CMJ Day Two: Phoenix! With Daft Punk! At Madison Square Garden! Holy Shit!

Phoenix/Dirty Projectors/Wavves Madison Square Garden Wednesday, October 20

Better Than: Breathing normally

This year, the biggest show of CMJ had the biggest secret to keep.

I postulated recently -- maybe facetiously -- that this MSG bill fulfilled every part of the psyche. Well, the rampant rumors of a Secret Special Guest Wednesday evening similarly tested two broader outlooks: The pessimists lining the dank Lower East Side caves of the afternoon CMJ showcases refused to believe the whispers, rolling their eyes as they swilled their Rolling Rocks (that beer is ubiquitous this week), while optimists such as myself shrieked at the news, were threatened with physical harm if we gossiped beyond our present media-savvy circles (which I did anyway, vastly), and ultimately harangued and schemed our way into the packed arena, scalping comically high-up nosebleed seats if need be.

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But before this massive, barely tamped secret could be unveiled, Madison Square Garden opened its gates to one of the most inexplicable spectacles to ever grace its boards: Wavves, the lo-fi San Diegan surf-poppers led by stoner savant Nathan Williams. Perhaps their brusque, treble-heavy slacker sonnets wouldn't have seemed so strange with an actual audience to receive them, but when MSG kicked their monolithic sound to life at 8 p.m. sharp, the cavernous arena sat at about 10 percent capacity, and the general-admission pit bracing the stage was even more conspicuously dotted. Williams was predictably nonchalant about the gig and their predicament, mumbling a languid joke or two about playing for so few folks, but his distorted mewl and the shrill topnotes of their odes kicked flimsily in the huge room.

Williams glanced up quickly into the towering video screens, which zoomed in more than adequately to capture the reds of his eyes. Audience members heckled, but he merely shrugged. Wavves were the opening act of the top-shelf show, the Not Quite Ready for Prime Time players of the evening, but they never asked to be more than the latter -- their scrappy endeavors haven't changed one iota from their more typically tiny shows at the Knitting Factory and Cake Shop. The aloof vantage from the MSG chairs was jarring, though: This must be how God felt when he watched Live Aid.

The Dirty Projectors, by comparison, were breathtaking and regal -- not surprising for a band that's got Björk on speed dial. Dave Longstreth led his experimental Brooklyn enclave in solid, expansive concord, fleshing out the trills of "Cannibal Resource" and other Bitte Orca offerings in wide swaths. He gamely receded to allow singer Amber Coffman her solo moments, and she ran with them; her soprano, while always clear and malleable to the Projectors' favored terse harmonies, has never been so staggering and soulful; her vibrato strained the ceiling. Even with the extended, Skynyrd-worthy guitar solos that spontaneously erupted in all of their songs (all, er, five of them), the Projectors were just as brazenly abstract as Wavves in the common-denominator venue. They, however, were alone in leaving the stage to rapturous applause.

And then, triumphantly, Phoenix: Assuming their positions with "Lisztomania," the Grammy-winning Frenchmen were entirely comfortable filling the room. They sounded mammoth -- their hooks were bred for that MSG bass -- and markedly more gregarious than during past gigs, with singer Thomas Mars leaping into the front row halfway through an early chorus, nearly smacking bassist Deck d'Arcy upside la tête upon his return. Last year's endlessly popular, melodically efficient Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was fully represented; the quartet continued with "Lasso" and, almost immediately, "Girlfriend" and "Armistice." "Fences," the finest Bee Gees single never recorded, enjoyed a literal light show, Mars darting giddily under sharp, staggered columns of white. This prefaced the jangling, pensive strings of "Run Run Run," a welcome revisit to 2004's underrated Alphabetical.

Right about here, a white sheet snapped down efficiently over the stage -- all the better to assemble the secret guests' hydraulics, perhaps? We'll never know: The curtain billowed out over the front rows of the standing attendees, who eagerly clawed at it and happily tore it from the ceiling, so the fabric then roiled backwards down center floor until it was gathered by the testy MSG crew. This led to an awkward, possibly panicked bout of improv noodling, a swift recovery with "Rome," and then a darkened stage as Mars bounded onto the soundboards in the center of the arena to sing an acoustic French folk song, which was every bit as inexplicable as it sounds.

But the payoff was incredible: The stage was suddenly sharply awash in bright white triangles and the shadowy, obscured outlines of two new figures, whom much of the audience seemed remarkably disinterested in... until they were revealed to be Daft Punk. Proving the rumors accurate, and the deep kinship of the French self-evident, the Paris electro duo served sharp splinters of ""Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" over the arena's disbelieving clamor (a buzz that went from confusion to abject hysteria in about three seconds) as Phoenix sprinted back onstage to churn out heavy, nearly sludgy rock accompaniment. Sorry, Kanye, but this may have been the best cover ever: perfectly mixed, unprecedented, visceral.

And then the end kick, "1901" -- no surprise given the song's ubiquity, but entirely inspired as a live remix. As Daft Punk added blips and scratches, Phoenix leavened them in resounding, torrential bass while Mars bellowed the chorus with atypical abandon, stage-diving into the pit and pantomiming swimming strokes back to the boards. Their two honorary DJs sent them out in a scabrous wall of oscillating noise that lapped over as they met to take a joint bow; as they left the stage, the MSG house lights rose on tearstains and dumbfounded gapes, not to mention a parade of genuine screaming that spilled out of the venue and continued all the way to Herald Square. Yep, really -- believe it. Because I almost can't.

Critical Bias: This week, being at MSG instead of a Bushwick basement feels singularly defiant

Overheard: "Get off the stage, moron!" during Wavves; "Broooklyn!" during Dirty Projectors; "Why-is-Thomas-Mars-wearing-a-helmet-holy-shit-is-that-Daft-Punk?!" about 20 times during Phoenix.

Random Notebook Dump: Was Dave Longstreth really trying to scissor-kick?


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