Leo Kottke, Mike Gordon & Neil Symonette Marquee Theatre, Tempe, AZ 6/28
With a new CD, Sixty Six Steps, coming out in August, the new trio began the fourth show of their tour with confidence and recklessness. Neil Symonette"on a per diem and a smile" according to Kottkeflew in from Nassau, Bahamas where he is both a famous Compass Point session drummer and a co-conspirator on the duo’s first release since 2002’s Clone. They played robust, energetic music that harkened back to Gordon's 1991 song "Poor Heart" which had its roots in bluegrass and Kottkesque excursions. Now, the sound is full of experienced fingerpickin', grinnin' and a whole lot of clever wordplay laced with acoustic space jams.
Kottke began the two-hour, two set show by stating that he had heard one of his songs played on Muzak earlier that day. "Maybe, that means we're supposed to play it tonight." We didn't find out if they did play the mysterious song but it really didn't matter. Kottke is as adept at witty verbal banter as he is at his new found union with the former Phish bass guitarist. Indeed, this relationship seems to have developed quite a bit since their 2002 debut. While that journey was cut short by the hiatus-ending orgasm of Phish's 12/31/02 appearance at Madison Square Garden, the mojo has reconvened with a fresh mobility and sound. Symonette played very unpredictable fills that challenged the songs while toying with various solos and rhythms unknown in the duo's prior work.
The casual nature of the show was echoed time and again by the playful quips during the numerous song breaks. After the show opener, Gordon offered: "This is the first time I've ever played without any stage monitor or bass amps, no set list (the crowd laughed at this ridiculous latter comment). Wait(pointed to his head) and no brains, either." Well, two out of four ain't bad as Gordon played without monitor or amps, but the seasoned vet showed no signs of either loss as his sound was both dense and exploratory. He played a large acoustic bass that apparently had been dusted off after patiently waiting in Vermont or Manhattan for its chance to groove. Cactus is everywhere these days and we're the better for itfrom the Jammys with Phil Lesh to a Bonnaroo Benevento/Russo Duo gig to a Yonder Mountain String Band guest spot. As I write this, his April 52-minute version of "Foam" with the Duo sits at Number 1 on the Live Phish Download list.
Kottke glided over his bandmates improvisatory notes with a few hidden tricks, as well. As matter of fact, I've never seen the man so relaxed and willing to take so many chances in a performance. Case in pointyet another touchstone for the evening: "We just worked this out yesterday." And away they went on a three-minute instrumental that was equal parts jazzy Joni Mitchell and cool Tom Waits. The Trio ventured into a road travelogue instrumental that featured a sweet jam and a doorway into the title track from the duo's first release with Gordon on lead vocal, Symonette on cagey drum fills and Kottke strumming along with a grin plastered on his face. He didn't miss a beat at the coda of "Clone": "Mike Gordon gets the award for singing the most amount of words in the shortest amount of time." Gordon added to the moment by quickly blabbering nonsense into the microphone and we all laughed.
Gordon introduced a new song off the new CD and the humor got even deeper since the piece was an extremely short instrumental that contained all of its sonic information with nary a note off kilter. (Heyyou write sentences like that when you're talking about Mike & Leo). "Sometimes darkness," sang Kottke on the next entry, "is the only light you see." When Kottke wasn't playing with a syllable and a riff, he was offering turgid wisdom soaked in rattle top Symonette drums and warm Gordo bass. "Ain't Love Funny That Way?" came next as Gordon handled the vocals with appropriate irony. Kottke settled in for a monologue as he described the time he saw a "95-year old man with a radiant smile for every girl in the house" in Washington D.C. when he was a 17-year old in high school. He didn't want to be 95 but he wanted the "radiant smile" that Mississippi John Hurt had while singing "Corrina, Corrina." And the trio dug deep into this old tune as Kottke mined new terrain with his own take on the vocals.
"Let me recover a minute," said Kottke after the Hurt gem, "that was too much fun. I thought I wrote this next song and six months after playing it, I realized I hadn't. I called it "Turtle Hill." It's really an old traditional tune called "Cripple Creek." Another great little journey and then another brief tuning break by Kottke. Gordon, ever the prankster, decided to fill the air with some bass textures: "That's called Opus Interlude #920," he stated after its ten-second jaunt. The hour long set ended with a take on "Ring" whichwe are toldis a "song for a wedding" from "Sixty Six Steps." Great lyrics, vocals and Trio licks as the clock moved towards 9pm. My mind drifted during the set break as it wandered into an excerpt from an old Mike's Corner entry: "I was a spy for the F.B.I. Then I realized I was just spying my life away. Do you ever realize that? It starts to seem like a waste of time. It’s too very old of a sport. It is Muzak in its finest hour. I had had enough." What was Mike trying to tell us? Ahh…profound knowledge nuggets…are you kidding me?he's just a smart ass. Cactus will always be one of us. Only difference is that he played in America's Best Band and has a big giant acoustic bass that he whips out for special tours like this little pearl I'm witnessing on a hot Summer eve in Tempe, Arizona. Lights down. Here we go again.
Kottke midway through the second set said he "was on top of the Chrysler Building [presumably to jump] when Mike said, "WAITlisten to this." And away we went into a spirited "Ya Mar" that had everyone shouting out the lyrics and dancing to the ancient chestnut. The big roars of recognition were enhanced when Gordon inevitably exhorted: "Play it, Leo!" before Kottke's guitar break. Solos all around the stage after that as the song reached a joyful conclusion. The Trio attempted a first time instrumental reading of a slow, tasteful stroll, which segued into a rolling, rollicking space that ended the set. Gordon ended the show as he sang passages of "How Did I Get Here?" with its lyric switch to "How Did We Get Here?" as we all noted the irony while smiling yet again through another elastic acoustic romp. The band quickly exited the stage; the Legend of the New Trio was born; and the band headed out to California for the High Sierra Festival and, hopefully, many other points unknown in the near future.