Concert Reviews

Why Are Bands Like Phantogram So Huge in Colorado?

There's an Internet meme that tells you what band you're probably into based on state. For Colorado, that band is Naked and Famous. In 2013 that band played at the Fillmore to a large crowd. That sort of mixture of rock and synth pop and R&B finds a different manifestation in Phantogram. That band's show last night at the Ogden, also sold out, is the group's third appearance in an eleven month period at a Denver music venue: last November with Future Islands at the Gothic and this past April with TEEN at Ogden Theater alongside this most recent apperance. And every time the group put on a gloriously dramatic show that brushed off the drudgery of everyday life. But what is it about bands like Naked and Famous and especially Phantogram that command such a large audience in Colorado?

Looking at the crowd, sight checking demographics and hearing one of the security people outside guessing the average age of everyone at the show at thirty, it isn't really a bleed over from fans of EDM, though Phantogram has so fully integrated dance music into its sound that it is essentially a dance music band but one more akin to Massive Attack than Sound Tribe Sector 9.

Opener Lia Ices seems to have tapped into her own side of this recent wave of synth pop bands. But calling it a "wave" does some injustice to how different these bands really are from one another. One would never confuse Phantogram's uplifting bombast and soulfulness with the moodier and more jazz-funk-inflected music being done by Toro Y Moi or the New Order/R&B-esque Washed Out. There is a distinct influence of hip-hop and the more adventurous soundscaping of that music's more experimental artists on all of this stuff. Naked and Famous is rock but draws on similar sources in its songwriting but sounds precious little like Grimes or Denver's Church Fire or Future Islands. The latter is more rooted in the underground music world of Baltimore and post-punk than other modern synth pop artists.

Twin Shadow, Beach House and all the so-called chillwave bands in their more developed form at this point have an emotionally stirring quality than some throwaway pop thing. Phantogram has itself evolved beyond the excellent dream pop and ethereal rock thing that seemed to characterize the music of its releases prior to this year's Voices. This show showcased two artists, both Phantogram and Lia Ices, that represent an at best loose musical movement in which the group's came into its own independently of one another into a mature and electrifying form.

Even a clumsy term like "synth pop" is a poor tool to describe what these bands are about, because despite being influenced in part by an earlier "new wave" synth pop don't much sound like it, having discovered their own voices. This isn't necessarily why a band like Phantogram can sell out mid-sized clubs each of three shows in less than a year. That happens because Phantogram doesn't skimp on energy, has songs that seem to get people dancing and which have enough familiarity to hook people but enough originality to make the music worth a careful listen. The joke now is that bands come here more often because of legal cannabis. But this is something else.

People in Colorado, generally speaking, like to party. And events and shows that provide the soundtrack to partying are going to be popular in one of America's drunkest cities.

Even that doesn't much explain why Phantogram -- not yet popular enough to do something like sell out Red Rocks or the Fillmore three times in a year -- continues to be so popular on the next tier. One thing Phantogram and Lia Ices both possess is mood, atmosphere, the ability to provide an emotional fantasy world into which one can project one's dreams and wishes and be swept along. No matter what the music is that takes hold in Colorado, it is something that resonates with a certain spirit of openness, with an undertone of melancholy that an artist can tap into and articulate or help to provide a catharsis. There is a moodiness underlying the music of Phantogram, which the group deftly transforms into hopefulness and outbursts of joy in myriad ways that never seem corny.

In combining sounds and styles to accomplish the aforementioned transformation, Phantogram has excelled in developing into its current high level of ability. Bringing an artist like Lia Ices along this time or Future Islands last year and TEEN earlier this year, shows the group is astute in recognizing it is part of a musical milieu that is so apt and perfect for a time when things seem to be falling apart in the world. We need some music that invigorates the spirit with the healing of an emphatic spirit and uplifting, passionate energies going into the music's composition. That Phantogram, or at least someone in its camp, recognizes like-minded artists to have as part of its tours speaks well of the band and its associates.

Critic's Notebook

Bias: If Phantogram was a Denver band I would probably go see it as often as possible. Voices has been in regular listening rotation since I picked it up in Seattle in the Spring. "Fall in Love" is one of my favorite pop songs of the past decade.

Random Detail: Talked to one of the security people for a while about Montana and his working the Disco Biscuits show. Cool guy.

By the Way: Phantogram's photo pass is a green cat with laser eyes and glasses. In other words, not the standard, generic venue photo pass. Sometimes it's the little things that tell you a band is different.

• BACKBEAT'S GREATEST HITS • - New Zealander Thom Powers On What It's Like to Lead The Naked and Famous in Los Angeles - Ernest Greene of Washed Out On How Drums Bring a Different Energy to the Live Show - George Lewis Jr. of TGwin Shadow On How He Wanted to Be in Boyz II Men's Gang Growing Up - Chaz Bundick of Toro Y Moi On J Dilla and Reserving His Side Project For Experimentation

If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.