Into The Matrix With Mike Gordon

Mike Gordon

March 9, 2014

The Barrymore Theater

Madison, WI


(Photos from 3/6/14 at the Orange Peel, Asheville, NC)



Gordon 2Velvet curtains adorned the stage, creating a lush backdrop behind the guitar and bass rigs, the drum set, and the full percussion and keyboard stations. They were maybe eight feet tall, like massive shojis, layered around the drummer’s lifted kit.


The show was called for 7:30, but it was a Sunday night and a few minutes past showtime, the room was virtually empty, save a few fans in Phish t-shirts and dreadlocks milling by the stage. The lights went down around ten minutes to eight, and some serious group-think intuition kicked in: the room was suddenly packed.


Phish bassist Mike Gordon has been touring with this group, or some incantation of it, since 2008. Joining him on stage are Scott Murawski on guitar, Todd Isler on drums, Tom Cleary on keys and Craig Myers on both organic and electronic percussion.


Mike came came onto the stage looking very European, his hair quaffed appearing almost windswept to one side, zippered jacket and a flowy scarf. He offered a sudden shout into the mic and Isler laid down a beat that quickly transitioned into “Babylon Baby”, a funky song with elements of country and calypso and transitions that sounded like something out of the Umphrey’s McGee playbook.


Then the band launched into “Traveled Too Far” and immediately the set took on a life of its own. Smoke started billowing from behind the curtains, brought to life by swirling lights and electric movement. As the jam grew, the lights followed, and suddenly Gordon 3Mike’s bass and Murawski’s guitar began glowing in the dark. But they weren’t glowing in the dark, so much as they were alight with neon colors. The instruments began pulsating and changing as the song progressed. They were green, red, blue, yellow, like a disco ball was devouring a beach ball and trying to pass it, right there on stage.


In the middle of the jam, the band cut out and Mike launched into a gospel, bluegrass a cappella track that started with the observation that “Some people drink champagne under the stars.” It was easy to imagine why Mike’s mood took him there; the ceiling of the Barrymore Theater glows with little, flickering stars.


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Murawski launched the band into the dirty blues “Cruel World”, taking lead vocals on the first of several songs of the evening. Murawski is an amazing guitar player; at times reminiscent of Kimock, at other times Herring, but a musical personality that is all his own. It is easy to see why Mike would be so comfortable playing alongside him. He readily dips his toe in the diminished sounds of Anastasio, but has a brightness deep within him that pushes its way out on every track.

His guitar solo led to a raging keyboard solo from Cleary that quickly moved into a screaming organ solo, over which the band jumped seamlessly into a Cuban groove that dissipated as quickly as it had begun, as the band made way for Myers, who pounded away on his djembe, before leading the band back into the blues riff and the final verse of the song.


The band played “Meat”, their first of two Phish songs of the evening. It was a strange rendition, the playing solid, but the sound seeming to be coming through strange and intentionally-over-programmed filters. It sounded like an AI re-creation of a fan favorite, programmed to binary and then unpacked back into its beloved shape. During the vocal breakdowns of the chorus, Mike Gordon 5sounded like he was singing through an oil drum, Murawski through a tin can. At this point in the evening, Cleary had made the switch from hand drums and tambourines to drum machines and beats. They played with the noise of the evening while the light show captivated. This was no Phish light show, wowing with lasers and strobes, it was very much its own creation: Mike’s Matrix perhaps? The light show ensconced the stage in ways that were more The Flaming Lips than Phish. As the music pulsated, the room shook. As the band grooved, the staged danced. The curtains came alive, and flowed along with the crowd.


Mike put down his bass and announced he had never played a bouzouki in public before. He quickly amended to admit that he had hardly ever played one at all. But that didn’t stop him from leading the band through “Pretend” on the quirky eight-stringed instrument. Murawski took over the low-end for the song on the U-Bass, replete with an epic solo on the tiny instrument.


Mike then made a joke that not only was this his first time playing the bouzouki, but it was his first time in a sensory deprivation chamber. And it was true, the light show, quirky dancing of the band and the constant array of unexpected surprises, both visual and aural, seemed like something that could have existed in a trippier, less angst-filled version of A Clockwork Orange. The band finished out the set with “Spock’s Brain,” “Andelman’s Yard” and “Tiny, Little World.”


The second set opened with the introspective funk song, “Paint,” then followed with “Face,” another one off of the new album. The crowd got their first slap bass solo of the night, before the lights brought everyone back into Mike’s special Matrix. The band played “Peel” and throughout, the sound grew and morphed, introducing elements of gypsy, prog rock, reggae and more than a few moments that could best be described as something off the soundtrack of a circus that has clearly fallen off its meds.


Cleary introduced “Twists and Bends,” a quirky, “Poor Heart” meets-NOLA love song to his 1990 Honda Accord. Murawski led the band through Al Green’s “Rhymes,” a song that is darker in content than its groove is ready to admit.Gordon 1


The band closed out the set with “Hap-Nappy,” which broke open in the middle with a monster jam, lights literally raining down on the stage. They took huge breaks, each member of this massive ensemble getting the chance to shine. The band jumped up and down, the guitars glowed, all of the evening’s previous light tricks seemed to spaz and seizure, entering and exiting the mix almost without rhyme or reason. They peaked the jam, then pushed through and peaked it again. When the tight ending finally hit, the crowd took a moment to regain themselves, but just a moment, before crying out for more.


The encore was only one song, but it was a good one. They closed the night with “Cities,” by Talking Heads. Then the five of them came to center stage, took a much deserved bow and disappeared into the curtains, the fog and the magic of Mike’s Matrix.


Follow Josh on twitter @jlemonsk