Mike Gordon, Met Cafe, Pawtucket, RI -12/9
On a Friday night in Rhody I saw the Mike Gordon Band for the first time—as a matter of fact, I was hearing them for just the second time and I have to say that I was chewing on a grisly chunk of uncertainty when I entered the venue. Would I get it? Would they bring it? And as I walked in and found my spot in the crowd a spike of bravado gutted my hesitancy and left behind a familiar feeling of having been there before. I was ready, I could handle and digest this! And on Friday night at the Met Café in Pawtucket, RI, when the first clicky notes of the tornadic sequence of “Traveled Too Far” > “Sugar Shack” > “Traveled Too Far” > “Sugar Shack” echoed through the small, bowling alley-like, venue I knew in an instant that I was mistaken.
The whole first set, save one hiccup, carried a feeling of mayhem tainted with dark molasses. The opening four-pack was definitely a conscious decision by the band to showcase their heavy-handed and obtuse chops. Phish fans love the dark horse appearances of “Sugar Shack” but I can guarantee they have not heard it played like this, the flowing segues between “Shack” and “Traveled too Far” were each separated by segments of emotionally polarized jamming that flowed between earnest concern and root-canal anesthesia euphoria. Funny thing was that I often found myself locked in, not on the familiar foundations of Gordon, but on the almost absurdly dark and jazzy guitar work of Scott Murawski.
Mike Gordon is widely known as a musician that has an ear for melodies that ride off the rails and in many of his other projects there is someone there to tug him back onto the road. Here, Murawski seems to challenge Mike’s definition of the road or the rails and together they lead their bandmates into a bouncy, rhythmic and skewed underworld that is only visited by a precious few other acts, Les Claypool and the Flying Frog Brigade comes to mind. A warning to MGB virgins, there will be times when your definitions of melody and rhythm will be challenged. But only good things can come from expanding your musical scope and increasing the leniency of your ear.
Mike and Murawski took their band and the rest of the crowd successfully out of the second visit to the “Sugar Shack” and kept the mood decidedly dark as they seamlessly switched tracks and headed for the acid-jazz-meets-Alice-in-Chains mashup in their song “The Field.” This groove-heavy ride through big seas washed up on the slow sing-songy shores of J.J. Cale’s “Ain’t Love Funny” moving beautifully into the composed phrases of “Kryermaten” —a well-placed two-part respite from the sinister splashes of darkness featured throughout the rest of the set. But it wasn’t long before “Sugar Shack” themes were again injected into the groove and a full-on reprise emerged to close out the first installment of this segue-heavy show.
After a short story from Mike about a mind-twisting experience in the MIT Media Lab where a boyhood friend is now designing DNA they dropped what would be their only faux pas of the night with “I Miss My Mind.” The song, written by keyboardist Tom Cleary and his mother in-law, sounds like it’s supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek take on a 70’s lounge lizard lamentation. For me the song missed the mark, went on too long and bordered on annoying. The set finished strong with the synth and grove-heavy almost Little Feat-esque vamp “The Void” which was a late-set treat, setting the stage for what was to come in set two. Set one then finished as it began, the band tied the bow with a fourth reprise of “Traveled Too Far.”
When they returned for the second set, Murawski chopped through the intro of a hyperactive—see Ritalin-induced—version of The Talking Heads’ “Cities,” and the whole feel of the night changed from the Large Marge part of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure to a dance party where everyone has had just the right amount to drink. This, I felt, was the band wrapping a collective arm around the audience and saying, “we scared you a little didn’t we? Well, have a listen here!” And it was just what the doctor ordered as the whole crowd responded with crystalized excitement as Mike took over the controls and lead the jam through three distinctly different sections of anything-goes jamming.
There is always a moment that defines a truly great set or show, and on paper it looks like, it’s the reinjection of “Sugar Shack” into the set list at every turn. I got a couple texts the next day from people who did not attend the show that said simply “SUGAR SHACK” feel free to add a “brah!” in there if you want to put the cherry on top. If you only take one thing from this review, let it be that “Susskind Hotel” is a bona fide jam giant and that MGB played this song with only one goal in mind and that was: total annihilation. This 21-plus minute monster made even the most inspired passages of set one feel like they happened decades earlier. The deftly executed dynamics make this song feel like a mix between a high speed car chase on a mountain road and a crawl through a muddy mangrove in the Everglades—the hands-down highlight of the show and a true Mike Gordon masterpiece.
A brief visit to Max Creek’s “Cruel World” and a reprise of “The Void” bridged the gap between the jam monster and the next highlight that came in the form of a bent cover of The Beatles’ “She Said She Said” —which bled back and forth between itself and fragments of “Sugar Shack” before floating into a country-blues ditty called “The Walls of Time”—I believe John Lennon would have approved.
Something I took out of this show was a huge respect for MGB’s willingness to allow their jams to travel organically and not worry about where they lead. Revisiting songs multiple times in a show, in my mind, takes a hell of a lot more talent and creativity than turning a blind eye to songs already played. Many well-known jambands have trouble with this concept but if you were at this show, or if you download it now, you’ll understand the enriching quality this practice can have on a performance, that is, when it happens organically. Something else that really upped the ante in this performance was the obvious fact that the band was having a blast. During several high-point jamming sections Gordon, Murawski, Cleary and percussionist Craig Myers were jumping in unison while their surplus enthusiasm flooded off of the stage and electrified the crowd. I plan on seeing MGB again as soon as I can and you can bet I’ll be staying at the Susskind Hotel as often as humanly possible between now and the next local show.