Phoenix @ The Wiltern 6/28/09

It takes, frankly, balls, to name your album as an homage to a man whose music has remained popular for almost three centuries. Touring in support of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, French import rockers Phoenix took to the stage at the Wiltern Sunday night not just as alt-rock stars, but rather as alt-rock gods, playing a remarkably high-energy, finely-tuned show that gripped the worshiping crowd with every note.

It could very well have been touch-and-go, because just the night before, lead singer Thomas Mars had been too ill to perform a scheduled stop in San Francisco. One would never have guessed he'd been voice-less just 24 hours prior—Mars' vocals were unwavering for the duration. The show began with "Lisztomania," which got things off to rollicking start. Phoenix's sound has evolved over their two most recent albums to have characteristic high and steady tempos punctuated with well-timed pauses to spotlight a series of notes deftly plucked on guitar, perhaps keyboard, and the repetition of key words and phrases—sort of sock hop meets rock; you might be tempted to pump your fists, bob your head...and bop around a little.

The high-spirited and infectious nature of the opening tune was echoed essentially in every song Phoenix played from then on out. Mars, along with bandmates Deck D'Arcy (bass), Laurent Brancowitz (guitar), and Christian Mazzalai (guitar), followed "Lisztomania" with "Long Distance Call," their first single from their prior album, It's Never Been Like That (2006). What Phoenix did in this show that was truly spectacular was to never abandon the up-tempo pace of things. When most bands quiet things down a bit to break things up with a patch of slow or acoustic songs, Phoenix--not known for their ballads--chose to use instrumental breaks that served as bridges into the next phase of songs. And even the breaks were interesting--like fireflies the crowd couldn't help but be drawn into their light, looking for that moment when they could latch on to a moody strain of notes and find their way back into the music that was sure to follow.

Coming out of the first moody and melodic break was a treat for those of us in the crowd who have been fans of Phoenix for some time now--a group who seemed to be perhaps in the minority amidst the sold-out gathering of what I can't help but call Johnny-come-latelys. The audience was clearly perplexed when the strains of "Funky Squaredance" leaped out following this instrumental bridge, but those of us who have seen Phoenix before and actually own a cd version of United, the 2000 album from which this quirky and better-live-than-recorded song, it was like an old friend coming late to the party.

Phoenix indeed made their Wiltern show about new friends--new friends in the form of fans, who in their skinny jeans with their BlackBerries were probably still on the playground when United came out, and new friends in the form of their modus operandi of sticking almost exclusively to songs from their last two albums. What worked with this approach is that not for one second did they lose control of the crowd--the audience was hooked like addicts, swaying, bouncing, screaming at any given opportunity, and the band seemed to have a keen awareness of what to give of themselves and when. It was curious, as well, that throughout the show Mars managed to keep his crowd in full reverence, yet did not pepper the interludes or pauses with greetings or anecdotes beyond one or two "thank yous" and "hello Los Angeles!" moments. In that sense, and musically, the evening was, in a word, masterful.

At the halfway point in their principal set, Mars could rest his vocals once again while what I saw fit to describe in my hurriedly scrawled crib notes during the show as a "weird disjointed alien breakdown," took place. It was like a musician's duel under red lights, as the notes crept up against each other, then with each other, pushing and pulling and looking for cohesion, and then, just when it seemed destined to never meld, the music came together and led them into "Love Like Sunset," and Mars re-emerged to add the vocals. We were sucked in the undertow again, on another ride.

By this point in the show, however, I was getting antsy. My notes: "I want a song from Alphabetical." I was to be granted my wish--but only once during the whole show, as they played "Run Run Run" from their brilliant 2004 release. My inner old-schooler was tickled yet again with "Too Young," a song you are just plain foolish to not dance along too where you're standing (and you might recall from the soundtrack to Lost in Translation, whose director, Sofia Coppola, was reported to be in the house that night, too). They played us out for their main set with "Sometimes in the Fall," and "Rome."

Their encore kicked off with "If I Ever Feel Better," from United, a song that they take to a whole new level when performed live (an EP of live performances is available, released in '04 in support of Alphabetical) because it becomes expanded, layered, and more intense as the lyrics overlap and create more frantic tension. "We can only do one more," Mars confessed following the first of the encore set tunes, and they proceeded to wrap things up with "1901," another very popular song from their current release.

It is, I'd wager, impossible to dispute that this was a phenomenal show. In perusing message boards and chatting with others in attendance Sunday night, the consensus is that this show has set for many a new bar when it comes to live gigs in venues on par with the Wiltern, and many will enthuse that this was the best they'd ever seen Phoenix. I would concur, and yet, am of dual mind on the matter, because I sorely missed songs like "Victim of the Crime," and "Everything is Everything," which could have blended well into the mix of songs on the evening's set list. It was an incredible show, and it will be interesting to see how the band takes to the stage come September at the Greek, in a recently announced return visit to Los Angeles.

When the lights flooded the inside of the Wiltern and the band was long gone off stage the energy in the room was palpable, and translated into something wholly emblematic of the time in which this show occurred: an impromptu dance party to Michael Jackson's "Rock With You," and "The Way You Make Me Feel," thanks to the savvy of the person in charge of the venue's sound system. A moment of this was captured on video and shared on YouTube.

It was the perfect end to an amazing show. What more can a fan say than that we would want to rock the night away?

Set list (via Phoenix Forum):
Lisztomania
Long Distance Call
Consolation Prizes
Lasso
Napoleon Says
Funky Square Dance
Rally
Girlfriend
Armistice
Love Like A Sunset
Run Run Run
Too Young
Sometimes In The Fall
Rome
For the Encore:
If I Ever Feel Better
1901