Among the Phish side-projects that have stood out and been fan favorites, Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon have had the greatest response to their work outside the box of Phish, working with friends and musicians they admire and creating a sound that is separate and distinct from that of Phish. Mike Gordon’s current band includes Scott Murawski from Max Creek on guitar, Todd Isler on drums, Tom Cleary on keys and Craig Myers on percussion and represents Mike’s musical evolution outside of Phish. He has dabbled in movie making with Outside Out and Rising Low, played acoustically with Leo Kottke (and should be returning the studio with him soon) and assembled Ramble Dove, a slightly more country sounding band in 2006. However, none of these acts allowed Mike to spread out his wings and improvise in a style akin to his playing with Phish but not mimic his role. Here, Mike is in the lead, calls the shots and plays new songs for fans and tunes from his solo catalog, including his latest release Moss. A crowd of 700 filled into The Egg for Mike Gordon Band on December 11, 2011 for a great sounding room and were granted a stellar show full of twists, turns, fun and jamming throughout.
“Horizon Line” had a nice jam out of it but remained unfinished before moving into the powerful number “Only a Dream”, found played by Phish only in the studio release Party Time. The benefit of seeing Mike (or Trey for that matter) is catching some of the songs that Phish has yet to play but fans long to hear. The added bonus to a Mike show is hilarious banter, this time with a request for the audience and band to only speak in three letter words, and avoid conjunctions. After this funky lecture, “Deranged” led the way with a sweet jam to lead into the song that built and built, reminding me of a Talking Heads tune with the percussion and patience in the jam. “The Way it Goes” by Gillian Welch debuted with Phish in September in Colorado with Mike singing vocals and showed the extent to which Mike brings the songs he wants to play more with his side band, adding hope to fans that we might hear this gem of a cover in the next few weeks at Madison Square Garden. The light country-twang to the guitar from Murawski was replicated neatly while Gordon took the vocals and sang with fervor. “Just a Rose” brought Murawski to the vocals, a funky number that had the band and crowd bouncing in unison, complete with a brief “Blackwater” (Doobie Brothers) tease.
The second set started out with the oft-Phish covered “Funky Bitch” by blues legend Son Seals and the set never seemed to end from there on out. “Sugar Shack” came next, followed by the most unique cover of the year, Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in my Pocket”, again sung by Murawski, but with a different bit of force behind the vocals, gritty and bluesy, a bit jagged and with a proud response from the crowd. The end of “Hand in my Pocket” got dark and funky before getting spacy and moving into “Dig Further Down”, where numerous members of the audience caught a subtle yet distinct teasing of the “Rebel Theme from Star Wars” by Cleary on the keyboard, providing room for the rest of the band to improvise alongside him before segueing back into “Dig Further Down”. “Skin it Back” (Little Feat) has been a sporadic Mike staple at shows dating back to the 1980s and many who weren’t fortunate enough to catch this band had to settle for Halloween 2010 in Atlantic City or re-listen to Ian’s Farm from 1987. Mike introduced the final song of the night, “The Who’s Won’t get Fooled Again”, as a song he used to play in his high school band, a fresh and spot on version that brought the house to their feet.
To cap it all off, Mike told the crowd he was going to bring a friend out from high school to sing on the next tune, which led to Steve Pollak aka The Dude of Life to come to the stage, take the extra mic in hand and sing the words he penned years ago to “Suzy Greenberg”. The crowd was jumping up and down at this debut performance that capped off an epic night. Pollak spoke rather than sang the lyrics, but when it’s your song, you can do with it what you want; no one in the crowd argued with him in this instance. The night ended on the highest of notes and I now understand the argument that ‘Mike Gordon Band is better than Trey Anastasio Band’, although I don’t take sides. Mike’s band is fresher, more psychedelic and jammy than Trey’s big band project. I love em both, but it was Mike who finally brought the dude.
Set 1: Horizon Line, Only A Dream, I’m Deranged, The Way It Goes, Just a Rose, Voices, River Niger, Don’t Do It -> Horizon Line
Set 2: Funky Bitch, Sugar Shack, Hand in My Pocket, Dig Further Down, Crumblin’ Bones, Skin It Back, Hap Nappy, Won’t Get Fooled Again
Encore: Suzy Greenberg*
*Mike Gordon debut, with Steve Pollak (The Dude of Life) on vocals.