Mike Gordon/Leo Kottke
Sixty Six Steps


I was quite surprised when I read, about three years ago, of a soon-to-be-released CD featuring tracks composed and jointly performed by Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon: your typical "musicians' musicians" (sadly, an endangered species in this day and age), both - each in his own way - original figures in the US landscape. Maybe the last of the "modern traditionalists", starting from the early 70s (an era when he also recorded on John Fahey's label, Takoma) Kottke is one of the few "self-sufficient" 6- and 12-string acoustic guitar players whose work can be said to sound traditional, but not tired or stale; he has a discography of respectable size; while fans of Rickie Lee Jones fondly remember his playing on Traffic From Paradise (1993). Quite popular on a mass scale, Mike Gordon was for twenty years the bass player in Phish, one of the most successful concert attractions of the 90s; his versatile, distinctive bass playing style needs no introduction; while his love for country and bluegrass is well-known; it was his love for this kind of music that made him get in touch with Kottke - one of his favourite musicians ever - and which ultimately produced their first collaborative CD, Clone.

Clone didn't disappoint, proving to be a subtle and airy album (even though, given the times, its appeal was by definition bound to be of the "highly selective" kind). The two musicians managed to overcome the biggest obstacle, i.e. how to integrate an individual bass style into a personal finger-picking style without making things banal and without introducing incongruous elements in the mix. After the agile opening track (Arko), they showed they could easily find a nice balance: check Car Carrier Blues, From Pizza Towers To Defeat, The Collins Missile, Disco, June, Middle Of The Road, Whip. The only (and ultimately minor) problem became apparent after repeated listening sessions: a few episodes sounded so representative of each musician's individual dimension (Gordon: Clone and Clay; Kottke: I Am A Lonesome Fugitive) as to sit a bit uneasily among the rest, so demonstrating there was still work to be done if the pair was to achieve a more fluid amalgam.

I'm glad I can say that Sixty Six Steps shows the problem has been left behind. It goes without saying that their identities are as easy to recognize as their voices (Kottke's baritone, Gordon's thin, almost hesitant style); but using a nice calypso (The Collins Missile) from their previous album as their starting point, Gordon and Kottke have given Sixty Six Steps a unifying musical theme that's a big part of the album's considerable charm.

Rehearsed in Costa Rica, recorded at the famous Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas, the album makes good use of the fantastic percussive abilities of Neil Symonette, always very agile and inventive in his use of tempos and timbres - listen to his performance on the opening track, Living In The Country; his rhythmic accents on Balloon; and to the almost-funky Can't Hang. We also have three covers: besides the already mentioned, Pete Seeger's-penned Living In The Country, we have (are you ready?): Oh Well, Peter Green's hit single with (early) Fleetwood Mac (check Then Play On, 1969); and Aerosmith's mega-hit, Sweet Emotion; both very good, with intricate arrangements.

Gordon offers nice songs such as The Grid and The Stolen Quiet; also the country-sounding Over The Dam and the uptempo Can't Hang, both of which wouldn't have sounded out of place on an album by Phish (such as Billy Breathes); from Phish's live repertory comes the famous Ya Mar. Besides the already-mentioned covers, Kottke sings Rings and Balloon, plays a nice slide on From Spink To Correctionville and generally proves himself to be perfectly at ease playing besides such a lively percussionist (if I'm not mistaken, this is a first for Kottke).

I could say more, but I really believe Sixty Six Steps to be one of those records that each listener will have a lot of pleasure discovering on his/her own.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2005

CloudsandClocks.net | Sept. 19, 2005