Phoenix have had an eventful four years since they last took the stage at the 550-capacity Music Hall of Williamsburg: a gold record, a Grammy, an SNL performance, a sold-out Madison Square Garden show, a Lollapalooza headlining slot. Back in 2009, Phoenix were a band right on the verge, celebrating the release of their most immediate and accomplished record, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. This Friday night, they were a Coachella headliner with one of the most anticipated albums of the year cramming in a secret party (courtesy of Sirius/XM Alt Nation, broadcasting the show tonight) before for their second SNL appearance.
So, like squeezing back into 2009’s skinny jeans, the quartet took the stage to little fanfare, launching instantaneously into a set heavy on mid-tempo burners from Bankrupt!, the band’s yet-to-be-released fifth album. And though the band’s obviously still working their way through these newer numbers, how simply huge they sounded was enough to offset a rhythmic wobble or two. The electro-Orientalism of “Entertainment” and the monolithic synth blasts on “Trying to Be Cool” (courtesy D’Arcy) were met with the same rapturous applause that marked the selections from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. But the albums felt different: Songs from Wolfgang were greeted with sing-alongs, sure; but the synth bass on Bankrupt! tracks sounded huge, threatening the integrity of the mid-tier rock club’s soundsystem. “Long Distance Call,” built upon a bedrock of cheap keyboards and wiry guitar lines, the lone callback to Phoenix’s pre-Wolfgang days, felt sparse in contrast to the Moog-heavy maximalism that marked the new songs.
Though the majority of the band was still concerned with the same multitasking that’s necessitated by playing these songs on the world’s stage, Thomas Mars took advantage of the smaller space to play into some of his latent theatricality. Eschewing the impersonality of arena shows, Mars twice descended into the crowd, staring — with patience, bewilderment, and general absurdity — directly into the eyes of the crowd-members he crossed paths with. He climbed on speakers, scaled the soundboard and took a brief respite during “Love Like a Sunset,” laying down on the foot of the stage, using a monitor for a headrest. While his presence is more often staid than not, his livelier moments suggest that he might make for a decent standalone pop star, should he ever decide to drag a brush through his eternally mussed hair.
Blowing through 17 songs in just over an hour (and all before 7:30 p.m.) seems an easily achievable task for a band used to catering to thousands gathered in arenas, but Phoenix made it look even easier than you might imagine. Mars seemed to relish the personability offered by such a small venue, but what of those arena shows where Mars is as tethered to the stage as his bandmates? They certainly have a sound built to pack stadiums, the experience to back it up, and a delightfully dense new album specifically geared for that environment — we can only hope they’ve started stockpiling the requisite fireworks. COLIN JOYCE
“Long Distance Call”
“S.O.S. in Bel Air”
“Love Like A Sunset/Bankrupt”
“The Real Thing”
“Trying to be Cool”