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket” was recast as a Southern rock tune that could have been a Black Crowes outtake.)

The bandleader is a fearless chooser of songs to cover; they even play a surprisingly credible version of Radiohead’s “15 Step.” At the Egg, a first-set take on the 1995 David Bowie electronic freakout “I’m Deranged” floated into a burbling livetronica jam that sounded right out of the late ’90s; it unfortunately owed as much to the Disco Biscuits as to Bowie, but proved a worthwhile experiment in a reasonable dose. The song culminated when a piano-led bridge jam led oh-so-slowly into Gillian Welch’s  “The Way It Goes.” The latter song, a stark and moody piece, surprisingly led into a jam of its own, with Scott Murawski (of Max Creek) unfurling country-tinged guitar parts that sounded borrowed from a particularly adventuresome version of the Grateful Dead’s “Cumberland Blues.” There was the sense the band were confident enough to find their way without a master plan, finding unexpected places to tuck in jams before winding up in the Max Creek number “Only a Rose.” Later, as rock favorite “Don’t Do It” toggled seamlessly back into a reprise of show-opening Gordon original “Horizon Line,” the band had found their sweet spot, playing triumphant rock with a ferocious swing.

The band’s sound is built around Gordon’s presence on bass—he was chock full of busy basslines and fills that were mesmerizing rather than showy—with Murawski proving more than able as he pivoted from crunchy rhythm parts to a hair-metal solo in “Hap-Nappy,” and Craig Myers adding rhythmic depth on percussion. Tom Cleary’s occasional vocals weren’t as soulful as he seemed to think, but he added great energy on keyboards, finding a way to jump up and down mid-solo. (Curiously, drummer Todd Isler seemed less integrated into the group dynamic than his peers.)

By the time old-school Phish collaborator the Dude of Life appeared for an encore take on his most lasting contribution to the Phish canon, the power-pop romp “Suzy Greenberg,” there was a celebratory mood in the air. Gordon and friends had issued another essay in the growing body of evidence that this band might be the best place to find a member of Phish taking chances and playing fresh, invigorating music.