Concert Review: Phoenix & the Vaccines at Barclays Center: October 2, 2013
One of my ten favorite active bands, supported by another one of my ten favorite active bands, live in concert in my hometown. All too often a person’s expectations for an event are too high, setting themselves up for disappointment when the actual event is merely good, but not quite as good as it was in their mind. Occasionally though – maybe even rarely – the event itself exceeds already impossibly high expectations. Phoenix, with the Vaccines, live in the Barclays Center last night was one of those rare occasions.
It must be said that Phoenix keeps excellent company. The last time I saw them perform was at Madison Square Garden in 2010. For that show they were supported by Wavves and Dirty Projectors and brought out Daft Punk for a surprise collaboration. (I wrote about it here.) While it’s hard to top that, as far as opening acts go I’m not sure anything could have topped the Vaccines. Because I never miss a chance to see this surf-rocking London band live, I arrived at the arena at 7:45pm, early enough to secure a prime location on the floor near the stage. Lucky for me, as my prime real estate was a major factor in an evening that will go down as legendary.
Like Wavves, the Vaccines musical style is very different from Phoenix. You could tell from the sparse crowd’s initial reaction to the band that not too many were familiar with or excited to see them. This didn’t put even the slightest damper on lead singer lead singer Justin Young or the rest of the band’s enthusiasm. They came out strong, with explosive songs “Blow It Up” and “Teenage Icon”, but while I was dancing and singing along the people around me appeared only slightly entertained. Young then slowed it down a bit with “Wetsuit”, “Post Break-Up Sex” and “All in White”, encouraging the crowd to clap along (which many did). You could see Young get more and more comfortable on stage and, as he implored the crowd to clap, he dropped his snarling demeanor and laughed and smiled, showing that he had a feel for the moment. Perhaps he was a bit in awe – or more likely amused – by the power he had to get the Phoenix crowd to clap at his whim, but this little gesture proved a lot. He almost lost the crowd (myself included) while playing acoustic guitar on new song “Melody Calling”. But while I heard the side-chatter and saw the crowd’s restlessness I also noticed something – this was the first time all set that the crowd was even mildly disinterested. Perhaps they weren’t Vaccines fans, but the music had been holding its own. Young then brought the energy level back up with “No Hope”, and then blew that away with “Wrecking Bar (Ra Ra Ra)”. For the latter song Young shed his guitar and leaped around the stage, owning it as if he had shrunk the enormous arena into a more familiar and intimate club setting. Twenty minutes prior I was dancing and singing almost alone amid a sea of casual listeners; now I was one of many jumping and yelling “Ra Ra Ra Ra.” The band played four more of their very popular songs (setlist below) and by now it felt as if the show was actually a Vaccines concert. The crowd had mostly filled in, songs were being sung, Young and crew were hopping all over the stage and fans were screaming for more. Never before have I seen an opening band win over a crowd the way they did last night. When the Vaccines finally have their moment to headline arena shows – and they will – I promise you will not want to miss it. They have what it takes to make that leap.
Of course, Phoenix is possibly the best example of a band successfully making the leap from small venues to arena shows, which they did alongside the wild popularity of their 2009 album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. In fact, I can’t imagine how these guys ever did a show in anything smaller than an arena, as it seems that the foursome – especially lead singer Thomas Mars – were born for the big stage. Opening with the first single off of their latest album Bankrupt!, the poppy “Entertainment”, and then following it up with hit after hit from each of their last three albums, it was easy for the crowd to fall in love with the show from the first moment and never lose steam. There’s something symbolic about that song, Entertainment; entertaining is something that Phoenix arguably knows how to do better than any band going right now. There may be better artists, better technical musicians, better songwriters, even better performers, but no band puts the entire package together better, in a way that is at once easily digestible and yet not too “pop” as to become meaningless or cliché. As an indie rock fan (and admittedly a music snob) I’m not embarrassed to say that I love seeing Phoenix perform, even though they would have easily fit into the synth-heavy 1980s. One day in the future we may laugh at ourselves for having once fallen in love with this group, but for those who were there it will be impossible to deny how popular they were, even among the music-elitist crowd. Sort of reminds me of Depeche Mode in that way – once revered almost as much as the Smiths or the Cure, now a dated relic of a bygone era. But if you knew the power of Depeche in the ‘80s and through Violator, you have a sense for how captivating Phoenix is today.
As mentioned, Phoenix played just about every hit song of theirs that you can think of. No obscure deep cuts or French songs mixed in – just what the fans would order up. After a continuous dozen or so of those songs performed without a break or much banter, Mars disappeared as his band-mates played the mostly instrumental “Love is Like a Sunset” while the screen behind the band depicted a drive through the streets of Paris. Until then the concert was low on glitz – mainly just straight singing and playing – but this was the first of a few wonderful little extras. The next was a blast of fake $100 bills into the crowd before and during “Armistice”, followed by Mars jumping into the crowd – not for the last time – just a foot or two away from me as he sang the anthemic “1901”. Mars stayed close to the crowd, sitting at the edge of the stage with fans’ hands surrounding him for the one lullaby of the evening, “Countdown”. The slow song – which featured only Mars and Chris Mazzalai playing guitar – plus “If I Ever Feel Better” built the tension for “one of the first songs we ever wrote … a dance song, so feel free to dance”, “Funky Squaredance.” Mars moved from the stage through the arena, walking his way through the arena seats as his red microphone cord stretched as far as the eye could see, all the way to the back of the arena and then up front again, through the middle of the GA floor. At this point he stopped and surfed the wave of the crowd all the way back to the stage, as my hands were two of the many that helped push him along back up to sing “Rome.” The electricity in the arena was so strong you could feel it, and then the band did the only thing that could possibly raise it even more – they invited as much of the crowd as possible (which obviously was just those of us in the very front) to climb up on stage with them. As Phoenix put the ultimate bow on a truly incredible evening, I climbed up on stage, standing in awe of the wondrous crowd in front of me. For a brief moment I knew what it was like to stand on an arena stage with 20,000 fans looking back at you, smiling, genuinely ecstatic. This was a feeling I’ll never forget.
 In alphabetical order: Arcade Fire, Dinosaur Jr, the Drums, Dum Dum Girls, the Hives, Matt & Kim, Metric, MGMT, the National, Phoenix, Sleigh Bells, the Strokes, the Vaccines, Vampire Weekend. Yes, I realize my top 10 has 14.
 Random note: If this song is an indication of a new sound or direction for the Vaccines, I will be extremely disappointed.