Mike Gordon flys solo at Somerville

A review of Mike Gordon at the Somerville Theatre on September 9, 2009

, Staff Writer

For a bass player, Sudbury native Mike Gordon gets a lot of love – an inevitable consequence of being in Phish, where each and every member is almost entirely adored by the fanbase. This is quite a feat, considering how often bass players are relegated to standing in the back, bobbing their heads while laying down just enough harmonic information to keep the band together and the fans happy.

Gordon is different, though: during Phish’s heaviest years of drug use, it was the (sober) Mike who kept the band together while the others spiraled off into outer space. He is well-recognized as one of the more technically proficient bass players out there, and is an irrefutably fundamental part of Phish’s sound. How many other bass players can you say are “irrefutably fundamental”?

But Gordon is more than just Phish. And so, hot on the heels of the band’s wildly successful comeback tour, he is embarking on a tour of his own, showcasing tunes from his own catalogue of two solo albums. He dropped by the Somerville Theatre this past Wednesday, playing to a sold-out crowd, a show that successfully drew attention to his excellent skills as a composer as well as his versatile abilities on the bass.

Coming out with “Another Door”, the first track off 2008’s The Green Sparrow, Gordon immediately established himself as the ideal band leader: he filled in empty spaces with his own licks but fell into the background as necessary, like, say, during Scott Murawski’s extended guitar solo. Even when not at the forefront, though, Gordon was busy at work directing the jam in and out of some pretty interesting harmonic areas, switching effects on and off, and generally leading the band as he saw fit. The band followed impeccably, never once faltering in the face of the ever-changing musical picture.

From “Door” the band jammed right into a cover of Al Green’s “Rhymes”, which was given a heavy dose of prog-rock before being unleashed on the audience. It should be said that Mike was having a ton of fun even by this point of the show, jumping up and down as he is wont to do, grooving steadily with his head and visibly enjoying being up on the stage with his own band. Even though a number of people in the audience surely had only come because of his membership in Phish, Gordon skillfully stepped out of that band’s shadow for the evening, at times perhaps subtly hearkening to their sound. But there was no way we were going to get a Phish song that night, and this is for the better: it shows Gordon’s integrity as a solo artist, and allows him to stand on his own two feet, something every musician needs to be able to do from time to time.

If there was one low point of the evening it was the debut of “Nobody Home”, an original from keyboardist Tom Cleary. Chalk it up to being not entirely comfortable with brand new material, but the energy that had pervaded the theatre pretty quickly ran dry for the song. People began sitting down en masse, and in general it just seemed like a fairly lethargic performance. There’s nothing wrong with the tune itself – it was just a straightforward and unadventurous performance. Of course, the band immediately brought the audience back with a stunning rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire”, which Gordon dedicated to his parents, who were proudly watching their son perform from the venue’s upper balconies.

The band was also daring enough to brave the Top 40 lists of the past, dropping a surprising performance of Coldplay’s “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face”, which was barely recognizable as such until the familiar lyrics came in. The band once again here showed off their musicality, dramatically altering the song’s aesthetic while managing to maintain its structure. The set closed with “Only A Dream”, featuring some Coldplay teases thrown in by Murawski to tie it all together. As an encore, the band opened up with “Suskind Hotel”, a tune originally performed by G.R.A.B., one of Gordon’s projects during Phish’s hiatus years. From there they segued into “She Said, She Said,” an appropriate song to play, considering September 9th has apparently become Beatles Day. Gordon applied his usual touch to the Beatles song, but for half a verse the band expertly fell into a completely faithful rendition of the original before slipping back into the groove that Gordon had assigned the piece.

There’s been some brouhaha about Gordon’s dissatisfaction playing with Phish again, wanting to strike out on his own and continue building his solo career. Two shows in, though, it seems that he is perfectly capable of existing in both of these states: the trampoline-hopping bomb-dropper of Phish and the leader of his own band that draws smaller but just as enthusiastic crowds. Seeing Gordon in a different light can only bode well for the larger body of his work, and when he returns to Phish the band as a whole is going to sound that much better – the time spent on this tour is going to be invaluable to the band as they continue to refine the sound that has been starting to develop since June.

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