Instead of a mouth full of diamonds, I’ve got a mouth full of hurt, having endured phase one of an emergency root canal this afternoon. So, instead of making party rounds and arriving full of holiday cheer, my fifth time taking in the slick sounds of Phantogram will be colored by the diminishing effects of slowly-escaping anesthetic.
Throngs are assembled both inside Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club and out as the first band (Weeknight) finishes their set (I was elsewhere for their performance, slowly sucking down soup). Those outside desperately want to escape the ephemeral mist and join the party of the style-conscious partisans; at least one transaction commanded $100 for a single ticket. Inside, it’s getting crowded as Until the Ribbon Breaks, a three-piece from Wales, buffets my aching mandible with bass almost as viciously as the Portishead track that follows their set. The fedora’d tastemaker helps me notice that my bike light is strobing; I’m a hot mess. It’s apparent as I survey the scene that while hot girls may be a drug, at the moment they’re not the one(s) I need. It’s time to temporarily ease my pain with alcohol.
The stage is set with strings of those metallic beads that seasonally adorn Christmas trees, hanging vertically and forming a metallic curtain. The light trees on stage promise to make full use of the reflective qualities of both the beads and the disco ball overhead. This is clearly an evolved stage show; they are no longer performing in shadows.
Phantogram takes the stage as a quartet, the jam-packed room of hot girls and Ezra Koenig dress-a-likes already roaring. An elongated intro sets the mood and heightens anticipation. The additional guitarist and some pre-programmed samples allow for a fuller, more spatially expansive sound. The lighting is incredible: supportive and symbolic, evident but not overwhelming. The mood is set and it’s Massive Attack meets the soundtrack from “The Crow.”
It’s hot, temp and vibe working together to create sweaty, bobbing foreheads, the kids quickly showing a propensity for the old and the new, particularly “Black Out Days.” Its combo of newfangled electronic percussion and the old-fashioned drum kit work well together, echo-laden and staccato shots simultaneously giving cues to those eager to synch their movements. As they dance about, Sarah Barthel‘s hair flies about, shimmering like a shampoo commercial. Her half-shirt sparkles, a gold pattern on the ever-present black shining like those golden damascene plates from Toledo, Spain. Josh Carter is much more active than in previous tours, emotive when belting out uneven vocals, vigorous in vivre.
The crowd is treated to an assortment of new and old, luxuriating in each, especially so as they unveil “Howlin’ at the Moon,” a track off their upcoming 2014 record that they’re “not supposed to play” (as if rules matter in rock). It features a filthy bass line that complements Barthel’s breathy vox. Yes…it’s a Phantogram song, a decent one at that, one which almost certainly will be a staple on the 2014 festival circuit.
Decent, but not as good as what follows. The band reaches back to what might be their best track, “Don’t Move,” and the partisans clearly disregard any hint of advice in the song’s title. The triumph continues with a new track, “The Day You Died,” its guitar line strong and verdant in contrast to the pathos in Barthel’s vocals and anxiety-laden synth parts.
They say “Thank you, D.C.,” signaling the end of the set, and the romp concludes with “When I’m Small.” The light show kicks into top gear, the bottom-lighted disco ball receiving coordinated tractor beams of light coming together to create an effect that is as perfect as anything Studio 54 ever witnessed.
They return for an encore, their hand on the audience’s buttons, now. The reaction to “Mouthful of Diamonds” is as visceral as was mine to the sound of the drill earlier this same day, except this sound is one of salubrious celebration, not tremorous fear. The encore ends with “Celebrating Nothing,” a song which seems a bit of a letdown from the manic energy of the set closer and encore opener. It’s not a traditional get-out-of-town track, and maybe it wasn’t supposed to be. The band leaves the stage a second time, and there’s a pause where the lights stay down and the music isn’t piped over the PA. Except, the crowd of concert neophytes seemingly doesn’t get it, not knowing that they could have probably had a second encore if only they asked boisterously. Instead, those that linger inside get David Bowie‘s “Outside,” and the many not wanting to leave stay and dance a bit more before heeding Bowie’s direction, mist mixing with sweat, moments melding into life.
Photos | Phantogram: Katherine Gaines
9:30 Club, Washington, D.C.