Review: Phantogram at First Ave

by Grant Tillery

Phantogram understands the power of spectacle.  Their shows are equally visual affairs and musical experiences, employing a multitude of strobe patterns, ranging from blinding white lines moving up and down, to a gold pyramid offset by a royal blue backdrop.  The flashing lights never felt excessive, though, illuminating the blissful glitz that is Phantogram’s music.  The eminently crush-worthy keyboardist and vocalist, Sarah Barthel, extended the flash to her outfit; the band’s au courant, black and white streetwear ensembles looked like they were pulled straight from a Saint Laurent runway show.

The full house was also superbly attired.  There was no rhyme or reason explaining the diversity of attendees — everyone from barely legal adults enjoying their first taste of freedom to local music stalwarts to college professors (I spotted one of mine among the crowd) swayed to the music and threw their hands in the air when the time called for it.

By 8:00 p.m., First Avenue was packed, and the opener, Brooklyn-based TEEN, kicked off the show with aplomb.  Despite lackluster stage presence — the band members were stoically stagnant — the all-women TEEN thrashed away as if the Riot grrrl movement had never ended; vocalist Kristina “Teeny” Lieberson howled angsty punk anthems with a hazy voice (think Stevie Nicks meets Debbie Harry) and simultaneously shredded on guitar while doing justice to her effects pedal.  “Sticky Situation,” played toward the end of TEEN’s set, featured masterful Moog musings; several different synthesizers were harmed in the process.

Though hardly lackluster, it took a while for Phantogram to hit their stride.  Despite a hard groove and a responsive crowd, the vocals on the first several numbers were muddied beneath the bottom-heavy guitar reverb.  I was awed immediately, however, because of the instinctual interplay and red-hot chemistry between Barthel and co-vocalist and guitarist Josh Carter.  The kinetic energy they generated with each other resonated through the crowd, making the barely identifiable numbers an ersatz treat of their own.

The balance was worked out by “As Far As I Can See,” featuring the oh-so trendy disco beat permeating nearly every pop hit today.  The band took it faster than the album version (off of 2009’s “Eyelid Movies”), and Barthel’s vocals were also breathier.  “Black Out Days” did little to change the tempo or the mood despite its dark, stark dance beat.  It was followed up by “Don’t Move,” a sing-a-long with the infectious, oxymoronic chorus of “Shake, shake/Keep your body still.” 

Things slowed down when Barthel announced they were playing the ballad “Bill Murray,” and instructed the audience to take their lighters out and wave them in the air aflame.  Though this attempt at a ‘90s concert trend fizzled out quickly, it was quickly and half-heartedly replaced by a small number of concertgoers waving their lighted smartphones in the air.  In spite of this woeful effect, Barthel did wonders to the ballad, paring it down more than the album version and either entirely eliminating or masterfully obscuring (I couldn’t tell which) the Chi-Lites sample it was built around while retaining the same melody. 

Carter finally had the chance to sing lead vocals on “I Don’t Blame You.”  His soft-spoken plaintiveness was the perfect foil for the haunting melodic echoes.  The sonorous tale of lovers’ misunderstanding was treated with a precise stagger; the band purposefully dragged the beat yet brought it back together in time for the one.

Up next were the crowd pleasers.  “Howling At The Moon’s” lyrics about crucifying dreams were perfectly matched with the wandering blue lights, laser beams penetrating the unconscious realms of the mind.  Phantogram’s most loved song, “Fall In Love,” sounded eerily similar to the album version.  People were waving their hands in the air to the perfectly rhythmic vibrations of the song’s sample.

Phantogram’s choice of “Mouthful of Diamonds” as the first of a two-song encore was strange.  It seemed better suited for the middle of the set, and its brooding lyrics were atypical closing material.  Though “Celebrating Nothing” continued the theme of dark wordplay, it was the perfect closer, thanks to the Guns ‘N’ Roses-esque hard rock of the melody and Cramer’s simple yet intricate guitar solo.

White heat bounced off Phantogram as “Celebrating Nothing” came to an end as light-saber shaped blue flashes darted out from the stage lighting.  This hot and cold combination encapsulated Phantogram’s allure; they coax out the bright side of darkness to create a coruscating spectacle that defines the lush, radiant pop music of today.  

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