New Haven is a wonderfully strange town. On a damp Saturday night, I walked from my usual free parking spot down York to Chapel to College Street Music Hall where I would be seeing Mike Gordon of Phish playing a solo set in support of his latest album Overstep.
We in the Elm City were in the midst of the international festival of arts and ideas, and the city buzzed with activity slightly more cultured than the average night of clubbing. I walked to get a cup of coffee before the show, ended up with a donut, and was pleased to see the crowds sampling the cuisine of our town. I even saw a pair of newlyweds, hand in hand, making a sport of the puddles. The bride with a handful of dress in her opposite hand, smiling off the congrats and bon mots she received.
College Street was filling up early. That certain smell painted the entrance in shades of green, while the security guards frisked the entrants. “Any knives, guns, hand grenades?” I was asked by my frisker, an older man—probably retired policeman or professional wrestler judging by his build. “No just books—Getting lots of contraband,” I joked. With a dead straight face he proclaimed “nope.” I believed him.
A lot of work had gone into the venue since I had been here last. Some of the guts were still showing, but steadily it is becoming whole. I took a seat in the back, as many of the chairs had gone since the last time I was here. From this vantage point I could see the stage and the crowd; the latter being important because of the crowds performance.
I came not only to be entertained, but to step out of my comfort zone. It is at this point that I must admit to the fact that before this night I had no idea who Mike Gordon was. Sure I’ve heard of Phish because I’m not an idiot, but in a sea of Phish-heads (as they should be called), I was the one out of water.
Before the show I took in as much as I could, like Concert Jane Goodall, noting how differently the crowd assembled and associated from my usual crowd. They packed in tight towards the front, and many of the attendees were actually conversing instead of looking at their phones. Three males argued with an usher about where they could leave their coats. Their idea was to tie them around the poles surrounding the GA floor. They did not feel like they were jeopardizing their belongings and showed a general trust in their fellow man. I thought that the jackets would have been stolen on principle.
As Gordon and his band came onstage, there was no great push forward—everyone was already there—those that stayed behind wanted the room to express themselves in strange and sometimes violent ways. I have no idea if this group of dancers remains representative of all jam band concerts, but what I saw was interesting to say the least.
There was the hand dancer, the girl who remained motionless except for her hands. There was the corpse on a stick, a man whose entire body went limp and bounced like a lazy marionette. There was rave girl complete with glow stick and tiny back pack and stuffed animal. Helicopter girl could only dance in circles, at one point just running around her friends. Just running. There was the couple that weaved in profuse make out sessions with some dance that required them to put their hands on the fucking floor.
The most interesting dancer was the large gorilla of a man who decided to see how hard he could punch and kick and insert himself in between the other more peaceful dancers. At times I feared that he was going to harm himself or others. He was a mosh pit of one. At a concert full of hippies.
Most importantly, was the music. Gordon and his band was excellent. Let me remind you that I had never heard anything he’s played before this night. Each song was supremely executed, and the band were such impressive instrumentalists that you kinda forget that they play songs that stretch into the double digits. To be honest though, in their first set, I couldn’t tell you if they played three or six songs.
While Gordon jammed away on bass, guitarist Scott Murawaski (of Max Creek) and keyboardist Robert Walter did all the talking. Both of them were very expressive in their playing, but also technically proficient. It sounded like what might be called planned improvisation. The lights hit as key times during solos and the rest of the band seemed to key in on specific moments to highlight the soloist rather than obscure.
Looking back at the set list the next day I noticed that they played many songs from both Max Creek and Phish, and I didn’t even know. One song, “Susskind Hotel,” they played an entire other song in the middle of, which added to my confusion. They also did a Robert Palmer cover. Considering that I didn’t notice is a shame because I think that Palmer is a wholly underrated artist.
The one thing that stuck out more than anything else was how modern they sounded. In my head I had gotten this idea that any music with jam band cred would be Ben & Jerry’s and Organic vegetables. There was something more, something deeper and digital to their sound that acknowledge the mechanics of our world. It was not all hemp and tie dye.
It just goes to show that at any turn, even amongst genres not so different from those that you are used to, there is still room for surprise. By the end of the night, after watching so many entertaining dances, and such a skilled band for over two hours, I felt satisfied. Perhaps I was fortunate to catch Mike Gordon and his band as they are clearly a talented group, and not some two-bit half-rate Phish wannabes. Unfortunately, this tour is near the end of its swing around the Northeast. Next time he comes around, I’ll at least know who he is.
Article: Christopher Gilson