Kottke and Gordon go phishing for a hook
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 5, 2002) – Guitarist Leo Kottke and Phish bassist Mike Gordon kicked off their new duo at Club Helsinki on Monday night in a concert that showcased them at their best and worst.

Kottke and Gordon are both monster musicians, virtuosi of dazzling technical capabilities. With Kottke playing an acoustic, 12-string guitar for the first half of the duo’s 90-minute show, accompanied by Gordon’s 5-string electric bass, listeners were treated to a full-fledged, 17-string orchestra. And with both musicians favoring an effusive playing style that maximizes the number of notes per measure with mathematical precision, the effect was of dazzling, Baroque architecture.

The two plowed through a program of original compositions off their new duet album, “Clone” (Private Music), as well as selections from their own repertoires and a few old folk tunes. Most of the music was folk- and country-flavored, with only occasional jaunts elsewhere, into calypso on a couple of numbers and Eastern European on another.

The duo juggled instrumentals and songs, with Kottke handling the lion’s share of the vocals in his deep, resonant, craggy baritone, and Gordon chiming in with his sweet, naive voice pitched perfectly for the sort of country harmonies that the two favored.

But mostly this was about two musicians communicating with each other and an audience, and to that end and for the most part, they did not disappoint. Gordon played an extremely lyrical style of bass guitar that served both as the harmonic underpinning of Kottke’s frenetic guitar tunes and as the melodic counterpoint to Kottke’s spidery fugues. Gordon’s bass notes had a clear, ringing bell tone as opposed to the typical, low-end mud favored by rock bassists, eminently suited to Kottke’s harp-like fingerpicking. At times, the richness of the strings was simply phenomenal – the proportions were classical and cathedral-like.

The duo had the sold-out crowd take part in “Car Carrier Blues” off the new album, adding finger snaps to the easygoing, country-folk lilt, to which the players added funk chords at the end. Kottke sang a version of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Corinna, Corinna” in a doo-wop arrangement, and a lullaby-like instrumental wound up in a Middle Eastern mode where Gordon quoted a few bars of the Hebrew prayer, “Avinu Malkeynu” on bass before bringing it to a close.

Kottke was his typically quirky self as a frontman, bantering with the audience between songs, often at the expense of Britney Spears (who seems to be the whipping boy of the season – Dan Hicks used the same strategy in his show at Helsinki a few weeks back).

Over time, a few weaknesses began to show and the material wore thin. There wasn’t much variety to the music, which adhered closely to Kottke’s progressive-folk style and his relentless finger-picking. The songs could have used a little more space to breathe – it was almost as if Kottke didn’t permit himself to make use of pauses or rests. Instead, he’d begin a tune with a riff and repeat it to the point of hammering it into submission.

And Gordon’s melodies and lyrics, like those of the band Phish, win no points for profundity; they rarely rise above the level of nursery rhymes. It’s undoubtedly part of what endears him to countless young fans, but for the rest of us it’s just plain annoying.

Kottke and Gordon seemed to be having a grand time, but they also seemed to be playing things safe. They never really pushed far beyond the basic riffs and melodies, but rather stuck to the patterns they set up and repeated them for the course of a four- or five-minute song. Then again, one has to be careful what one wishes for – they could have gone off into full-tilt noodle-jam territory, which could have been even worse.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 7, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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