When Mike Gordon put together his band in the early part of 2008, he took his time. In fact, he obsessed, second-guessed, and intensely deliberated over who to hire after a lengthy audition process. His vision was long term: he needed his instincts to tell him that the band he was assembling could come up with their own musical language and chemistry, and tour year in/year out together. And of course, continue to grow and make interesting music together.
Even with Phish back into the mix heavily in 2009, Gordon's band still continued to develop. They showed a significant sign of musical growth in the 19-show tour they did back in September/October 2009. Doing a short eight-show run here in March doesn't seem like much time to let things really breathe and develop, but based on what Mike just posted on his web site before the tour kick off -- a sold out show at Revolution Hall in Troy, NY -- the band is taking a much deeper and wider approach to playing. Here's what Mike had to say:
"On the first day of practices, we decided to come to the studio and invite the muse to control us for a day. I led a guided meditation in which we imagined tapping into universal energy that connects from the spheres, through us, and into the center of the Earth, and then we imagined being on stage as the music played the band and the coolest sound we could imagine came out. Each band member then described his aural vision, directing the others to create it. And this little sampling is Craig Myers' vision, entitled 'Birth Of The Universe.' He described ambience wallowing from nothingness, and then mouthed out a rhythm that Todd could then interpret, helping to kick the thing into rock-ass gear. Nice work, Craig."

He posted an mp3 of the jam on his site. Listen here:
This is probably the highest level of improvisational communication that I've heard Mike's band reach. It's absolutely wonderful to hear them getting to that space of deep listening where their collective voice uniquely comes through.
The band didn't quite reach that same level at Rev Hall, but they definitely had some close moments. For a tour opener, there seemed to be only a fraction of hesitation. The room dictated the way they played, as Rev Hall was packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, super sold out. It was this band's first appearance in the Capital Region of New York and they were welcomed warmly. The heart of Friday night was alive and well, people were ready to party, and the band played to that vibe.
The driest moment of the night came when they started with "Another Door." It felt like getting up and trying to run without doing any stretching. But by the time the band hit the section of the tune where they could open up and jam for a bit, it all came together. You could hear Scott Murawski's guitar loud and clear for the first time and it felt like the rest of the band had finally arrived.
Tom Cleary was impressive all night -- all you need to do is hear him once to know he's an accomplished pianist. But I haven't seen him play with as much freedom and confidence in Mike's band before. He listened and reacted with great instinct throughout the night. And I've never seen him get such a big rise out of the crowd as he did during his own "Crumblin' Bones." Cleary didn't hold anything back in his singing or his playing, and the payoffs were big. I would never have predicted that this song would be one of the standouts of the night.
It was also refreshing to see some tracks from 2008's Green Sparrow -- "Dig Further Down," "Traveled Too Far" and "Andelman's Yard" -- receive as many accolades as Phish tunes "Meat" and "Sugar Shack," which served as the night's encore.
The thing that I continue to find the most compelling is Mike Gordon's playing. Even if Tom or Scott were soloing, I'd shift my focus on to what Mike was doing. After the show, I explained to a friend that's it's the Phish factor. For years seeing Phish play, I'd find myself just locking into one of them during group improvisation. My friend agreed while pointing out that Mike's bass playing continues to be inventive and original even if he's playing over a simple progression of two or three chords like he's done thousands of times. His playing doesn't sound routine or as if he's falling back on a bag of tricks. And that's what makes his playing sound so present, and in turn, makes you feel present and in the moment during the show.
Throughout the Rev Hall show, Gordon provided his band with direction as well. When the group lost focus, he provided the spark that got them back on course. At a minimum, that's what makes this band compelling enough to see every time they go out for a tour: at the core of it all is Gordon, a dynamic improviser and one-of-a-kind bass player.
Seeing the band delve into a much deeper space (both in practice and live) and continue to gain confidence and take more risks together makes it even more worthwhile to follow along. With the time between tours and Phish hitting their stride, I began to wonder what the longevity of this band might be. But the Rev Hall show felt similar to Higher Ground tour closer last fall -- there are more than enough compelling reasons to keep seeing the band play. And you can't beat that for the first show of the tour and first time the band has played onstage in six months.