June 24, 2009

Review: Phoenix at the Rock and Roll Hotel

Oversold is an understatement. Phoenix's performance last Sunday night at the Rock and Roll Hotel in DC's H Street corridor was a 95 degree endurance test with what felt like 500 concertgoers packed into the 400 capacity club like slabs of meat in a crowded oven. As a 24-year-old hydrated by a few Tecates, there were still moments when I was uncertain whether I'd make it to the end of the evening. I can't begin to imagine how the two thirty-something fully-pregnant women standing beside me felt.

The crowd wasn't just battling the heat and lack of space. The beginning of the show was brutal thanks to the opening act, Brooklyn's Amazing Baby. Unsuccessfully slinging a joyless version of Britpop, the band came across more like a garbage dumpster of inarticulated influences. But then came Phoenix.

Formed in Versailles over a decade ago, the veteran pop group took the stage for a raucous, ear-scalding, and youthful 14-song plus two-encore performance. If their latest album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is synth-pop's magnum opus, this was the performance to match it. The band, making a rare US appearance, turned its carefully constructed clean guitar sound into blaring rock with distortion and dark synthesizers accompanying the six band members' ear-to-ear smiles on the small stage.

The show was bookended by two of the band's most recent hits—the electric piano bop of "Lisztomania" and the synth-blaring "1901"—but singer Thomas Mars and company weren't afraid to mix up the set list with a genre-defying catalogue of songs from the band's four releases, including the blissful dance tune "Too Young" off 2000's United.

During songs like "Rally," "Long Distance Call," and "Armistice," the play of guitarist Christian Mazzalai and touring drummer Thomas Hedlund was especially compelling. Mazzalai—with expressionless and unfocused eyes and a fat lower lip hanging from his open mouth—picked his guitar like a possessed bobblehead doll. And Hedlund, who for some reason is not a full-time member of the band, pounded away at his drums with unparalleled precision and strength. After Chris Bear of Grizzly Bear, he's easily the best drummer I've seen perform this year.

The crowd, though small for a band as popular as Phoenix, was as dedicated and well-versed as I've seen in the District. Dancing was impossible with everyone standing shoulder-to-shoulder and front pressed against back, but in place of wiggling hips was plenty of fist-pumping, head-banging, and jumping. Mars, who delivered pitch-perfect vocals throughout the evening, ended the night with an encore-closing extended-take of "1901." During the second to last chorus, he jumped down into the audience singing "falling, falling, falling, fallen" surrounded by thirty or so wildy excited fans—a perfectly chaotic and energetic climax to one hell of a sweaty night. My ears are still buzzing.

Phoenix - "Long Distance Call" (from It's Never Been Like That)


1 comment: