[Author's Note: This review will be published in Friday's edition of the Wooster Voice.]
2008 has proven the best year for fans of Phish since the jam band's 2004 breakup. Court-ordered rehabilitation now behind him, guitarist Trey Anastasio has been writing and performing with renewed vigor. In a letter posted on the band's website, pianist Page McConnell confirmed rumors that the four plan on getting together by the end of the year and exploring their options—even the possibility of a reunion.
But mostly, 2008 has been Mike Gordon's year. The Phish bassist released his second solo album, The Green Sparrow, on August 5th to considerable acclaim and toured throughout the summer with what a new live album reveals to be a top-notch supporting band.
Boulder 2008 comprises this band's two-hour set, uncut, from August 29th at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colorado. Gordon is joined by guitarist and long-time collaborator Scott Murawski of fellow jam band Max Creek, as well as by Tom Cleary on keyboards, Todd Isler on drums, and Craig Myers on percussion.
The band's potent chemistry is apparent from the first notes of the show's opener, “Andelman's Yard,” one of five cuts from The Green Sparrow. Here they lay down a funky, polyrhythmic groove that belies the song's bright, poppy melody—it is this juxtaposition, but especially the deep, sometimes jittery funk, that sets the tone for the evening.
The playing is uniformly excellent. This is a band that, like Phish at its best, performs as a tight, cohesive unit—musicians who can listen to each other—which isn't to say that they don't shine individually. Cleary's keyboard playing steals the show for me. It's rich, clear, and precise, and draws on a spectrum of influences from Herbie Hancock to legendary session musician Nikki Hopkins, from Rick Wakeman of Yes to the Grateful Dead's Brent Mydland. One can even forgive him for using an overabundance of synthesizer voices, down to a synth-harpsichord on “La La La.” Murawski is a fine guitarist, though he favors a bluesier edge that occasionally feels lost within the funk.
The singing isn't nearly as strong—shaky, with a few moments of redemption (as on a cover of Brian Eno's “No One Receiving”). Similarly, the originals, however fun and well-crafted, are hardly gems of songwriting (the lyrics, in particular, may put off those unaccustomed to hippie-fare). On the whole, given the predominance of jamming, neither complaint is a huge strike against the performance.
After the standalone opener, the set unfolds in two long, seamless sequences of music. In the first comes the highlight of the entire show, “Another Door,” also off The Green Sparrow. After Gordon positively tears through a nasally, synth-bass groove, the band modulates smoothly into the cool, ambient “No One Receiving” before returning to “Another Door” in a single, flash moment as if they'd never left it. It is truly a breathtaking musical accomplishment.
Similarly, the extended “Traveled Too Far” is the capstone of the second, sixty-five minute sequence. Craig Myers's percussion provides a slow-burning, African-derived undercurrent that recalls the Talking Heads circa Remain in Light, but this band's pursuit is looser and jazzier. They flirt with and reject different themes, moods, tempos—quoting everything from Leonard Bernstein's “Maria” to Phish's own “Run Like an Antelope”—before snapping into the song proper after eight full minutes.
A cover of David Bowie's “I'm Deranged,” which attempts a danceable, electronica-like vibe, is the only song of the set that falls flat. To the musicians' credit, it sounds like mid-90s Bowie, which is also precisely why it feels out of place.
Boulder 2008 is by and large an excellent show, one which is both adroit and adventurous, accessible and imaginative. For fans of improvisational music, whether rock or funk or jazz, it is highly recommended. Boulder 2008 is available for download, or may be pre-ordered on CD, at livephish.com.