It was a little after 6 p.m. when Jeff Regan, program director for Sirius XM’s Alt Nation channel, walked onto the stage at Brooklyn’s Music Hall Of Williamsburg to introduce Phoenix — and over the course of that announcement, he told the crowd to make noise, to sing along to the songs we knew. But beyond the occasional coherent line (or word), does anybody actually know Phoenix’s lyrics? They’re pretty unintelligible to begin with, and they have these weird ESL/stream-of-consciousness qualities that make them almost impossible to nail down. I mean, we all know the lyric “Lisztomania” — and exactly when in the song of the same name it will arrive, and exactly how in that song it will be delivered — but it’s a beat, not a chorus; everything before and after that is as difficult to decipher and remember as the words of a book you read in a dream. They seem to be there, but as you try to make sense of them, they slip away, run like ink on china. You don’t sing along to that; you mumble to the melody, you hope nobody can hear you.
Regan also reminded us that we were fucking lucky to be in that room that night — as he noted, the last time Phoenix played NYC? They sold out the Garden. They’ll swing back around in October to play Barclays Center. These are places that host Taylor Swift and Jay-Z and Disney On Ice and professional basketball and hockey games. You don’t get to see Phoenix in clubs anymore. Don’t take this one for granted. (“This one” was an invitation-only “secret” show put on by Sirius-XM Radio for which Sirius subscribers were eligible to win tickets; rumors of such a show had been circulating for a few days prior to the event, and the details were announced early Friday morning, some 11 hours before Phoenix would actually take the stage.)
Regan’s second note was a statement of fact: We were clearly very fucking lucky to be in the room that night, seeing Phoenix in a space approximately 1/20 the size of their usual venue. I’m not gonna lie: I’m luckier than most. I saw Phoenix at Bowery Ballroom in 2004, their first time playing this continent. I was a pretty huge fan of the two records they had released to that point — 2000’s United and ’04’s Alphabetical — but the show they put on that night vaulted my fandom to something approaching zealotry. Phoenix would be a terrific band even if they never played live, or even if their live show were more or less a facsimile of their recorded work — they consistently produce excellent, unusual, compelling music in the studio — but what they do on stage takes them from terrific to transcendent. Live, the band performs meticulously restructured versions of their songs; layers of guitars have been added, walls of synths, gargantuan percussion. (I’ve seen Phoenix four times, and each time, the band on stage has been a sextet — along with the quartet who makes the albums, there’s an additional drummer as well as a utility player who switches from keys to drums as needed.) At their early shows, for example, they transformed two lite-pop songs from United — “Funky Squaredance” and “If I Ever Feel Better” — into soaring, muscular rockers (compare the United versions of those songs to the ones included on the 2004 live document Live! Thirty Days Ago for evidence of the disparity).
They didn’t do anything from United at MHOW; they didn’t even do anything from Alphabetical, and they did only one song from 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That (the wonderful single “Long Distance Call”). The rest of the set was split evenly — seven and a half songs each — between 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, and the forthcoming Bankrupt!, due in two weeks via Loyauté/Glassnote. (The halved songs were Wolfgang’s “Love Like A Sunset” and Bankrupt!‘s title track, which were deconstructed and combined to form a mashed-up monster called “Sunskrupt!,” one of the set’s most magical inclusions.) I imagine their upcoming shows will dip a bit deeper into the back catalog — it would be a shame if they didn’t — but the MHOW performance provided a fine showcase for the new material, once again made more robust in the live setting, thickened by prominent guitars and forceful rhythm, by sheer loudness. When we interviewed the band last week, vocalist Thomas Mars noted, “We are always so loud in the studio. I’m not sure how this record will sound when played at lower volumes.” But regardless of the volume at which they’re played, Phoenix records have a tendency to sound slightly gauzy, ephemeral; it’s part of their appeal. Live, on the other hand, they’re a dominant presence. The band members have great physicality and charisma, too, feeding off each other, alternately snaking and roboting, alternately fluid and jerky, alternately hammy and absorbed. They interact with the audience, too, their expressive faces and eyes squinting into the room, smiling. At MHOW, Mars jumped into the crowd a couple times, once making his way to the back of the venue and climbing up on the soundboard, from where he sang. The entire crowd was spun around, looking at one another, seeing their surroundings from a new vantage.
The set’s highlights were, not surprisingly, the older tracks — partly because those are the songs everyone knows, and partly because right now, Bankrupt! feels a bit less anthemic than the two albums that precede it, I think. “1901,” “Lisztomania,” and “Long Distance Call” brought the loudest cheers, the wildest moves. But the crowd was dancing and making noise for every number. And no, people didn’t know every word of every song. But when they did, they sang loud.
Phoenix’s MHOW concert will be broadcast tonight — Monday, April 8 — at 8:00 p.m. ET on Sirius-XM Radio’s Alt Nation, channel 36. After the broadcast, the concert will be available on Sirius-XM On Demand. It was a great show, and you should absolutely listen to it.