PHOENIX @ 1STBANK CENTER | 8/7/13 Last night at 1STBANK, when the repeating bell-like sounds at the beginning of Phoenix's biggest hit "Lisztomania" rung out, the crowd roared expectedly and the outfit almost didn't have to sing at all. As everybody sang along with every word, you could tell that it further enlivened the band, which had already done a great job of keeping the energy up for the bulk of its set, no doubt aware of the heightened expectations for this show, which had been moved from Red Rocks.
See also: Phoenix at the Bluebird, 6/26/09
At some point during the show, frontman Thomas Mars acknowledged that change in venues but noted how inclement weather would have meant the show was canceled and it was better to have moved the show and said that it would be epic anyway. And he and the band set about keeping that promise with a light show that didn't just enhance the visual presence of the band but of the room itself with bright columns of colored light on stage and beaming out into the venue.
The show opened with the Bowie-esque "Entertainment." Right out of the gate, Phoenix set a high bar for the rest of the show with a raw and exuberant delivery of music that has clearly been honed and distilled to the richness and clarity of layers working this perfectly together. It was a refreshing juxtaposition. This was pop music that felt like it was being played with no filters on its source in the heart of the songwriters.
Phoenix delivered hits like "Lisztomania" and the main set closer "1901" and rounded the rest of the set out with album cuts from 2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and its latest effort, Bankrupt!. To that end, during the last half of the show, the act played the Cluster/Kraftwerk-like "Love Like A Sunset Part I & II," and to the crowd's credit, even those who might only be more familiar with the band's pop songs, people were clearly into it and seemed happy when Mars delivered the handful of lyrics near the end.
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The most compelling moment was during "The Real Thing." That song took some sounds you'd expect in a Laurie Anderson song and mixed them with more conventional melodies while weaving in minor chord progressions. Not many groups with such a wide appeal write music in which the transitions and soundscaping are interesting for anyone generally turned off by obvious pop music. "S.O.S. In Bel Air" also felt like a band playing with the pop song format, writing something that could articulate contrasting emotions, and not just with words, but with how the sounds were structured and mixed together.
The music seemed to be written with this large format presentation in mind the whole time. Even early songs like "Too Young," which many people first heard on the soundtrack of Lost in Translation, sounded like it was meant to be experienced most fully in this kind of setting. And hearing intelligent lyrics in such deeply catchy music with such a colorful and dramatic a performance made the show all the better.
Keep reading for a Critic's Notebook and a review of Dinosaur Jr.'s set
During Phoenix's set, Mars thanked openers Dinosaur Jr. for playing with them, saying it was like the fulfillment of a "teenage wet dream." Dino, meanwhile, was in top form. Starting off with "Thumb," J Mascis and company wasted no time in showing that it may be better than ever at this point.
Everyone looked like they were having fun, including the drummer who held his own playing Murph's parts. Seeing the guys work together and hearing Mascis deliver searing guitar leads made it obvious that Dinosaur Jr. is masterful at making excess seem essential. Sure, Mascis is throwing off notes like he has tons to spare, but none of them sounded like they were wasted or out of place. For his part, Barlow was a madman in constant motion throughout the show, which made for real visual presence to complement the music.
Mascis engaged the crowd more than usual with some sincere thanks. It didn't sound like he was coming out of a shell so much as it was like the shell wasn't there at all. "The Wagon" got a blistering treatment, as did "Freak Scene," which was performed like the song was just written last year instead of 25 years ago or so. It probably seemed so fresh because Mascis and Barlow visibly injected themselves into the tune laying out that great instrumental passage toward the end.
Just before the end, Barlow asked if anybody liked the Cure. "We love the Cure!" Barlow cried before going into "Just Like Heaven." The set ended with a welcome surprise of a Deep Wound song with the sarcastic and biting "Training Ground." When the music ended, Barlow, in his usual affectionate level of sardonic tone, said, "Thank you, Red Rocks! Red Rocks is nothing like I thought it would be. I thought it was an outdoor venue." What a card.
Personal Bias: I've liked Phoenix since hearing "Too Young" nearly ten years ago, and after this show, I'm definitely a fan. Dinosaur Jr., meanwhile, is one of my favorite bands going back twenty-plus years.
Random Detail: Ran into Chris Adolf and Lucas Johannes of Bad Weather California, Aaron Miller of Bleak Environment and photographer Mike McGrath at the show.
By the Way: Both Phoenix and Dinosaur Jr. had excellent T-shirts for sale at reasonable prices at the merch booth.
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