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Excitement and confusion were the main emotions felt among many of the people lining up in front of the House of Blues. Confusion over the venue change and what that meant for their ticket locations and excitement over the fact that Phoenix, a band who at one point were regularly playing in front of tens of thousands of people, were playing this small and relatively intimate venue.
The Vaccines had to do little to warm up the crowd. The entire floor was already clapping along to the thundering drums that heralded the start of “Blow it Up” before singer Justin Young could even sing the first lyric. Those who weren’t already enthralled were surely won over by the rest of their set. After all, a venue the size of the House of Blues is nothing compared to the large arenas they play in their native England where their profile is arguable bigger than tonight’s headlining act. The band ran through a quick twelve song set, hitting most of their key singles such as “If You Wanna” and “No Hope.” For a band that owes so much to The Ramones’s brand of short, concise and loud rock, The Vaccines’s closing number “Norgaard” could someday be their very own “Blitzkrieg Bop.”
Now on to Phoenix and their ever changing level of popularity. Originally, tonight’s show was supposed to be at the Agganis Arena, but due to (presumably) poor ticket sales, it was moved to the smaller House of Blues. The move to smaller venues had also happened in other key markets such as Chicago and Los Angeles. Any other band would be discouraged, but after tonight’s show it all seems to be part of Phoenix’s grand scheme.
After all, this was a band that always seemed to be a few years ahead or behind. Their debut album, United, was a year too early to take advantage of The Strokes bringing indie garage rock to the mainstream and Daft Punk popularizing that smooth French electronic pop sound; third album, It’s Never Been Like That, was a bit too late to follow up. Luckily enough, the stars aligned and their breakthrough album (and fourth overall), Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, proved to be a game changer in the oxymoronic world of mainstream indie. With two massive singles, the ubiquitous “1901” and “Lisztomania,” Phoenix catapulted themselves from small clubs to Madison Square Garden and headlining slots at festivals. They also brought along with them tons of synth pop hanger-ons that were quick to capitalize on the now popular sound.
Phoenix’s follow up, Bankrupt!, was supposed to be the album to fully affirm their pop royalty. The band started off with releasing the massive sounding “Entertainment” as their lead single, premiered it on Saturday Night Live (the show being an essential key to the earlier success of “1901”) and kicked off their tour with a Saturday night headlining slot at Coachella. However, by the time Bankrupt! was finally released, the fickle mainstream public seemed to of moved on. The album, characterized by a massive, distorted and almost lo-fi sound, was a far-cry from the polished sheen of Wolfgang…; it was the album Phoenix wanted to make which, in this case, didn’t match up to what the mainstream wanted to hear.
So here we are now, moved out of the arena and back to the club. But what Phoenix lost in an arena full of casual fans, they gained in a three thousand person strong, hardcore fan club. With a light show that was reminiscent of a 16-bit sunset, Phoenix looked as if they were stepping out of a SNES game when they finally hit the stage. In a bid of utmost confidence in the Boston crowd, Phoenix kicked off their set with two of those aforementioned massive singles, “Lisztomania” and “Entertainment”, and the crowd responded with a rapturous and deafening singalong. A lesser band’s crowd would lose interest after such a beginning, but Phoenix whipped the crowd into a frenzy with some of their lesser known, but just as exciting singles such as “Lasso” and “Long Distance Call”.
And, while the general public may not get the Bankrupt! style, the crowd at the House of Blues were more than up for it. “The Real Thing” was as every bit as romantic as the album cut, with lead singer Thomas Mars wistfully looking into the crowd as he asked “Am I the only one? Your Lancelot?” while “S.O.S In Bel Air” and “Chloroform” were given booming, bass heavy work-overs. Second single “Trying To Be Cool” quickly segued into the arpeggiated outro of “Drakkor Noir,” a medley of some sorts and a technique that Phoenix would apply to a handful of their other songs.
“Run Run Run” represented their second album, the oft-forgotten Alphabetical, and “Consolation Prizes” joined the aforementioned “Long Distance Call”, both from It’s Never Been Like That. “Too Young”, the Sofia Coppola-championed single off their first album, was played before the band quickly cut off the song’s second verse to move into “Girlfriend.” Their other early single, “If I Ever Feel Better” (introduced as the first song they had ever written collectively), was tied together with “Funky Squaredance,” an early album rarity that added a hard-driving rock riff to “If I Ever Feel Better”’s smooth neo-R&B inspired sound.
This medley technique was taken to its peak with what the band called “Sunskrupt”. The song itself is a combination of three (mostly) instrumental tracks, “Love Like A Sunset” Parts 1 and 2 and “Bankrupt!” (the album’s namesake). Mars laid on the ground as the rest of the band slowly built up a cacophony of noise, leading into a massive bass overload (led by bassist and keyboard player Deck D’Arcy) that shook the entire venue. The bass eventually relented, allowing guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai to softly pluck out a delicate and harmonious melody, again behind that beautiful 16-bit sunset.
A quick showing of their most popular single, “1901,” solidified the band’s faith in the crowd. Mars jumped into the front row and sang while hanging on to the barricade while the crowd duly screamed along to the song’s obtuse but catchy lyrics. Strategically placed before the encore, one would think a good number of the crowd would have bunked off, having heard the song that probably introduced a good majority of them to the band. In a testament to the band’s dazzling performance, not a single person in eyesight had even thought about leaving.
After a brief break, Mars, along with Christian Mazzalai, returned to the same spot in the crowd and performed a gentle, acoustic version of “Countdown.” Whoever he was in front of surely melted when Mars sang, “True, true and everlasting, that’s what you want.” The rest of the band joined Mars and Mazzalai to perform “Rome”. While “Rome” was not a single, it surely encapsulates everything Phoenix are about in its woozy and romantic melody that eventually built up to a loud and dramatic fever pitch that was marked by a seizure-inducing light show.
As a final goodbye to their devoted fans, “Entertainment” was saw a reprise and Mars quickly made his way around the crowd; first to the mezzanine and then to the higher seating area. He perilously dangled between the various levels, adding to a heightened sense of drama, before finally making it back to the stage and imploring the crowd to join him. By the time the band finally finished, there was a crowd of around thirty fans dancing and cheering on stage.
Bankrupt! may have not been the populace pleasing album many thought it would be, but it helped Phoenix establish a firmly dedicated fanbase. While many bands today are chasing the almighty dollar (or Euro) sign, Phoenix are following something more important and valuable: their muse. There’s no doubt that they will eventually be gracing arenas across America in the near future.
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