Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review of The Mike Gordon Band, Ides of March, 2011 @ The Bottleneck, Lawrence, KS

When yesterday rolled around, it occurred to me that the Mike Gordon Band show at the Bottleneck in Lawrence, KS had snuck up on me. The wife had procured tickets several weeks ago, and we’d immediately dialed in a babysitter. I remember seeing the tour-date announcement, and thinking, This could be fun, or I could get mentally wrapped up in those show expectations -– Will it be good without Leo Kottke? Will I leave bitter that TAB (Trey Anastasio Band) didn’t come anywhere near Kansas City? Then Tuesday was upon us, and I felt like I was heading into the evening with a somewhat calmer shore of the mind, but still apprehensive about going to a show in which I’d, potentially, not know the majority of the tunes. This presented as exceptionally troubling considering all of the diligent work I’ve put in in recent years in terms of bringing the wife up to Phish (studio, live favorites, solo projects) speed. That is, it’s one thing if she doesn’t know the bulk of the tracks at a show, but it’s another animal – meaning the number of in-show questions unloaded on me increases exponentially, potentially diminishing enjoyment for both of us -– if neither of us do.

I don’t really have a stake in categorization of my show-going self, but since there’s an abundance of online discourse regarding such a concept, I’ll pencil myself in as somewhere in the middle of the jaded-vet/noob spectrum; I’ve seen 30 Phish shows and four (TAB, Red Rocks 2001, both nights; Gordon/Kottke, Red Rocks 2005, Big Summer Classic; and last night) sidecar projects. Never caught Vida Blue, Pork Tornado, Jazz Mandolin Project, etc. That spans 17 years, and my show-going modality has evolved on numerous occasions, leading up to its current form: I want a solid effort from the musicians, and minimal personal-space respect from my fellow ‘heads.

Anyway, we hit the road, bellied up to the bar at Free State Brewing Company, had a couple of pints, and some dinner. As we were settling our tab, we were told Mike had been dining solo three stools down from us, which was both hilarious, and so very Mike. Outside, we ran into a few acquaintances that informed us they were in no hurry to get to the venue, as they knew Mike was not yet there. When asked how such information had been procured, we were told: “Because he’s sitting right there in that coffee shop, fiddling around on his laptop.”

Which he was.

The wife thought coffee sounded like a good plan, so she grabbed us each a to-go cup, and Mike made his way to the can to dispose of his dinner (evidenced by hist extensive stay in there), which, naturally, resulted in a far-too-lengthy conversation regarding the alleged coolness of entering the men’s room post-Mike-dump and wafting the fragrances of this genius musician, as if consumption of the odors of his evacuations could somehow inspire. Mike left, and walked alone down to The Bottleneck, furthering the coolness of his being, simply due to the fact that the was rolling around Larryville alone and on foot.

We entered the venue, pleased that no eyebrows were raised at our java vessels, perused the merchandise, and purchased a copy of The Green Sparrow (2008)and a little notebook that had the refrain to “Sugar Shack” printed on the front, and made our way to the floor. For one last moment, I stressed over my lack of solo-Gordon knowledge (only own Outside Out (2003) and the two Kottke albums), and the band took the stage.

The band –- Gordon on bass, Scott Murawski on guitar, Todd Isler on drums, Tom Cleary on keys, Craig Myers on percussion -– opened with “Can’t Stand Still,” and I was pleased that I knew that tune, and stoked for the sound they put out. The group took it up a notch with “Flashback,” and then lit the place on fire with the funky, rockin’ “Just a Rose” which featured some screamin’ lead vocals from Murawski. Suffice to say: Three songs in, I was really impressed: Murawski seemed to be having fun from start to finish; Isler plugged along impressively throughout the course of the evening; Craig Myers has an incredible rig and fills the tiny gaps of negative space quite nicely.

It was with the opening of song four, though, that, perhaps, answered a few questions: Yes, there will be an occasional Phish song. Before we get to that, however, it should be noted that Mike had some really great crowd-interaction conversation moments. Early in the set, he asked, “How you feeling?” then promptly mentioned that he made a vow to himself 20 years ago that he would never ask a crowd that, but that now, at that particular moment, it seemed genuine because, “We’re all in this together.”

