Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon, Starr Hill Music Hall, Charlottesville, Virginia- 11/1
It was the next to last performance of a 25-show run, but Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon showed no signs of fatigue in their first of November show at Starr Hill Music Hall. There was a strict no-smoking policy as well as a conversation ban. “If you must talk, move to the back of the hall,” stated the bulletins posted everywhere. I, of course, got stuck behind the one drunk and loud girl in the place. Wearing all black upon a completely empty stage, Leo and Mike plugged their instruments into their monitors and stood facing each other. Although the show was sold-out, I felt as though we were in the quaint and intimate basement of someone’s house. Without amplifiers except a couple microphones, they took to their respective acoustic instruments and began with an instrumental opener, “William Powell.” They soon showed that although their setup seemed bare, they lacked nothing. There were no missing pieces. Throughout, I never once thought that the incorporation of drums would enhance anything. Their simplistic setup was juxtaposed against the flurry of notes they sent the audience’s way. An orchestrated frenzy, the music spewed forth like it would never stop.
The two musicians kept going into their next piece, “From Pizza Towers to Defeat,” a tune written by Frizz Fuller that was featured on Mike and Leo’s debut, Clone. In this selection they began to showcase their interlocking, weaving technique. Set at a walking pace, each filled the other’s holes and gaps so as to create a fluid sound. The song, apparently a true story having happened to Richard Nixon, began in the back of a truck. Next, to the crowd’s obvious delight, they broke into “Twist,” a Phish song. With Mike on vocals, he angled his bass right as the crowd inserted the “woo.” In the next song, “Ojo” which went into “Airproofing,” the two changed speeds from a subtle groove to a hopscotch rhythm; then they went into double time. I could not help but notice the kaleidoscopic effect that Mike’s bass (a Martin Alt-X) had, which mirrored ever-so-equally with the silver touch of his hair.
Mike switched things up at this point by doing a solo piece, Hank Williams, Jr.’s “Old Habits.” With a country twang and humorous lyrics, this provided a great break in the set before heading into “Disco.” This was an appropriately-titled tune with complicated looping in and out, offset by stop-time. In “Clone,” the title track to their initial release, Mike’s vocals filled the room with an even, resonant tone before they broke the song into a staccato robot rhythm. Not only was the rendition flawless but it was filled with simple yet pleasant harmonies.
Leo’s off-the-wall stories made several appearances throughout the evening which prompted Mike to tell a story about Fishman from the Phish tour days. Supposedly as they were traveling on a double-decker bus through Europe, Fish climbed around the bus. Mike, having been sleeping, was awoken to hear, “Fish is doing something very bad,” (something they were all used to hearing). Before Mike knew it, Fish was outside on top of the bus, sticking his head down through the skylight. This story prompted the duo to play “Eight Miles High,” a tune by the Byrds which Leo played often in the 1960’s. This lighthearted moment led into a personal favorite song from their forthcoming album, “The Grid,” with Mike on vocals. “Twice,” another song from Sixty Six Steps, came next, reminding the audience that “sometimes shadows are the only light we see” in Leo’s hauntingly gruff voice. Leo continued singing into the next piece, John Hurt’s “Corrine, Corrina.” A sweet ballad that was broken apart by 1950’s surfer doo-wop, this rendition was a classic standard that has been covered by Phish in the past.
Mike and Leo began the traditional “Cripple Creek” in a banjo-picking style. They built in volume as the song progressed, until afterwards Leo declared, “My problem is that I have too good a time.” Whereupon Mike added, “In case you’re wondering what it’s like standing next to the motherfucker on my right . . . it’s great!” Clearly every individual in the room was feeling the vibe, not excluding Mike and Leo themselves. They next went into “The Old Home,” a Carter Stanley song that invoked the duo’s use of vocal harmony. For their set closer, they chose Leo-sung “Rings,” another standout track from their new album.
As the two came back to the stage for their audience-demanded encore, they treated the guests in the room to the icing of the Bahamas-flavored cake: “Ya-Mar.” Most everyone in the room started singing along with Mike and I must admit I added some upper harmonies, swept away in the moment. All in all, the evening was a concoction of Caribbean flair and nostalgia for music roots. The intimate stage setting as well as the repertoire selections made for an exceptionally intimate experience, connecting the performers with the individuals in the audience.