One of the men who gives the freeform improvisation of Phish its signature spontaneity, bassist Mike Gordon is a persistent note taker, a record keeper, a list maker. He has hundreds of digital lists that have brought order to random bits of inspiration and ideas stretching back more than 25 years, the first transcribed from bound notebooks he used to keep.
Gordon’s return to South Florida this weekend for the Sunshine Music Festival prompted a memory from the list of his favorite Phish performances of all time, the band’s three-day New Year’s Eve festival that welcomed the new millennium in the Florida Everglades.
The sold-out concert drew more than 75,000 people to Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation for five performances by the band, capped by a seven-hour set that roamed past daybreak on Jan. 1, 2000. It is a concert that those who were there — and many who weren’t — place in a special category, Gordon among them.
“It’s definitely a landmark moment in our lives, that weekend, for a few reasons. But especially the midnight set that went on for all those hours and brought in the new millennium with sunbeams reflecting across the grand piano into my eyes,” Gordon says by phone from his home in frigid Vermont. “It was the biggest crowd we ever had, and it felt good. The jamming felt good. There was just something particularly special about it, the whole thing.”
Beginning at noon Sunday, Jan. 14, at Mizner Park Amphitheater in Boca Raton, the Sunshine Music Festival includes festival founders the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Medeski Martin & Wood (featuring Fort Lauderdale ex John Medeski), Galactic, Hot Tuna, Foundation of Funk (Medeski, Eric Krasno and the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste and George Porter Jr.) and up-and-coming Houston soul band the Suffers.
With his touring group — guitarist Scott Murawski, keyboardist Robert Walter, drummer John Morgan Kimock and percussionist Craig Myers — Gordon will perform a set with heavy representation from his latest album, “OGOGO.”
Released in September on ATO Records, “OGOGO” finds Gordon’s idiosyncratic indie rock wrapped in thick layers (both warm and chilly) of Mellotron, synthesizers and programming, producing aural hooks that veer tantalizingly close to the lush, multitrack sounds heard on pop radio.
Gordon admits that the music his daughter listens to on the way to school in the morning may have had an influence, but he is not the only indie-music performer dabbling with the potential of pop, joining recent releases by Beck, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Portugal. The Man. “OGOGO” was co-produced by Shawn Everett, who has won a Grammy for his engineering work on Alabama Shakes' “Sound & Color” and also has worked with Weezer and John Legend.
One new song, “Let’s Go,” a bouncy call to action that rides a martial chant, is being considered for use by a couple of sports teams, Gordon says.
“I really like what happens in a song when there’s one sentiment, or a hook, that’s able to float freely, repeat a lot through the different sections of the song. Even like in the song ‘Yesterday’ or ‘Let It Be,’ when those phrases are spoken, sung, hundreds of times. It’s not a bad thing. It’s cool,” Gordon says. “I guess it’s a genuine liking of that aspect of poppy music.”
Gordon calls his songwriting process, most of it done with bandmate Murawski, a balancing act between personal, real-life experience and universal abstraction. Calling them “firewood” of inspiration, Gordon’s lists of text and sounds (he uses My Notes and Voice Notes apps) come in handy.
“I just keep track. If something comes to me, it could be a phrase or it could be a concept, I keep these lists. Then, when I’m writing songs, I refer back to them. A certain melody or rhythm may be implied by a certain sentiment or phrase,” he says.
So if you see Gordon in Boca Raton this weekend, he may be gathering inspiration for a new song.
“It all starts with a feeling or a resonance of some kind. It could be a road sign, something on a menu,” he says, laughing. “Leonard Cohen said that once a day with a songwriter, someone will speak to them something that will be a song lyric. And it could be a waitress when you’re getting your breakfast.”
The Sunshine Music Festival will begin noon Sunday, Jan. 14, at Mizner Park Amphitheater, 590 Plaza Real, in Boca Raton. Performers include the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Mike Gordon, Medeski Martin & Wood, Galactic, Hot Tuna, Foundation of Funk and the Suffers. Tickets cost $64.95-$229.95 at Ticketmaster.com, with a Live Nation four-pack offer of four general-admission, standing-room tickets for $49.75. For more information, go to SunshineMusicFestival.com. For information about Mike Gordon, go to Mike-Gordon.com.