Monday, April 1, 2013
Better than: Watching Phoenix play on a giant LCD screen from a mile away.
Later this month, Phoenix will headline the second night of Coachella, playing for about 80,000 people. A few months after that, the band will get virtually top billing in Chicago for Lollapalooza. But last night, the French electro-rockers took over the 500-capacity Independent in San Francisco, giving the tightly crammed audience a taste of their new album at a thrillingly close range.
There won't be many stops on Phoenix's U.S. tour where singer Thomas Mars can hop offstage, wade through the throngs of fans to the far corner of the room, bask in applause, then crowd-surf his way back to the stage. But he did last night, amid a barrage of phone-camera flashes and cheers, riding over fans with mic in hand to bring Phoenix's 90-minute set to one final, elated climax.
The show's focus was largely on upcoming album Bankrupt!, which sees release April 23. We heard eight of the album's 10 songs, from skyrocketing first single "Entertainment" to the slow and heavy, head-nodding "Drakkar Noir." That and "Chloroform" -- which sews glassy verses between a fierce, driving chorus -- made for a couple of the high points of the night. Other new tunes, like "S.O.S. in Bel Air" and "Oblique City," sounded at least as buoyant and a little prettier than the deeper cuts on Phoenix's last album, 2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. So it seems likely that the band's membership in that rarefied club of major festival headliners will continue beyond this summer. (Matching the U.S. radio success of singles "1901" and "Lisztomania," however, may be a different story -- although the band members are claiming they don't care about that.)
Last night's relatively pared-down set -- six musicians and plenty of strobe lights, but no major setpieces -- revealed some of the more subtle strengths of the group. These guys are consummate professionals, engaging in precious few indulgences onstage. Even then, they're entertaining: During the brooding, instrumental "The Real Thing," Mars laid down onstage for the entirety of the song, remaining invisible to most of the audience. For the encore, he and guitarist Christian Mazzalai performed the heartfelt "Rome" alone, with Mars' seated, feet dangling off into the crowd, fans singing along inches from his face.
Phoenix's music wastes almost no time, either -- it rarely lingers or navel-gazes, even when it leans (you will probably read this word a lot in regard to Bankrupt!) "psychedelic." Every bit of a Phoenix song is deeply textured and gorgeously rendered. The band members seem to leap into fist-pumping, anthemic choruses almost reflexively. With those loud-quiet dynamics, the glassy-then-fuzzy guitars, and muscular synthesizers, it's no wonder Phoenix is experiencing blockbuster success right now. Its sound and presence are about the closest modern rock gets to the electronic dance music experience. There is endless energy, reliable climaxes and breakdowns, and a live show that puts entertainment before anything else. The rhythm is the boss, too: Onstage last night, the hardest working member seemed to be touring drummer Thomas Hedlund. Other musicians got closer to the crowd, but his ferocious thumping -- Hedlund hit the toms so hard he yanked his butt off the drum throne -- felt like the leash to which everything else in the music conformed.
Of course, that's a perfect schema for a band designed to play to a small city's worth of people. And if last night was any indication, the high point of Phoenix's shows this year will come exactly where you'd expect: the ripping, soaring chorus of "1901." Arriving last in the band's main set, it sent the sweaty room into an instant eruption. Arms shot into the air. Ladies hopped up and down. Fans who'd somehow managed to snag tickets -- either in the 10-second window during which they were initially for sale, or elsewhere for much higher prices -- roared in elation. Lots of people will see Phoenix play its mega-hit single this year, but very few will get it in such an intimate environment.
Opener: Mac DeMarco, a grinning, 22-year-old rock weirdo from Montreal, seems an odd choice for Phoenix's tour opener. While the French headliners exude a cool confidence, DeMarco specializes in simmering chaos, with a freakish streak that's only hinted at in his subdued, slightly funky beach-rock. Last night's opening set aired rough versions of all the DeMarco tunes that impressed Pitchfork, then saw the musician and his band engaging in their usual antics, like a medley of covers that included Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" and the Beatles' "Blackbird." DeMarco is captivating to watch onstage -- he flicks his tongue constantly and flashes wide, gap-toothed smiles. But his music, which can be great, is far more shambolic, indulgent, and unpredictable than Phoenix's. Some in the crowd seemed to enjoy it, but others definitely didn't.
Speaking of covers: Phoenix's encore included a cover of fellow French outfit Air's "Playground Love," which was written for the group's score to the Sophia Coppola film The Virgin Suicides. Coppola, by the way, is married to Phoenix singer Thomas Mars, and she was rumored to be in attendance last night. We couldn't see from where we were standing, but it looked like Mars was heading for a curtained-off VIP perch -- and thus perhaps his wife -- when he went on that crowd-parting/crowd-surfing excursion after playing the Air cover.
By the way: Phoenix performed at S.F.'s Outside Lands festival in 2010, on the mainstage in the middle of the afternoon. Given that last night's set in a tiny club is only going to whet San Francisco's appetite for the band, that it has no other Bay Area dates announced, and that it has no other U.S. live dates for the weekend of August 9-11 -- but will be in Chicago for Lollapalooza the previous weekend -- it wouldn't surprise us at all if Phoenix lands a headlining slot at Outside Lands this year.
Long Distance Call
S.O.S. in Bel Air
Trying To Be Cool
The Real Thing
Rome [with Air's "Playground Love" in the middle]