Phoenix – Music Hall of Williamsburg – 4/5/13


Better Than: It looks.

Thomas Mars stood between the two guitarists of Phoenix. Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai softly played the closing riff of “Love Like a Sunset Part II,” the wistful, crescendoing track from the band’s 2009 record, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. The two stretched each note of the closing ditty, letting the harmonies ring for a moment. A sly smile crept across Mars’ face. In 15 years, when Behind the Music (is that still a thing?) runs itd Phoenix episode, Mars will tell the camera, in his charming, subtle French accent, “Oh, yes. That show at Music Hall of Williamsburg just before Bankrupt! released. That was one of the most important moments in our career.”

At least that’s how Friday felt. This was a Moment-with-a-Capital-M for the French band. The last time Phoenix played New York City was in 2010 and they sold out Madison Square Garden (along with Daft Punk). On Friday, the stakes were a bit different. They took a smaller stage in Brooklyn, and treated 500 lucky fans (some of whom showed up at 2:30 a.m. to get tickets, which didn’t become available till 10 a.m.) to a taste of their upcoming record, mixing in some classics as well. Highlights included greats like “Girlfriend,” “1901,” and “Rome,” but new tracks from Bankrupt!–like “Entertainment,” “SOS in Bel Air,” and “Trying to Be Cool”–fit in the set nicely. (If you didn’t make it, don’t worry. The entire show will be broadcasted on Sirius XM’s Alt Nation station today at 8 p.m. Dudes also just played Saturday Night Live.)

Mars carries a quiet confidence on stage. On Friday, he only said a few things, mainly just peppering thanks to fans throughout the set. Perhaps it was the fact that it’d been a few years since the singer had been before a New York audience, but he remained subdued throughout the night. He’d glide around, pausing here and there to stare out. He’d stand on amps, monitors, and speakers, towering above everyone with the red microphone cable wrapped around his neck. Behind his high-flying tenor voice, he appeared wide-eyed and in awe. Then, at a moment’s notice, he’d explode, jumping and dancing and pouncing around, whipping his microphone in circles like a windmill, lost in the swirling lights of the stage. He led sing-a-longs, a highlight of which came during the first few bars of “Lisztomania,” Wolfgang‘s delightful, catchy opening track: “So sentimental, not sentimental so,” he crooned. “Darling, I’m down and lonely when with the fortunate only.”

Mars’ subtle swag gives him the benefit of doing pretty much whatever he wants while performing–even if that means going into the crowd, walking to the back, standing on the soundboard, and thanking everyone for coming out. But also, this mysterious attitude somehow makes you really want believe what he’s saying, like you want his approval, you want to understand what he’s thinking. There’s a certain feeling that these dance rockers evoke. They’re confident, but unassuming; whimsical, but not overt; earnest, but not precious. Few bands could walk onto stage with one member wearing sky blue pants and another sporting a too-tight red nylon jacket and be taken seriously, but somehow, Phoenix does it.

The evening’s best moment came at the start of the encore. Mars walked back out and sat down on the edge of the stage. With cameras and iPhones shoved in his face, he sang a quiet, stripped down version of “Countdown,” Wolfgang‘s contemplative, introspective song about getting older. “We’re sick, sick, sick for the big sun,” he lovingly bellowed. Pausing between verses, the lights falling lightly on his fluffy, shaggy blond mop of hair, he continued: “Do you remember when 21 years was old?”

Unfortunately, we do.

Critical Bias: I took four years of French in high school.

Overheard: “I wonder if Daft Punk will show up.”

Long Distance Call
SOS in Bel Air
Love Like a Sunset Part II
The Real Thing
Trying to Be Cool
Drakkar Noir

Entertainment (reprise)