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Published: 2004/08/29
by Dan Alford

COVENTRY CoverageA Duo and a Cactus

Dan Alford submitted this piece to the Courier but given the volume of material we received, we just didn’t have space for it…

Although Mike Gordon has made various shorter comments regarding the demise of Phish, he hasn't addressed the fans directly in the same way that Trey and Page have. His rather heartbreaking letter to Bass Player speaks to the point though. Mike was (is?) willing to do whatever was necessary to revitalize the band; he was not in favor of the break up. The shirts and stickers that popped up after IT, saying, "Mike Says No" in reference to Fluffhead (he didn't say no, by the way) have now taken on a whole new level of meaning. What happens when a relationship falls apart and one person is still committed to one aspect, while the other(s) are committed to another? It's hard.

Much has been made, in the various virtual communities, whether Phantasy Tour or RMP, of the vitality of Mike's playing since the hiatus, and more specifically, on this final tour. While other band members approached various solo projects and explored differing realms of composition and performance, Mike, partially through his films and partially through songwriting exercises and performance, seemed to be digging into his instrument and sound with a grander mission. He seemed to look for the roots of bass, what it is and why it works, but also for the roots of collaboration, for an understanding how and why music does what it does. In returning to Phish, Mike was more explosive than ever- crisp and clean in the mix, and churning out sounds with a new lust for the music. Thought jewels polished an gleaming, another bassist might say.

Now that Phandom is on the cusp of a strange new era of musicality and exploration, when band members will undoubtedly shock and surprise us all with various new projects, or simply by taking a break from touring and recording, the question of Mike is perhaps the most intriguing. It has been effectively argued that Cactus has his own special potential as a long-term artist. His interests and skills are flung so far that he is bound to thrill us all; he's also bound to fall on his face- that's the way life works. There is also, however, a known quantity in Mike's future: more films and more music with Leo Kottke. Clone was a truly groundbreaking release for more reasons than the average Phish fan can appreciate. Kottke’s fanbase was surely thrown into a tizzy at a duo project from that eclectic guitar iconoclast. Even Garrison Kellior, host of the sappiest bit of Americana still in production, National Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion, even commented on the unbelievablity of Leo's choosing a teammate. Mike has made a mark bigger than you might think, and the Leo and Mike show promises great things.

Another probably lesser known collaboration, however, has perhaps the most saliva inducing potential, particularly for those looking for those bass notes culled from the deepest of jams: Mike Gordon and the Duo. Marco Benevento and Joe Russo, old friends reunited in a rabid matrix of organ and drums, hail from NYC and have, over the past year and half, made a big splash in the jam world. They are an amazing mix of showmanship, musicianship, improvisation and intertexuality, and on June 7th of this year at the B.B. King's Headcount benefit, they invited Mike to join them for an almost entirely improvised set of thick, heady jams and instrumental inventiveness. Needless to say, when playing as a duo, the interaction must be preternatural, the responsiveness a reaction, or rather preaction, rather than a thought. Still, Marco and Joe have brought many, many guests into their very inclusive fold; few, however, seem as natural a fit as Mike. There was reportedly no rehearsal at all, and this music created is stunning; breathtaking. Mike plays perfectly in the open spaces and is completely willing to gun with the Duo when they attack each other with hectic bouts of frenzy. Perhaps what is most impressive, however, is that Mike in no way inhibits the Duo's conversation, and they go to no length to make room for him. Instead, it all seems to fit naturally. Mike's fat, bubbly bass rides alongside, under and above Marco's organ bass, and cuts through the snares and rim shots like liquid, and listening to the performance it is far too easy to see Marco's crazy smile, Joe open-mouthed with his glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose, and Mike bobbing along in the center. If this is the music of the future, so be it; I'll miss Phish more than I can say, but if this is the music of the future, so be it.

The Duo and Mike are now label mates on Ropeadope, and they will be performing together at the moe.down this fall. So if you're in the throes of post-Coventry malaise, download the Headcount gig from the Live Music Archive and hear the future. It might make you feel a little better.

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