Of course you want to see a free Phoenix show at a mid-sized venue on a Friday. Ignore the show’s six p.m start time and New York City’s first truly pleasant day of the year outside the pitch-blackness of Music Hall of Williamsburg. Never mind that maybe you have a regular job and had to skip work in order to secure a wristband. Scrap the idea that this set was tagged along to the alt-pop-guitar-dance rockers’ performance tomorrow on Saturday Night Live, the band’s second appearance there. Forget that you even hired someone to stand in line for you from your cubicle but couldn’t kick the cubicle in time to make it down.
For this was a chance to see the headliners to this year’s Lollapalooza and Coachella in a second-tier club. They’ve come a long way from setting up their own equipment to a crowd of dozens in the pouring rain while wearing parkas at the Oxygen festival, as one Irish fan told me he witnessed. Once I elbowed my way to the front of the stage, I learned that the quartet of people around me, who did not plan to come to the show together, but knew one another through Phoenix fandom, all skipped worked to come check out tracks from the band’s new album—a perfect storm of Phoenix Friends colliding in fervor of proximity to the mainstay quartet of Thomas Mars, Deck d’Arcy, Laurent Brancowitz, and Christian Mazzalai, along with their touring duo of keyboardist Robert Coudert and drummer Thomas Hedlund. The last time Phoenix played New York City, they sold out Madison Square Garden. Their next show here will be at the Barclay’s Center. So this intimate set at the 550-capactiy club was a Big Deal. I could have reached out and touched Brancowitz’s heathered loafers.
Doors opened at exactly 5:03 p.m. Fake fog started pouring in at exactly 5:29 p.m. The road crew began testing instruments at exactly 5:44 p.m. The show was tight before the show even started. If Phoenix didn’t arrive with 2009’s world-shaking Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, they certainly have now—they’ve managed to escape the nadir of dorm room hipster dance parties, so it’s almost too fitting to throw this show in the heart of Hipster Marketing USA, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The first downbeat hit at 6:05 p.m.
This isn’t an indictment of precision or planning or the band’s journey. Phoenix are a precise band, but not in a tragically sequenced way. There is a definite joie de vivre, as the alt-rockers from Versailles, France might say. Even with the planning and scope of Phoenix’s career arc and what’s to come for the band through the rest of their cycle for the April 23rd release of their new LP Bankrupt!, they still manage a tousled, carefree air. This is noted live, but also particularly on the release of a campy homemade video for their most recent in their line of monster singles, this one called “Entertainment”.
They opened with that song to huge impact and immediately followed with three more familiar bangers. Their old songs still hold up live, cuts like “Girlfriend” and “Lisztomania” achieving that relentless yet at-ease pace they’ve all but trademarked. The band held court somewhere between throttling dance grooves and heavy alt-rock that, at its most brash, continue to send shivers up the spine, no matter your proclivities. The band plowed through these, most of Bankrupt!, and a few older tracks for about an hour and a half. It was a trim and satisfying set, with a short encore that created a certain intimacy when Brancowitz and Mars returned to the stage to do a delicate “Countdown” before Mars leapt into the crowd. We parted for him and his extra-long microphone cable as he stood high at the back of the club to thank the audience for coming this afternoon.
The band bridged their previous work, particularly their “Sunset…” songs from Wolfgang, to their new album’s title track, opening with the broad ambient synth measures of the latter and fusing it to the fine strains of the former — Mars lay on the stage with his head against a monitor for most of this composition. Even weeks ahead of the Bankrupt! release, many were visibly singing every word to unreleased songs like “S.O.S in Bel Air” and “Trying to be Cool”, two of the best indictments of the fame culture among many on Bankrupt!.The low synth and tom plod of this latter song dragged a bit live, as much of the band’s newer, darker material did.
Even so, Phoenix seems to be mounting a palpable surge in 2013. With their carnivorous and preemptive album success, and Brancowitz’s connection to Daft Punk still going strong as both bands reenter the limelight, this could be a banner year for the French. The difference for Phoenix is a desire to leave more of a charred mark in the floorboards than their instrumental house-music brethren. All it will take for fans to resonate with the band ‘s new, more active stance is a little time.
Photography by Dale W. Eisinger.
Long Distance Call
S.O.S. In Bel Air
The Real Thing
Trying to be Cool