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Phish's end sparks Kottke-Gordon partnership


September 14, 2005 - By ALAN SCULLEY

For the Call

Former Phish bassist Mike Gordon ad-mits that collaborating with master guitarist Leo Kottke was hardly the most likely partnership he could have forged.

For one thing, Kottke had never worked with another musician on a project as extensive as a full CD or a concert tour.

On a musical level, Gordon knew that Kottke might not be suited that well to collaboration in the first place.

"I had been listening to him for 17 or 18 years at that point," Gordon said. "I never wanted to add anything. He might have been the last person I would have thought to play bass along with because he sounds so complete by himself."

But one day Gordon had what he called a mini-epiphany.

"I was driving and one of the (Kottke) songs came on the radio," Gordon recalled in a recent phone interview from his Ver-mont home. "That's when it just suddenly dawned on me. It wasn't just the song, it was thinking about his sense of humor, and he's known for the stories that he tells be-tween songs. They're usually kind of off the wall, using strange words and tales where people are getting maimed and that kind of thing. So I think that was occurring to me at the same time that my sense of hu-mor is weird enough that we might just get along."

The timing for Gordon's mini-epiphany was good. Kottke was coming to the area for a concert, so Gordon planned to record a bass line to a Kottke song, "Driving of the Year Nail," and present it to him when he came in for the concert and propose a jam session. It was the start of what's looking like an ongoing partnership.

The two musicians first joined forces to make the 2002 CD, "Clone," and now have released a follow-up, "Sixty Six Steps."

The new CD, recorded after the summer 2004 breakup of Phish, is distinctly different than the more folk-and-jazz styled "Clone." It features songs that are built to varying degrees around calypso rhythms.

Gordon, who had fallen for calypso when he visited the Bahamas at age 12, credited Kottke with unwittingly helping to spur the concept for "Sixty Six Steps."

"I started to notice that kind of rhythm embedded in some of his (Kottke's) playing with some other songs also. It felt so good. It just seemed to make sense," Gor-don said. "Calypso almost sounds a little bit more like Latin music to me, but not quite. So it has some sort of fast guitar strumming usually. And Leo's fast guitar picking is a nice replacement for the normal fast guitar strumming that you hear with calypso."

While far from a calypso record, the is-land sound and atmosphere certainly in-fuse "Sixty Six Steps," which also benefits greatly from the percussion of Bahamas native Neil Symonette. It's an entertaining work that maintains a buoyant spirit throughout the record.

Featuring a mix of original songs and un-likely covers, "Sixty Six Steps" offers particularly pleasant moments on tracks like the sprightly instrumental version of Pete Seeger's "Living in the Country" and "Over the Dam," a sunny tune co-written by Gor-don.

Then there are the reinventions of two rock classics. The version of Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well," instantly is recognizable, but the acoustic treatment and laid back rhythm puts a surprising slant on the bluesy original. A more radical reworking comes on Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion." Gordon's bass loosely mimics the song's signature riff, while Kottke colors the songs with finger-picked fills as light percussion pushes the song forward in low key, but insistent fashion.

Gordon, the member of Phish who most wanted the band to continue, has settled into a post-Phish life. He said the grieving process over the loss of his band — which over a 21-year stint interrupted only by a hiatus from 2000 to 2002 became the most popular jam band since the Grateful Dead — actually was easier than he expected.

"At the end I thought we were playing well so I thought we could keep going," Gordon said. "But I've also very much accepted that we're moving on and that doors are opening that wouldn't have opened otherwise.

"I think it's actually a blessing that I've had to rely on myself to think about my upcoming musical career, because I think some new possibilities are going to be opened up in terms of my direction and my abilities, not having Phish to fall back on," he said. "Since then I've told Trey (Phish frontman Trey Anastasio) the best gift he's ever given me is ending Phish."

Mike Gordon and Leo Kottke play Fri-day, Sept. 16, at Mississippi Nights, 914 N. First St. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show cost $25 in advance, and $27 day of the show.

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