Mike Gordon and Leo Kottke, Irving Plaza, NYC- 10/29
NYC ROLL-TOP: The Duo Oblique
Performing on a literally non-existent stage set at Manhattan's Irving Plaza — not an amplifier, backdrop, or moving light in sight — acoustic guitar legend Leo Kottke and former Phish bassist Mike Gordon rejected artifice and focused attention on precisely what is unique about their collaboration: themselves. Standing practically face-to-face, the pair's two-hour set deployed quick precision, precise quirk, accessibility, and a little jamming in much the same cocktail as Phish did in the early 1990s. But — again, like Phish — it was their indomitable character that held the show together.
Hitting material from their two albums, 2002's Clone (including Gordon’s demented title cut) and this year’s Sixty Six Steps (such as the Kottke-sung cover of Eddie Reeves and Alex Harvey’s breezy "Rings"), the duo’s twin leads entwined to create a third voice. Filled with cross-rhythms and sudden harmonies, the music recalled friends deep in conversation. Indeed, the two chatted amicably off-mic between most songs, while master raconteur Kottke offered the occasional dryly hilarious anecdote, letting the rest of the class in on just what was so funny.
Several times throughout the show, the band sailed off into extended instrumental passages that — being only acoustic guitar and bass — could hardly rely on dramatic histrionics for their power. So, instead, they got quiet. As long as they retained their momentum — which was most of the time — the music propelled itself forward on a frame of hidden gearwork (proving once again that the addition of Neil Symonette's percussion rhythms on Sixty Six Steps was wholly unnecessary).
The two relied on a variety of hooks to keep the crowd locked in: a solo Gordon take on Hank Williams Jr.'s "Old Habits" that made a convincing case for acoustic bass as an acceptable instrument for a singer, a lovely Kottke-led rendition of the traditional "Corrina, Corrina," as well as numbers by clear influences like avant-folk legend John Fahey and ancient bluegrass statesman Doc Watson. There was also a pair of Phish-related numbers: an old staple cover of the Mustangs' "Ya Mar" ("Tell Trey what it is," an audience member shouted between verses, varying the song’s lyric), and a fresh arrangement of Farmhouse’s "Twist" (the crowd picking up the layered chorus, Gordon cuing group "woo"s with stabs of his bass neck).
In his partnership with Kottke, Gordon has found a way to move into maturity without losing touch with what made Phish fundamentally distinct. In the bargain, it is music that — while maybe erring on the adult contemporary side of hippie — retains what was truly special and human about the beloved Vermont quartet without overtly sounding like them. Unlike former partner Trey Anastasio, Gordon seems entirely comfortable with Phish's legacy, and his newest work seems a natural outgrowth of it. In doing so, the music remarkable deflects the need compare, simply because it is charming on its own terms. With the promotional duties for Sixty Six Steps out of the way, the duo’s current run might be up but — with no bothersome Phish tours to get in the way — one hopes it won’t be another three years before their next outing.