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Mike Gordon

The Green Sparrow

Produced by John Siket

Rounder

Aug. 5, 2008

Performed at Paradise Rock Club

Sept. 7, 2008

Mike Gordon is weird. He’s best known as the bassist from the now broken-up Phish, but also as the author of Mike’s Corner, a section of the band’s newsletter which served as a sort of psychedelic literary repository. Take for example a story he published in October, 1995 with the beginning: “As far as tikes go, Johnald was a wee bit irregular. For one thing, he had an Amrope coming out of his head. You may be wondering, ‘What is an Amrope?’ I won’t piss on you for wondering that. Actually, it’s like an antenna, but it’s got some mold on it. It’s not something you buy at a store, maybe you do buy it in a store.”

His first solo album, 2003’s Inside In, continued the weird and distorted realities usually found in Mike’s writings and handful of short films. However with his most recent effort, The Green Sparrow, Gordon evolves and takes the weird to strangely accessible levels. He toys with genres by releasing an overall rock record, with hints of folk, calypso, and funk. This is almost no surprise, given that Gordon’s tastes and influences range widely, and that in addition to the bass, he can play the piano, guitar, banjo, and harmonica. Lyrically, Gordon opens up to the listener. He’s increasingly self-reflecting and sometimes addresses his subject plainly and openly. In ‘Jaded’, a funky, Spin Doctors-esque tune, Gordon raps about his frustrations against his subject. He sings “Now I’m jaded!” during the choruses, in total pop splendor. At first it’s a little comical to hear him juxtapose melodic rapping with American Idol style one-line choruses, but it’s also incredibly fitting.

On ‘Morphing Again’ Gordon addresses a beloved flying-creature, evolving through life. Imagery such as “she floats through rain like a waterlogged butterfly” prove that we’re still in Gordon’s twisted world-view, but we can relate to his endearing tribute to his beloved. The weird is okay now — even when he sings that “she escapes the bird like an airborne scorpion.” The song, probably one of the best tracks of all ten, is clever lyrically and musically. It’s a folksy, Caribbean-themed track that alludes to the bouncy relationship he may have with his odd lover. We almost empathize with Gordon’s fears when he introspects: “she’s morphing again into something I can’t recognize, and just when I’m in, she might morph her way out.”

Truthfully, only a few other songs hold the same power as ‘Morphing’ and ‘Jaded.’ There are plenty of unique ideas and fantastic moments, but areas of the album that just meander and miss the opportunity to develop lyrical or musical motifs. At other times, Gordon just misses it completely, in his attempt to make this album more loose and accessible. In ‘Pretend,’ an acoustic ballad, Gordon sings to his girl suggesting “we can deja-vu backwards, baby.” The only problem is that he continues to append several other lines after that with “baby,” and it’s not clear whether he’s being wry or actually thinks that it fits.

Last weekend in Boston at the Paradise Rock Club, Gordon and his new band proved that The Green Sparrow translates much better in the live setting. Though the crowd was riddled with Phish fans who wake up every morning dreaming of a band reunion, it couldn’t be clearer that Gordon has moved on from Phish and was the leader of a new group. Though a quiet member on stage with Phish, Gordon played the new role of front-man with ease, occasionally joking around with the audience. The group opened with ‘Another Door,’ also the opener on The Green Sparrow. On stage Gordon successfully communicated with his band members, either by musical cues, facial signals or actually going up to them and speaking to them during songs. The actual songs played during the show differed drastically from the written setlist left on the stage, based on Gordon’s impulse decisions. While the majority of the album tracks clock in at less than five minutes, the band extended each song into the eight to twelve minute range. These extended jams showcased Gordon’s ability to lead as a bassist, but also the various strengths and weaknesses of his bandmates. Guitarist Scott Murawksi meandered at times, and keyboardist Tom Cleary relied too often on similar blues licks to fill out his solos. However, for a group trying to improvise on stage, they succeeded in fully developing each song into cohesive ideas that went beyond the abrupt nature of the studio versions.

Gordon rightfully included the obligatory Phish song, ‘Meat,’ in the first set. It was the only song for which the audience knew all the lyrics, with the exception of ‘She Said, She Said,’ an epic Beatles cover that lasted almost 14 minutes. Before ‘Radar Blip,’ Gordon asked the audience to decide which member of the band would lead the jam using communal hand signals. The ‘experiment’ more or less worked, and reached a comic peak when everyone had fists raised in the air while shimmying (the signal for the percussionist to lead the jam).

The crowd danced non-stop for the majority of the first set. Weaker album tracks such as ‘Voices’ couldn’t come alive in concert, but the addition of several songs not found on the album made the repertoire varied enough to forgive dull moments. The band was having a blast on stage, considering it was their last date on an exhaustive tour of North America. For now, Gordon is done touring. He mentioned in several interviews that he had recorded over 50 songs before narrowing down the 10 that made it onto The Green Sparrow. With all the songs he has left over, plus new ideas and songs that evolved from the tour, he could be in the midst of putting together a new solo effort. In order to hone his songwriting, he should take just a little more time with the next album. Hopefully, he’ll spend even more time touring it. Unless that other band he used to play in starts touring again.