Mike Gordon’s side project at the Egg’s Hart Theater on Sunday night was best when they got their Phish groove on. They tried other stuff for the full house — a little techno-dance, some bluegrass, straight-up spacey things, etc. — but in the end, that mid-tempo punchy bass-grounded mish-mashed Phish feel delivered the best moments of the night.
For some, Gordon leads Phish from underneath with his solo-style playing. Sunday night, the sound clearly revolved around his movements. We got a little more of his often-muted personality as band leader, but not much more. At his best moments, he got the head bobbin’ like a fighting chicken. It seems he can’t help himself when the music is cookin’.
Opening with “Horizon Line,” they gave us what we pretty much got all night: a solid, competent jam with a spirit of adventure that led to some risk-taking outside their comfort zone, but short of record-breaking. Still, it felt like we were getting 110% out of them with every song.
The songs themselves can be weak — no surprise there — as was the singing, but all of it served as a jumping point for improvisation. “Deranged” edged toward interesting, a high-speed techno-dance tune far from a Phish feel. At times, they pulled into separate corners, but when Gordon gathered them back up through a pronounced bass riff, they reassembled with a cool, energized ending.
“The Way it Goes,” a bluegrass tune that jumped forward with a Grateful Dead-like gait, grew spacey with Cleary’s piano solo, and then again the next round as guitarist Scott Murawski led a staccato rhythm — everyone moving inside and around each other, using the silent spaces to infect the jam. This was very cool.
The place exploded when they opened the second set with the Phish tune “Funky Bitch,” everyone rising for the occasion, Murawski attacking in his own style, rising above any fear of Trey Anastasio comparisons. The song was cut short, but it injected a new energy into the night.
Gordon spoke a little between songs, seemingly comfortable, making the required jokes about eggs, and then complimenting the venue as a great place to play, which he said he does every show, but this time was even “more genuine.”
During a percussion-driven jam, Gordon twanged around the lower notes, prompting the band to jump in place together. The standing audience followed suit, the whole place bouncing up and down together. Like it or not, that’s fun.
They covered The Band’s soulful “Don’t Do It,” pianist Cleary taking Levon Helm’s vocal role. A great tune that served them well.
Phish front-man Trey Anastasio avoids the jam-band concept with his side projects. But Gordon takes it head on, confident that his own band can interact at a level high enough for a demanding Phish crowd. They did Sunday night. And when they didn’t, there was always Gordon’s maniacal style to dig.
It’s heartening to see 850 people — mostly young — pack a room and get wild for a bass player’s band on a Sunday night. This is difficult, challenging music that requires focus. Sunday night’s show was the final night of their short Northeast tour, and you felt it.
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