In the last 18 months, Phoenix has released a breakthrough hit album, 2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, won its first Grammy, had its music featured in commercials and films, earned the rare honor of playing three songs during a visit to Saturday Night Live, and drawn massive crowds at music festivals all over the world. After more than a decade together, it's clear things are going well for the Versailles quartet.
But at Wednesday's Madison Square Garden show -- the band's first headlining gig at the storied venue -- the big question was whether things are going too fast. Were messieurs Mars, d'Arcy, Brancowitz, and Mazzalai, so adept at crafting sleekly propulsive songs perfect for dancefloors and top-down driving, ready (and able) to transform, even if just for a night, into arena rockers?
It didn't take long to find out. With a bonjour burst of white light, guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai began plucking out the giddy guitar lines that open "Lisztomania." A verse and a chorus later, singer Thomas Mars, dressed as always in a light blue oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up, was, as he so often his at smaller shows, wading into the cheering general admission crowd. Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose.
Focusing mostly on Wolfgang material, the band hit its stride early on. "Fences" bopped along beautifully on the strength of touring drummer Thomas Hedlund's irresistible disco beat and Deck d'Arcy's slyly grooving basslines. "Armistice," efficiently funky and suavely melodic on record, sounded tougher here, as if the band swapped skinny ties for switchblades.
The slowly ascending "Love Like A Sunset" was a late-set highlight, the guitars rising and rising over a cycling harpsichord-like keyboard part (kudos to the sound guys; every note was clear and crisp) until the music abruptly stopped and a large white curtain fell over the stage and onto the first few rows of fans. The fans then pulled the curtain down and the band resumed the song's majestic climb, back-lit by steely blue and red bars set horizontally across the stage.
Still, the Phoenicians displayed subtle hints of shyness. Never particularly demonstrative performers, the bandmembers, with the exception of Mars, probably stayed within five feet of the spots on stage where they started the show.
Even Mars, whose charmingly yelpy voice sounded great, betrayed some nerves. When he beckoned the crowd to make more noise -- which resulted in some possibly polyp-inducing screams -- he did it by keeping his arms at his sides and bashfully waving his hands.
Friends can help with that sort of thing. After a three-song acoustic set performed from a small riser in the middle of arena and consisting of the lilting "Honeymoon" and yacht-rock sway of "If I Ever Feel Better" -- both from the band's 2000 debut United -- and a whimsical cover of a French song that I'll download once I figure out what it's called, the lights went out and the band vanished, replaced by a robotic voice saying, "Harder / Better / Faster / Stronger." Et Voila.
Then Phoenix's fellow Frenchmen Daft Punk appeared on a dais to the left of the drum kit, dressed in black jumpsuits and those familiar chrome-like helmets. Whether the futuristic duo was playing keyboards or DJ'ing was impossible to tell, but when the band reappeared to add some guitar-fueled flare to the techno-funk jams and then everyone segued into an epically rocking "1901," they could've been flinging Angry Birds for all I care -- it was a thrilling climax.
Hard to duplicate? Maybe. But proof that on this night, Phoenix was at home on one of music's biggest stages.
WATCH: Phoenix & Daft Punk perform at Madison Square Garden