And it wouldn’t be a show if there weren’t folks in the crowd hollering thoughts, offering questions, and demanding requests. One such stub-holder asked how Colorado was, to which Mike responded, “Colorado was great. There’s nothing like coming over an 11,000-foot pass at five in the morning. And we’re still kinda ridin’ that wave.”

Song four, it should be noted, was “Access Me,” a delightful tune from Phish’s 2004 release entitled Undermind. It should be mentioned that, in all of my efforts to delicately spoon-feed Phish’s studios to the wife, I left out Round Room and Undermind, but we definitely have listened to Undermind together in the car. We’ve got a few tunes from that album we enjoy, and we’ve definitely shared a laugh over the lines:
“You could tell me all about all the things you did at work, The guy who sits beside you and how he’s acting like a jerk.”

So hearing “Access Me” was a nice treat, and perhaps apropos of some more crowd-conversation humor, such as, “We’re now going to take requests from you guys, so please request whatever it is you want us to play, and we’ll play whatever we want.” It also planted the seed of a theme the night might adopt in terms of the few Phish covers selected.

“What Things Seem” was next, and “Nobody Home” followed, which was really solid, as it was perhaps the first opportunity of the evening for Cleary to showcase his rock and ragtime, but his vocals, too. Afterwards, Mike acknowledged a birthday for someone in the crowd, and admitted that they were not going to play the song the birthday celebrator was requesting, but rather the song that inspired the song requested, “the embryo, as it were.” The result was “Swamp Music-> Possum-> Swamp Music,” which just lit the place on fire.

I think maybe I’ve heard some “Swamp Music” on tape at some point in the past. Maybe not, but the point is that it’s got the same bass line and vocal feel as “Possum,” and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the crowd really dug it. Great energy to lead into the first-set closer “Babylon Baby,” which was one of only two or three jams of a healthy length in the opening frame. Mike closed the set by mentioning that the tune was on his latest album Moss, which was for sale in the corner, and that the band would be hanging out in the merchandise corner at the evening’s conclusion. He encouraged show-goers to stop by for a chat and a drink.

The intermission chat was, to my ears, relatively unanimous: That set was surprisingly smokin’. What will second set bring?

As a whole, second set was fantastic, but here’s one of several instances in the evening where I showed my age: “Traveled Too Far” kicked things back off around midnight, and it almost floored me. It was evident in the first couple minutes of the tune that set two was building off of the first, and perhaps evolving the evening into two separate mini-shows. It was an uber-intense jam of noteworthy duration, and it almost crushed me in a way that really tested my mentality of the moment. I can’t say I recognized the track in what I could parcel to be its original form, based on what I was hearing live, but I know I’ve heard that style of jam before, and it’s a style that brings up the notion of “smooth, atonal sound.”

To me, there’s nothing smooth about an atonal sound. It’s uncomfortable. It could potentially send a sober person walking from the venue, or put a less-sober listener in a straight jacket. So, the suggestion of a “smooth, atonal sound” has always been a joke to me. A joke that’s funny for the band, a joke that affords them some opportunity of the experimental variety, but a joke that has a very unfunny punchline for the absorbing ear. I won’t spend any more time on this version of “Traveled Too Far,” except to say that there were several around me that seemed to be feeling blown away by the ferocious audacity of the jam, whereas I was feeling a little cracked about the skull, vulnerable in the chest once it drew to a close.

“Couch Lady” came next, and it thankfully served the purpose of getting me to a calmer place, which, based on the third song of set two, made me think it was all by design. I’ll go out on a limb here, and perhaps open myself up for insult opportunity, because I seriously did not go to this show hoping to hear nothing but Phish covers, but the “Meat” that followed “Couch Lady” might’ve been the highlight of the evening.

It. Was. Sick. When you listen to the studio version of “Meat,” it leaves you with a feeling of, Oh, that’s a pretty fun song. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard Phish perform it live, but I’m extremely thankful for having heard this band perform it last night. The only way to describe it is this: The funk-slappin’ grooves these guys laid down during this song made the room feel like everyone in it was in one of those water-park wave pools, only, in place of water was a nice, warm, meaty gravy. And we were all swimmin’ in it. Happily. Incredible jam that fostered the growth of the theme of selected Phish tunes.

