Flashback: Phoenix (with Daft Punk) @ MSG: October 20, 2010
Entertainment! That is what you get from Phoenix, and it is also the name of the first single off their new album Bankrupt!, released today. According to the one review I’ve read, Bankrupt! could be a very different album than the band’s last, the mega-breakthrough hit Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, which was one of the 2009-10 albums that brought indie music into the mainstream. On the heels of Wolfgang, Phoenix received a Grammy award, played Saturday Night Live, and sold out Madison Square Garden. Like fellow indie sensations Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, and MGMT, Phoenix was on top of the music world. Now, the CoS album review actually makes a “crude comparison” between Phoenix and MGMT, suggesting that Bankrupt! is to Wolfgang as Congratulations was to Oracular Spectacular. I find that a bit hard to believe – Phoenix has always been about catchy pop hits, so I wonder how different Bankrupt! can really be. Of course, the best part will be finding out. New music!!
In the meantime, to celebrate the new album, I’m remembering that sold out show at MSG, which is the one time I’ve seen Phoenix perform live. Somehow, a band that just one year earlier played the tiny Music Hall of Williamsburg, successfully scaled up to the World’s Most Famous Arena and pulled off one of the best arena shows I’ve ever seen. It speaks to the popularity of Wolfgang that both shows – the intimate Brooklyn one and the much larger NYC one – both came after the release of that album and featured primarily the same songs. After a year of the ubiquitous “1901” and “Lisztomania” (and smaller hits like “Armistice” and “Rome”) appearing on the radio, TV commercials, movie trailers and everywhere else music is heard, Phoenix had become a household name. When bands soar so quickly it can be difficult to put on a show orders of magnitude bigger than anything they’ve ever done before. Not so for Phoenix.
Wavves opened the show to almost no crowd (except me) and was followed by a good performance by the Dirty Projectors. Given Phoenix’s new mainstream appeal, most in the crowd probably hadn’t heard of Dirty Projectors, and it showed in the muted reaction to the good set. Everyone was obviously waiting for the main event. Thus, when the opening guitar riffs of “Lisztomania” kicked off the show, it was no surprise that the crowd immediately went wild. Lead singer Thomas Mars was brilliant throughout, proving to be an excellent front man for a rock band despite his normally low-key appearance and demeanor. As Phoenix bashed out many of its hits – “Lasso,” “Long Distance Call,” “Fences,” “Girlfriend,” and “Armistice” were the five songs that immediately followed “Lisztomania” – Mars enthralled the crowd by surfing his way across the general admission “Pit” several times. The Garden was absolutely electric. One reviewer said it well: “To see 20,000 dazzled young fans pumping their fists in the air and mouthing every word to anthems like ‘Lisztomania’ and ‘Run Run Run’ last night was to know that these guys have grown into real, live arena rock stars.” I wasn’t lucky enough to be in the Pit, but was seated on the Floor just behind it, and pretty soon I’d discover that I had one of the best seats in the house. Before I did though, one might’ve thought that it would be best to be sitting in the 100s section, stage right. That’s because on one of his forays through the crowd Mars landed on the aisle between the Pit and the 100s and climbed a few stairs into the crowd from where he sang “Rome,” an easy crowd-pleaser. The show had many highlights – seeing Mars sing with fans clawing at him was definitely one of them.
The band then disappeared, presumably for the encore which would no doubt include “1901.” I wouldn’t have been surprised if all we got was a standard two or three song encore; nor would I have been disappointed. Thus far it had been a great show. But Phoenix had two more surprises in store for us that were all anyone could talk about the following day. With the lights dimmed, and everyone staring at the stage, the band unexpectedly appeared as if from nowhere on a riser in the middle of the arena, just in front of the soundboard. From there they played a 3-song acoustic mini-set, with Mars and guitarist Christian Mazzalai both literally less than five feet away from where I stood. (Sadly, due to a hard drive crash I lost all of my photos from this show. However, you can see a photo of the band playing from the riser here. I was so close to Mars that you can see me in that photo. Sometimes you just get lucky.) After a night where the pop band performed more like a rock band, they softened up dramatically with beautiful renditions of two of their older songs, “Honeymoon” and “If I Ever Feel Better,” and a French song, “La Fille Aux Cheveux Clairs.” And just as they appeared, the lights went out and they magically disappeared, readying their next big surprise.
In the darkness, a robotic voice filled the arena. “Harder / Better / Faster / Stronger.” On stage in dark jumpsuits and futuristic helmets were friends-of-the-band Daft Punk, making a rare live appearance, their first in almost three years. The French robot duo played “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” and was joined by the French band midway through. They then segued into another Daft Punk song together and then, finally, we got Phoenix – and Daft Punk – going out with “1901.” I’ve been at the Garden many times for many different kinds of events – when Daft Punk and Phoenix played together, it was as excited as I’ve ever seen a crowd there. It takes a lot to make Pitchfork say “OMFG.”
Phoenix is a band that in 2009-10 was as good as any. They could be many things to many people, straddling the fine lines between pop and rock, and mainstream success and indie credibility. On the one hand they could be playing the Garden with Daft Punk, as seen here, and on the other hand they could excel under the conditions of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, as you can see here (which I highly recommend) or download the audio. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that Bankrupt! is expected to be a more challenging album from the band, “the most anti-pop pop album of the year.” As I said about 1000 words ago, the best part will be finding out. I seriously can’t wait. New music!!