New Album: The Green Sparrow
If you don’t know who Mike Gordon is, you could pretty much ask anyone who does and get, more or less, the exact same response, “He was in Phish. He was the bass player“. A similar answer would be yielded when asked about any of the other 3 members of PHISH and, although each of these musicians have continued to venture on with new, often critically acclaimed, projects in their own right, it is unlikely that they will ever be aptly described if not in connection with their former band. The members of PHISH are caught in a double edged sword of recognition that I like to refer to as the “Seinfeld Theory” and, historically, it seems as if there are but few methods that have been utilized to hop off this backsliding treadmill of fame and successfully move forward.
Although many of us think about the film “Evil Dead” when we hear the name Sam Raimi and/or “Dead Alive” when Peter Jackson is referenced, the majority of the American public immediately associate the “Spiderman” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogies with these corresponding directors. Both men went from low budget, yet groundbreaking and influential, horror movies and seamlessly into a genre of family films. I attribute these phenomena to the fact that the mainstream blockbusters that they made were targeted towards a demographic who had no previous frame of reference for these filmmakers. Some “screech cred” was, no doubt, lost for them by the likes of avid Fangoria readers but their new work, although inconsistent, was still solid enough to allow them to take new directions in their careers with the support of the public. Will Smith went from being a mediocre, precocious rapper into the “biggest box office draw in the world” and, despite doing so as a mediocre/precocious actor, he used the method of reinventing himself by going into a completely different direction than what he was known for. For him, it worked because rich “White America” saw Smith as his non-threatening TV counterpart that wanted to move out of the “street-life“, that frightened them, and into “their world” through light-hearted comedy and a yearning to be accepted. For better or worse, one name that is still difficult to mention beyond it’s association with Will Smith is DJ Jazzy Jeff, and that poor bastard actually popularized the “transformer scratch” and invented the “chirp scratch“. Street-tech pioneer, Jason Lee was able to work himself into a stable acting career through using a combination of both tactics. The 360 flip legend went into a completely new direction after first establishing himself in the more underground world of professional skateboarding.
The only other ways that I can think to completely reinvent your self in the public eye are to either do something so iconic and of such high quality that others are forced to take notice or to do some crazy ass, wingnut , loony shit that is so over the top and dysfunctional that your previous efforts are almost completely erased from popular memory. Two examples of infamous lunatics whose debaucherous antics have overshadowed their crafts are Dennis Rodman and Britney Spears. Of course, the more desirable position to be in would be one in which your current projects are as successful and impervious to time as the previous efforts that you are known for, but not everyone can be both Han Solo and Indiana Jones. A career spanning 20 years with a band as influential and imitated as PHISH is going to take some impressive efforts to move beyond and, from what I’ve heard, both live and on record, Mike Gordon’s latest project, “The Green Sparrow“, is not going to cut it.
THE NEW ALBUM
“The Green Sparrow” is, at best, uninteresting. How this album was whittled down from 62 possible songs and into these 10 disposable tracks is beyond me. The members of PHISH have never had the best voices, but have usually been able to harmonize and play to their strengths of musicianship. On Gordon’s solo album however, the sound is definitely lacking. If you remember Michael McCary with the cane from Boys II Men, then try imagining buying his solo album. Hell, I doubt you would even have much luck getting through Ralph Tresvant’s (New Edition) solo album, and he was actually the front man of his group. I understand that the songwriter’s strained voice is one of his staples and that we are “supposed to overlook it” but there are definite holes in Gordon’s album that are beyond what I was expecting. Mike Gordon has been, arguably, the most interesting member to watch in his off time from the band and has produced some very solid offerings in recent years, which is why his most recent release is so disappointing. During the original PHISH hiatus, (Oct. 7th ’00-Dec 31st ’02) Mike teamed up with acoustic guitar legend Leo Kottke to create the album “CLONE“. For over 30 years and 30 albums, Kottke had remained primarily as a solo artist but, somehow, his 6 and 12-string guitar picking blended flawlessly with Gordon’s bass stylings for an incredibly sound collaboration (pun intended). The music that they created as a duo was similar to such combinations as Garcia/Grisman or even Peanut Butter and Chocolate in the respect that it made so much sense, when they finally got together, that one instantly had to wonder why it hadn’t happened sooner. It was a step in a different direction, but still a step in an interesting direction and Kottke/Gordon went on to release a second album titled “Sixty-Six Steps” in 2005. Gordon released his first real solo album in the form of 2003’s “Inside In” (Ropeadope). It was an inspiring move but in, yet another, completely different direction and involved Gordon playing, stacking, and weaving multiple instruments into sonic mosaics on songs like “Bone Delay“.
