The Fonda Theater has become one of LA’s top spots for national touring bands, but few acts bring in a crowd that feels like a genuine community like a Phish member can.
With his band Phish coming off a four-night New Year’s Eve run at Madison Square Garden and a three-night blowout in the Mayan Riviera in mid-January, bassist Mike Gordon could have easily decided to head home to relax after two major long weekend events. But Gordon chose the unconventional path, as he’s long been known for and scheduled a winter tour with his solo band. Gordon has been putting these small tours together on an annual basis, giving him a chance to be the leader of the band and step out with his own repertoire.
Gordon throws fans a few Phish bones here and there of course, often varying the arrangements or adding extra jams on tunes Phish doesn’t really explore. But most of the deeper workouts come on Gordon’s own tunes, many co-written with longtime cohort Scott Murawski. A Northeast guitar hero in his own right, Murawski can not only keep up, but help push the jams in the exploratory directions fans clamor for. Percussionist Craig Myers is another mainstay, teaming with relatively new drummer John Kimock to give the rhythm section an extra dimension. Gordon has also recently added ace keyboardist Robert Walter, long known for his funky stylings with the Greyboy Allstars.
The tour rolled into Hollywood’s Fonda Theater on a Friday night, giving the local jamrock tribe a chance to convene for social event surrounding one of the genre’s top heroes. The Fonda has become one of LA’s top spots for national touring bands, but few acts bring in a crowd that feels like a genuine community like a Phish member can. Fans knew they would see all their friends and the usual suspects from around the region, lending the evening a family sort of vibe. The Fonda also features the Blue Palms Brewhouse right next door, providing a convenient gathering spot for both pre and post-show meetups and libations.
Many were caught off guard however by the band hitting the stage promptly at the 8 pm ticket time, as Phish never goes on sooner than 30 minutes after ticket time. But Gordon was apparently eager to get the show on the road, with the band jumping right into some hot grooves that had the crowd getting down early on. One of the first things fans noticed during the show was how great the sound was. The Fonda Theater has outstanding acoustics, while Gordon has one of the greatest bass tones in rock history. It can however come out thin or muddy though if one is too far away or too far off to the sides at the sheds and arenas that Phish mainly play. But the entire theater was immersed in Gordon’s full tone zone here, which made every song a rich sonic experience.
The band had experimented last year with a fan-friendly instrument known as the EEL, a giant electronic keypad of sorts at the front of the stage that fans could interact with to add their own sounds to the show. Gordon added a new wrinkle this year with the REEL, taking the concept and putting it onto a wheel of sorts that was carried through the crowd for fans to interact with. It was another example in a long line of such ideas in Gordon’s career aimed at breaking down the wall between the band and the fans and fostering that greater sense of community.
“Long Black Line” from Gordon’s 2014 Overstep LP saw Murawski ripping into some searing wah-wah licks as he and Gordon led the band from the song’s mid-tempo structure into a hot jam that ignited the set. “Cruel World” featured a funky syncopated jam before the band upped the psychedelia with extra lighting effects and Phish’s “Meat”, a quirky tune that just seems to fit the Gordon repertoire as well. It was here that Gordon and Murawski’s axes both lit up as if they’d been acquired from Ace Frehley, adding yet another psychedelic element to the proceedings while Walter added some tasty extra funk on the keys.
Another highlight occurred as the band seemed to tease a brief jam on the Grateful Dead’s “West LA Fadeaway” before segueing into “Say Something”, a bluesy Gordon tune that Phish played just a couple of times in 2013 but which is done greater justice by the MGB. The song received an extended jam treatment here, as Gordon and company took it to a peak level to close the set on a decided high note with Walter’s psychedelic organ boosting the vibe.
The second set featured a heavy dosage of funky jams throughout with “Take It As It Comes” finding the band digging into a deep groove. Phish’s “Yarmouth Road” provided a reggae breather before the band again evolved the song to a jamming level not seen with Gordon’s main gig. “Tiny Little World” tripped the light fantastic too with Gordon using his envelope filter to add an extra psychedelic funk to the sound. “Traveled Too Far” from 2008’s Green Sparrow LP brought the set to a rousing close with another big jam as Walter delivered some great piano interplay while Gordon dug deep into the groove and Murawski shredded hot licks.
The band delivered a crowd-pleasing double encore starting with “How Many People Are You”, a new tune Gordon road tested with Phish last summer with hot results but which he took even further here. The up-tempo number received a raucous treatment with Walter crushing the piano part as the band jammed the groove deep with Gordon and Murawski going full tilt. The best was still to come though as the jam found its way into the Talking Heads’ “Cities”. But unlike Phish’s trademark re-arrangement of the prototype funk vehicle, Gordon’s band delivers the original arrangement with Murawski on lead vocals. Whether you had only recently settled in Los Angeles or were a longtime lover of LA, the song’s “Find yourself a city to live in” chorus seemed a fitting tribute to the City of Angels.