The second set continued with “Walls of Time,” which “Meat” went straight into, “Cruel World,” “Skin It Back,” and “Middle of the Road,” and, save the occasional bluegrass-y feel of one number, the vibe of thick, heavy, groove-oriented jam-rock tabled by "Meat" directed the remainder of the set. That was until the band took a moment to chat amongst themselves, and allow for Mike to offer thanks to the crowd for rocking with the band all night.

“We’ve been going for 10 straight nights, now,” he said. “And we’re just getting warmed up.” He again reminded the crowd to come by the merch’ corner for a drink and some chat. “I don’t usually drink at these things, but I am tonight.” He had earlier indicated that he didn’t want fans to let him drink alone over there, that maybe he’d have a glass of milk, maybe he wouldn’t.

Oh, and I’d be doing the band a disservice if I didn’t showcase how Mike set up each member’s token introduction/solo. This happened during one song that took place late in the second set, and it started with Murawski’s solo, as Mike said, “Take us to school!” Up next was Myers’ chance, and Gordon hollered, “Take us to church!” Cleary’s moment followed with Mike exclaiming, “Take us to the bathroom!” Finally, it was “Take us to the insurance company meeting!” for Isler. Murawski returned the favor asking Mike to “Take us to outer space!” Mike, in true Mike fashion offered only the briefest of limelight moments.

It was after Mike’s drink reminder, however, that the highlight runner-up moment took place, and that came in the form of an Alanis Morrisette cover. And, no: That’s not a typo. It was “Hand in Pocket,” and my wife might’ve been the first person in the room to identify it. Here’s where I’m frank: I don’t hate Morrisette. Never have. She wrote a few decent songs. She was cute in “Dogma.” But this cover was freaking awesome. It really was. And it led right into “Sugar Shack,” allowing that Phish-cover theme to flourish.

The theme, if you haven’t figured it out, was this: There were four Phish tunes played, and they were all tracks that, no surprise, can be or have been identified with Mike. “Access Me” is a track he wrote. “Possum” was written by Jeff Holdsworth, but is often identified as a Mike tune because of the funky bass groove, signature Gordon vocals associated with it. “Meat” was written collectively by Gordon, the rest of Phish, and longtime band lyricist Tom Marshall. And “Sugar Shack,” a Gordon-penned track from Phish’s 2009 Joy album, closed the thing out.

Here’s what was beautiful about said theme: The performances of these tunes were clearly not intended to sound like the live versions fans get from Phish, and I can’t emphasize this enough: That is a really, really good thing. This is Mike’s band. Their tour is flying somewhat under the proverbial radar, while TAB’s, which just wrapped up, basically received all of the hype and attention that a typical Phish tour would. The difference is that Mike’s band –- and, again, for the record, I haven’t seen a TAB show in a decade –- is absolutely killing it on a feel-good, root-down level. For cheap, too, I might add.

They got together to rehearse three months ago, and have played quite a few gigs. They are occasionally sloppy when closing out a number, but they lit The Bottleneck on fire last night, and the “Sugar Shack” to finish set two somewhat resembled the Joy version, but it also had a very significant Mike-band feel to it. It was clear that there was absolutely zero pressure for Murawski to mimic Trey in tone or style, and the fact that he, and the rest of the band definitely did not attempt to produce the Phish sound made this show all the more amazing.

So, the band leaves the stage, comes back for your textbook encore, and what do they drop? Some freaking Doobie Brothers? Yeah. Some freaking Doobie Brothers. “Takin’ it to the Streets,” to be exact, which has, thanks to the immortal life of radio-classic-rock overkill, become a terrible song. I’m not even certain that it was ever anything other than a terrible song, but these guys made it great, if only for a moment. An epic show, one of the best I’ve seen in some time, and as of a few moments ago, it’s been announced that tomorrow night’s show in St. Louis (with Galactic) will be streamed live for free. And it would be lame of me to not mention thanks to Mike for signing our little “Sugar Shack” book for our three-month-old daughter. Walked out of there electric, drove home on a wave that started 10 days ago, and made its way to the plains, courtesy of the Rocky Mountains.

Peep remaining tour dates here, a review of the previous evening's show in Denver here, and a comparison between The Mike Gordon Band and TAB here.