October 18, 2010

Like a Riot

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They were way better than T-Pain. I think we can go that far at least. On a night that was as epileptic as it was schizophrenic, Phoenix banged out some heavy rock anthems in Barton Hall on Sunday night, showcasing their radio rock over an up-and-down two hours whose ephemeral hills were matched only by the dull gray valleys. While the show wasn’t the sort of life-altering audial explosion some anticipated, Phoenix put on a consummately professional, rock-star show with a set list that everyone expected and no one wanted. Kind of like the French in general. Just kidding. Kind of.

Jenny and Johnny opened the show with a seasoned and sophisticated style of songwriting that has grown out of many years spent on their craft. Jenny Lewis, formerly of Rilo Kiley, teamed up with Jonathan Rice to bring out some folky rock that complemented Phoenix’s sound quite nicely. My compliments to the good people at Cornell Concert Commission, who were responsible once again for bringing in bands too popular and/or talented for Cornell.

Opening with the oft-remixed and clapped out “Litzsomania,” Phoenix brought the same tight instrumentation that has seen their stock skyrocket in recent years, marching in near-perfect lockstep with their studio recordings. Cornell, to its credit, came out in droves and momentarily shook off the Curse of Barton’s Sunday — the inexplicable decision to have concerts on the worst day of the week in a rubber box that swallows sound as it tries to be heard over freshmen faking blackouts, puking from the happiness of being 18 and buzzed. I, too, remember my first beer.

But Phoenix persevered despite the terrible acoustics, and the crowd swayed obligingly as frontman Thomas Mars chirped and warbled his way through the set. This is a band that found success in the off-beats, first restraining then unleashing waves of fast, sunny guitars that wash over the stage over ecstatic snares and Mars’ surprisingly tonal yelps. Though their sound may seem a bit monochromatic, their style has evolved into a specific, streamlined breed of clap-rock that, if nothing else, is a welcome departure from the over-processed and soulless sound that could have taken its place.

After the timid mediocrity of 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That, Phoenix got loud and synthetic on 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, an electronic rock masterpiece that brought “Litzsomania” and “1901” to the wide, wide world. As part of their humble beginnings Phoenix was one of the backing bands for Air before releasing United in 2000. The boys swam over from France a decade ago but hadn’t found mainstream superstardom until this most recent release, and have been dutifully milking its success after winning Grammys and other junk in its honor.

Last night’s concert proved no different, as most of Wolfgang’s tracks twanged out in between the stage’s jumping strobes and white-hot moons that backlit the band for most of the show. The lights — expertly spanning all corners of the color wheel and rhythmically shackled to the music — could nevertheless do nothing to distract from the weighted, self-conscious­­ sways of Phoenix: It seems they had arrived as rock gods, and did everything they could to remind us of the fact. Let them be a little narcissistic, I guess. They made what may be the best rock album of the decade, and they’re French. That sort of grungy self-absorption isn’t found too often, so we might as well take it from those who have some chops. Yet the euphoria broke down when they tried too often to slow the tempo, breaking down into a sluggish guitar-bass conversation that dragged on for three and four minutes before crawling back up to another song. Only once did this attempted patience pay off, during an epic rendition of “Love Like A Sunset” that finally exploded in flickering bright red stripes as Mars launched into the balletic final third of the song.

That said, the high points of the show — a white-hot, pulsing “Rome,” the spot-lit acoustic version of Air’s “Playground Love” and a rough, punked-out re-imagining of the early hit “If I Ever Feel Better” — were the sort of grandiose rock collages that have left Phoenix standing as one of the shining stars of rock music today. When all pistons were firing and drummer Thomas Hedlund was wailing away on the kicks and the snares in the back, the band’s unrestrained energy shot out over and into the crowd, climaxing when Mars climbed off the stage and paid a visit to the pit at the end of the show, crowd-surfing his way through throngs of sweaty palms.

So yes, they were far better than T-Pain. And while no band will ever escape the horror of Barton Hall unscathed, Phoenix brought the necessary funk to get people sweaty and screaming along to their sound. I was also really impressed with our collective clapping skill as a crowd. Did anyone else notice that? It was really tight and together, good job team.

Original Author: Graham Corrigan