The most notable track on this newest follow-up actually sounds like a combination of both his “Inside In” and his Kottke projects. The song, “Andelman’s Yard“, has Gordon as sole instrumentalist, employing the same layering techniques as on “Bone Delay” while incorporating the plucky acoustic grooves of a Kottke album and teasing at mini-breakdowns reminiscent of “Foam” (PHISH). This is what I was hoping for from the rest of the album, but it failed to deliver. Lead off track “Another Door” also consisted of Mike playing all of the instruments, however, the drum track was later replaced. I don’t feel that it is as successful as “Andelman’s Yard” but it is musically more interesting and less bland than the rest of the album. The cover sticker boasts guest appearances from Trey Anastasio (Phish), Page McConnell (PHISH), and Billy Kreutzmann (Grateful Dead) but they all seem to appear together on the same Southern Blues Rock driven track, “Traveled Too Far“. This song also has some redeeming qualities but I wouldn’t quite call it a saving grace. What could have saved this album is less monotony. With a voice that has such limited range, Gordon should have counterbalanced it by giving the music a wider scope of rhythms and intensity. I suppose that it’s a decent song, but with a lineup that is basically PHISH with Kreutzman replacing Fishman on the drums, not to mention an extra guitarist and pianist, it could have easily become something that I wanted to listen to as opposed to something that I just didn’t mind listening to. One of the major aspects that has always differentiated PHISH from The Grateful Dead is their penchant for throwing down heavy funk jams, and I’m honestly confused by the lack of all-out danceable funk on, of all people, their bass players album. I feel like an elderly woman in an 80’s Wendy’s ad and am wondering, “Where the fuck is the goddam beef!”
On August 13th, Gordon and his new band played at the Highline Ballroom in New York before doing an in store and 2 free shows. His recent performance at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern was the first non-free concert since and was the only sold out show on the tour. The bassist apparently did 6 months worth of auditions before settling on the lineup which includes guitarist, Scott Murawski (Max Creek), a long time collaborator and member of Mike’s Honky Tonk outift, Ramble Dove. Murawski is actually the only member that appears on the “Green Sparrow” album at all. Instead, Gordon had the questionable idea to record an album with different people and then find a touring band. The other members are made up of Craig Myers (percussion), Todd Isler (drums), and Tom Cleary (Keys) who has studied with Yusef Lateef, and has performed with the likes of Lester Bowie and Bill Frisell.
The show actually started off well as the band worked into some fairly decent jams. Murawski sang on the third song of the set, “La La La“, which they eventually worked into the infamous “Curtain With” jam. At this point, if you are an honest and analytical fan of PHISH’s music and not just a twirling, pharmed out dipshit, enamoured with anything “jam band” related, something inevitably happens that creates a “Rift“, if you will, of duality within your own feelings and viewpoints. Part of me was excited that they busted out some classic PHISH but then I instantly got that “You’re not my real dad!” feeling of resentment. I wouldn’t say that went as far as a, “Why don’t you love mom anymore?!” moment but it was difficult to remain as impartial towards his solo project as I had intended. In 2000 I saw about 6 Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead) shows when he was touring with Bob Dylan. At a few of these shows they busted out “Franklins Tower” but when they got to the part right after they sing “Roll away the dew“, they left out the little guitar noodle that Jerry always did. It wasn’t that I expected to hear every Garcia solo exactly the same way that he did them or for them not to take any creative liberties but, whether they realized it or not, that little mini-riff is actually an integral part of the song and it instantly flung the band, at least in my mindset, into a “poor Grateful Dead cover band” status. I got the same feeling during “Curtain With” at the Gordon show and it became a great catalyst for self reflection. Mike Gordon’s band did not sell out the Tractor Tavern, Mike Gordon’s past did, so what did we all show up hoping to see?
The band finished off that first set sufficiently with a version of “She Said She Said“, from “Revolver“, and, their most recognizable track, “Andelman’s Yard“. The next set didn’t start off all that amazing but it picked up when Boston vocalist Emily Grogan took the stage for a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Rocksteady“, which they jammed into a cover of “Things that Make you Go Hmm“, with percussionist Craig Myers rapping the vocals. When everyone around me was vocal about racking their brains by trying to decide if it was a cover of Dee-Lite or Young MC, I was able to relieve some frustration by explaining that it was actually a C&C Music Factory song, but I couldn’t do anything about the inner disappointment that they may have felt for knowing every lyric. They jammed the song into “Traveled Too Far” before ending the set a bit choppy.
