Folk music appears to be in a pretty dire state on the surface. Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers have co-opted the genre to fit their watered down version of it, while their alt-country forebears in Wilco, who were once looked to as folk saviors, have grown complacent. Both have left a flood of boring imitators in their wake.
Enter Phosphorescent A/K/A Matthew Houck, originally from Alabama but now residing in Brooklyn. His sixth album Muchacho is one of the best of 2013 thus far, expanding upon his once minimal folk leanings by incorporating a genuine passion for country and 70’s rock. Written during a sojourn to Tulum, Mexico, the album hinges on a coherent narrative, what some might call a lost art, and contains poetic and occasionally gut-wrenching lyrics.
As the screaming drunk secretary behind me at the band’s homecoming show last night confirmed, the album’s lead single “Song For Zula” has helped Phosphorescent finally find a receptive audience outside of the typical indie rock crowd.
Oddly, the show was announced in February, but didn’t sell out until just a couple weeks ago. There’s something to be said for the fickleness of modern music fans, when an artist with one of the best albums of the year has trouble selling out a show in a place like New York, particularly when that place also happens to be his home.
But even though the headliner didn’t start until after 10, fans packed in early to catch Philly two-piece Strands of Oaks’ opening set. Already three albums in, Strand of Oaks are extremely polished in a live setting, but don’t expect them to become household names anytime soon. Their two-piece setup makes it difficult for the band to expand outside of a limited palette of tones and concepts. Think 70s-era Neil Young, pared down and updated for bearded millenials.
When Phosphorescent took the stage to hoots and hollers shortly thereafter, the crowd already knew they were in for a much better performance. They became even more raucous as the night went on and Houck drew from a well-curated setlist spanning his last three albums.
Concerts have become so stale over the years that it seems like we’ve collectively lowered our standards to only expect songs to be decently replicated from album versions in a live setting. What Houck delivers with his five-piece backing band, which includes two immensely talented keyboard players, is something much more.
With the added benefit of a hefty rhythm section, songs like “The Quotidian Beasts” and “Song For Zula” expanded righteously beyond their minimalist bounds and reached impressive new heights. Originally containing only an acoustic guitar and percussion, “A Picture of Our Torn Up Praise” was beefed up and reworked into something entirely new, leaving the audience enrapt. During the song, a male keyboardist on one side of the stage banged out a stunning piano part, while a female keyboardist on the other side grounded the song with a glorious organ melody.
Things only seemed to get better throughout the night. “Ride On/Right On” was updated with a hard-stomping drum machine, creating a dance party vibe, and “Nothing Was Stolen” continued with a similar tone, making the Bowery Ballroom feel more like a rowdy saloon than a New York concert venue. After a rapturous applause from their first 10 songs, Houck came back solo for “Wolves” and looped his vocals and a scream from an obnoxious crowd member to create a strange and slightly terrifying atmosphere. It was honestly a bit over the top (we get it — the song’s called “Wolves” and the looped vocals are meant to sound like wolves growing), but it’s certainly not anything you’ll see at a typical rock show.
After a cover of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter’s “Storms Never Last,” the entire band came back on stage for the final song “Los Angeles,” which elicited an uproarious crowd sing-along. In a live setting, Phosphorescent breathes new life into songs that seem intimate and minimalist on his albums. I hate to bring up the over-used trope of getting what you paid for and much more, but for Phosphorescent’s show at the Bowery, it simply couldn’t be more accurate.
Critical Bias: I’ve listed to Muchacho more than any other album this year.
Overheard: “The crowd in here is very Brooklyn tonight.”