The emotional experience of music is hard to describe. Whether you’re riding high in accomplishment or can’t get out of bed, there is often music to accompany it and music that you couldn’t handle hearing. There are probably songs that you associate with a certain person or event that you can’t even listen to anymore, like a fossil of an emotion once felt that comes to life when the song plays. And then there are days, like on Tuesday in West Hollywood, when I just know that a bunch of sad s0ngs are not what my mood was good for, when the idea of seeing a Phosphorescent set was probably the last thing I needed because Matthew Houck can write some of the most emotionally charged and biting yet true lyrics out there, covered in a veil of wit that can cut the listener to the core without them even knowing it. And yes, some sad songs were played. But, what I didn’t realize about Phosphorescent is that their brand of emotion is ultimately some of the most uplifting and powerful music being created today, and they delivered what may end up being my favorite live set of the year.
Playing to a Troubadour crowd that was much thinner than I had been accustomed to, Houck and his five backing mates certainly had a “type” in their audience. Though typically classified as alt-country, the scene that casually tapped their feet to the tunes could be more accurately described as hipster-cana, and it came complete with a bearded, jean-jacket wearing DJ that spun classic country and folk songs to get the crowd riled. Opener J Tillman, a member of Fleet Foxes, did the haunting voice/acoustic guitar thing while a majority of people tried to keep their attention from the random drunk girls whose loud conversation killed the mood in the back half of the room (on a side note, if you are ever having a cigarette and can stand near Tillman while he has a conversation, please do. The man knows more random shit than pretty much anyone. And he really, really likes Tupac).
But when the Phosphorescent troupe took to the stage and kicked into Here’s To Taking It Easy opener “It’s Hard To Be Humble (When You’re From Alabama”, the crowd didn’t exactly explode to match the exuberance that the band put into the song. L.A. isn’t exactly a country music kind of town, and even when the music is performed with such technical prowess and well-rehearsed cohesion, as it was on this night, people in L.A. are always just a little too cool to let the music properly sweep them up. It is a slight shame because the band deserved better. On a whole, Phosphorescent breathed new life into many of the songs they played, often exceeding the album versions and taking subtleties and transforming them into far grander gestures. The opening number erupted near the end, with Houck impressing with his vocals (though his finger pointing and hand shaking gestures evoked R&B comparisons and made me slightly uncomfortable) and keyboardist and backup singer Scott Stapleton winning the most energized band member award as he shook his long hair over his face, playing like he was in the car with Wayne and Garth during “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Houck had a habit of introducing every song by title, which was nice for my setlist notes and gave the concert a personal feel, letting the audience know that the band actually cared for you to know and enjoy the songs that they were playing. “Nothing Was Stolen” began with a driving bass drum and by the second verse had kicked into a much faster song than the album version, a tool that worked well live, especially with the increased level of backing vocals, making this song and many others into much larger jams. “We’ll Be Here Soon” followed and was the weakest number of the night, suffering from a slightly off tempo and losing a little steam from the first two tracks, which were just so strong it seemed it would be nearly impossible to keep it up forever.
But the show got back on track quite quickly with “The Mermaid Parade”, a song that I might not love as much as everyone else, but certainly came off perfectly live, with the lyrics stinging extra hard and just stunning with how tight the band hit the choruses. Again, the live version exceeded the studio version and I began to suspect we might here the entirety of Here’s To Taking It Easy, but the band pretty much abandoned it for the rest of the night. But the older songs that Phosphorescent brought out included multiple tracks from each of their previous three albums, including a pair of Willie Nelson tunes that saw Houck get into full frontman mode, storming around the front of the stage to fully connect the most eager of the audience members.
For the final song of the set, “Los Angeles” was a fitting tune in both the obvious geographical connection and for the fact that the band absolutely nails it. The line “I ain’t come to Los Angeles just to die” rang true to the entire audience and lifted up any bad mood that could have possibly remained throughout the set. There are highlights and there are stunners, and “Los Angeles” left me stunned and more thirsty for an encore than I can remember being in a long, long time. But, where stunner is the word I would use to describe “Los Angeles”, there is no real word to describe the perfection that came with “Wolves”.
“Wolves” is a song that can make the soul ache on record, and was one I really hoped to hear, but just wasn’t sure where it stood in the Phosphorescent catalog. So when Houck came back to the stage by himself and began playing it, I was elated but hoping that the crowd would give the quiet number the respect it deserved. After the first verse, Houck stooped down to the ground and I thought he was programming guitar loops, as it seemed that he stopped strumming, but this was not employed when he went into the second verse, so I determined it was just my imagination. But as the song reached his conclusion, the looping showed itself by Houck layering his voice as he repeated the closing line “wait until the wolves make nice” in different octaves and styles, all the way until there were more than a dozen voices harmonizing together into a beautiful and chaotic creation of art in every sense of the word. It was one of the best songs I have ever seen performed live, created by one man who knows exactly what he is doing.
The set concluded with older numbers, performed with limited backing, including a fan request for “South (of America)” and the full band returning for “At Death (A Proclamation)”, which erupted into a loud and boisterous party of a finish: Houck holding his guitar high over his head in victory. It was a pleasure and showed a real class as a performance to address all the elements of his back catalog, from his solo acoustic work through the new stuff. But most importantly, the night celebrated a real joy of making and listening to music, which makes any sad song go down like water – refreshing, cleansing and necessary for life in all ways. It takes a strong listener to hear a sad song and not necessarily get sad, but it takes a true artist to write a song that can easily accomplish this. Phosphorescent has now captured high rankings on both my favorite albums of the year and favorite shows of the year and though the intimacy of the venue certainly played well to what was going on, I’m pretty sure Houck and co. could pull this off anywhere.
Photography by Jesse Bloch.
It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re from Alabama)
Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)
We’ll Be Here Soon
The Mermaid Parade
A Picture Of Our Torn Up Praise
It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way
Too Sick To Pray
I Am a Full Grown Man (I Will Lay in the Grass All Day)
South (Of America)
At Death, A Proclamation