The encore started off with the song “Meat” (Story of the Ghost) which is apparently Mike’s equivalent of Page McConnell playing a “Cars, Trucks, Buses” encore at all of his shows. There was one spot on the floor drenched in beer all night and I believe that it was around this time that I saw some drunk broad laying in it while people around her were trying to lift her up and out. “Hey!” I thought, “I think the last time that I saw this was at a PHISH show.” I’m sure that it would be no surprise to Mike Gordon when I say that the encore sounded like absolute shit and that it was a fucking disaster. From what I recall, there were little tastes of them trying to work the “Curtain With” back into the jams in the 2nd set and they were doing that again in the “Meat” jam of the encore. In fact they tried to do a lot of shit in this jam but none of it really worked out. You may notice that the posted set list will look something like this:
Things That Make You Go Hmm
However, as anyone who saw or heard the encore should know, it could be more realistically posted as such:
Meat > :(
Things That Make You Go Hmm
The little segway jam arrow (“>“) should be removed because it was such a disaster that the jam itself actually stopped. I’m fucking serious, it was all but brought to a screeching halt as Mike Gordon looked around confused at everyone. Eventually the drummer, who was most likely the original cause of the wreck, tried to work out a beat on his own and then the rest of the band slowly, and mostly reluctantly, worked back into playing the novelty, “Things that Make you go Hmm” again. I only say, “mostly reluctantly” because the percussionist, who was now sporting sunglasses, both on top of his head as well as over his eyes, seemed all too excited to return to his moment in the spotlight by regurgitating all of the lyrics from beginning to end all over again. I saw PHISH jam in and out of “Moby Dick” throughout an entire show and do it very successfully, but The Mike Gordon band is no PHISH and C&C Music Factory is no Zeppelin. Someone needs to inform this Craig Myers cat that the crowd was with him the first time but, after trying it again, it cancelled itself out and was like watching Mickey Hart (GD) rapping “Fire on the Mountain” for the 30th time. They finished that trash with open ended nonsense and without any real conclusion before they finally left the stage.
Honestly, the jam debacle wasn’t the most upsetting part of the show. Gordon’s band is young and, after realizing that the crowd responded to a couple of tricks, they made the rookie mistake of getting too excited, beating it into the ground, and becoming parodies of themselves. Scott Murawski has been in the game for 30+ years but Max Creek has never seen anywhere near as much attention as PHISH. Besides, as a group they are still learning to work together. What really disturbed me were those in attendance that were smiling and dancing as if this was the best performance that they could have ever witnessed. Look, I love The Grateful Dead and PHISH, In fact, I think that anyone who calls themselves a fan of psyche music but claims to hate The Dead, needs to relisten to “Mars Hotel” but beyond that, I have found that I have little to no interest in most any other group that can be best and solely described as a “Jam Band“. Not as jazz, bluegrass, electronic, or rock, mind you, but as a “Jam” band. When you decide to limit your scope of interest, especially in music, you will eventually be forced to sift through the leftover remains to discover any new art. Most other “jam bands” have never had the luxury of years to perfect their craft without a massive audience before being thrown on the big stage and to the wolves. The issue has become that, in the jamband realm, the “wolves” are often limited and written off as “agro” which, in turn, winds up encouraging 2nd rate shit to continue. When PHISH broke up I just went home, but many people are looking for “the next big thing” to follow around in an effort to stop progressing in their own lives. So why should they care if the music that they listen to continues to progress or not?
In a recent interview with Jambands.com, Gordon addressed journalists’ seeming disinterest in his current project and their unwavering focus and speculation about a possible PHISH reunion by saying that interviewers consistently ask him how he feels “about Trey’s left nut comment?” He went on to say, “…everyone knows we’ll probably get together and there’s nothing more to say“. If you don’t already know, the “left nut comment” is the latest cause for speculation that has Internet trolls on the Phantasytour.com message board taking a break from masturbating with their own tears of loneliness, and finally rubbing one out with a natural saline lube of joy, excitement, and wonder about what could be. The reference pertains to the following quote from a May, 21st interview with guitarist/front man, Trey Anastasio and Rolling Stone Magazine: “When Phish broke up, I made some comment about how I’m not gonna go around playing ‘You Enjoy Myself’ for the rest of my life,” Anastasio said with a laugh. “And it’s so funny because Fish and Mike and Page have been talking to each other a lot lately and now — it’s not that I can’t believe that I said that, but its symbolic of how much I lost my mind or how much I lost my bearings or something. Because at this point in time I would give my left nut to play that song five times in a row every day until I die. I certainly thought about that while I was in jail“. I vividly remember that moment when the band retired the trampolines that they would use during their “YEM” performances by lowering them into the crowd at Coventry. A few days later, I talked to a Jamie Masefield from the Jazz Mandolin Project at his show in Milwaukee. He mentioned how moved PHISH was by all of us fools that walked 10-15 miles to get into that final festival and it was a sad time for a lot of people.
Even though I knew that I was in the minority, I was a huge proponent of PHISH disbanding around that time. It wasn’t just becuase they were obviously burnt out and that the quality of their work was clearly diminishing but also because I seemed to have a different viewpoint on the directions that the individual members were going. Many people hated Trey’s big band efforts but I felt differently. From an artistic standpoint, I could respect the idea of Trey heading into a new direction that he was never able to fully embrace before. This is also why I enjoyed Anastasio’s conducting of an orchestra at the 2004 Bonnaroo when everybody else was just talking shit. The moment that his post-PHISH career hit a wall for me was when he introduced his new stripped down outfit at the Bonnaroo of the following year. I tried to get over their initial appearance, which rivaled that of recent GNR lineups, but the band itself just wasn’t very good. PHISH was a band that could play songs like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit it” and “Tubthumping” and get away with it but, when Anastastio brought American Idol contestant Bo Bice out to sing on stage, it was hard to tell if it was actually a joke or not anymore. My fear is that, at this point, Mike Gordon is about to run dead smack into the same wall that Trey hit 3 years ago.
My aim with this incredibly long album/concert review/thesis is not to, necessarily, discourage anyone from attending the upcoming Mike Gordon band performances or even to incite a riot in the name of a PHISH reunion. It was actually really nice to get an opportunity to meet Mike at the merch table after the show and see him in a much smaller environment. I am also quite aware the Seattle performance was an early spot on the tour and, with Gordon at the helm, I have no doubts that there will be a definite progression by tours end. I find his new album to be rather weak but the last few PHISH albums had become increasingly worse anyway. The nice thing about “Farmhouse” was that, by the time that it was released, and even with the blatant “No Woman, No Cry” rip-off title track, I had already gotten the chance to witness the live potential of songs like “Piper” and “Sand“. By the time PHISH played their last show at Camden (NJ) I actually began to appreciate the advancement of some of the same newer tracks that I had previously hated. This is because, unlike most other bands, much of the song development actually takes place after their original recordings. This is the same reason that I may even grow to really like some of the tracks off of “The Green Sparrow“. I didn’t find any problems when Gordon played “Foam” and “Mike’s Song” with Benevento/Russo, but they had a different take on those PHISH tracks that made them feel original. I basically feel that Gordon’s recent troupe, much like Trey’s “rock” band, will continue to be viewed with confusion and animosity if they fail to make a drastic change towards originality.
Gordon seems to consistently point out how much different Murawski plays than Trey but, to me, the Gordon band’s members sounded like they were trying fairly hard to imitate their predecessors. The sound may have a lot to do with Muraski choosing to play with a Languedoc guitar, just like Trey. However, Tom Cleary’s keyboard jams also contained very obvious tinges of PHISH’s McConnell, with the major difference being that this crew actually let Cleary do some soloing. If these bandleaders are going to continue to present rock acts so similar in format to PHISH, I find it very hard to believe that they will ever be viewed as anything beyond cheap imitations. They do not seem to be collaborations because they are not helping the front men mature, instead they are only helping them to focus more attention on themselves and that isn’t always a good thing. They also raise the questions of, “If these guys clearly don’t want to go into new directions, then why would they keep performing in new groups” and inevitably make people wonder, “When is PHISH going to get back together.” You have to wonder if Gordon’s thoughts aren’t similar when the one song where his former band members make an appearance together on his solo venture features lyrics like, “I don’t wanna go back when I think that I might find something further ahead, but I don’t know where I am” Plus, “It feels like I’m soaring through space with my worries. I start to unravel when I see I’ve traveled just a little too far. When the only planet left is the one that they say has been demoted I start to wonder where my rickety spacecraft here has floated.” and “Woah, I realize I’ve traveled much too far. I’m starting to know now“. One thing is for sure, when the spotlight in on you that close, your shadow is bound to become much larger than you are.