Officially, Phosphorescent is the recording name of Matthew Houck, a singer/songwriter/guitarist from Brooklyn by way of Athens, Georgia / Alabama. On stage, Phosphorescent perform as a six-piece band that is much, much greater than one man.
Fresh from SXSW, Phosphorescent took the stage on a Tuesday night at Washington, D.C.’s Rock & Roll Hotel; the band overwhelmed the club’s speakers and soundboard before overcoming its deficiencies to deliver a kick-ass show.
Houck serves as uncontested frontman and leader, but without the backing band it would have been a very different show — lower energy, with fewer sonic handles.
The band’s energy — and more than a little of its sound — came from Scott Stapleton, one of two keyboard players on stage. Stapleton plays stride piano with a rhythmic, percussive, and intense style that matches his stage presence. His playing is frenetic, frenzied, furious, often a sideshow, and occasionally distracting. Still, the band was at its best when Stapleton and Houck took turns with the melody, playing a call and answer on piano and guitar.
Phosphorescent took the stage following a strong set from Philadelphia-based Strand of Oaks (do yourself a favor – give them a listen and catch them on tour later this summer with The Tallest Man on Earth) and launched straight into three tracks from Muchacho.
Most bands ease their audiences into new material, but Phosphorescent isn’t most bands and Muchacho isn’t most records. The album officially dropped just last week but has been ubiquitous online for several weeks, especially the first single, “Song for Zula.” Thanks to a feature on NPR’s First Listen, most of the audience seemed as familiar with Muchacho as they were with the three tracks Phosphorescent played from its last album, Here’s to Taking It Easy.
Houck built Muchacho one layer at a time, recording each instrument separately then later mixing them together. The mix at a small club will never match the mix achieved after months of tinkering, and this clearly frustrated Houck when the pieces didn’t come together perfectly. But, live music is not about perfection.
“Song for Zula” came at the midpoint of the set, and lived up its promise. The song would slide perfectly into the soundtrack from “Wonder Boys,” amidst tracks from Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Lou Reed, patron saints of Houck’s brand of soulful, folksy, lyrically-driven rock. Houck’s voice has much in common with Dylan’s — his vocals are worn and warm, broken and thick. The recorded version of “Song for Zula” calls to mind Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet,” but Dylan hasn’t played a show this good in decades. The sound filled every corner of the small room and spilled out the door.
Houck’s band left the stage for the first few songs of the encore, but stayed nearby, watching Houck perform. He reached back to 2007’s Pride for “Wolves,” a beautifully simple, bare track. Houck fought with the sound tech to hear himself through the monitors and eventually cut the track short.
His next offering was a cover of Randy Newman’s “Days of Heaven.” This was Houck at his personal best. The heartbreak of the song’s chorus (“baby it’s a long hard road/sometimes it seems it’s just too much to bear”) perfectly match the emotive temperature of Houck’s own lyrics, and the crowd shouted in assent when he sang the last verse (“if you got music in your heart/you have made a real good start/and your love of music never will desert you”).
Following a graceful, gorgeous cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Storms Never Last,” sung as a duet with the band’s under-utilized second keyboardist, the full band retook the stage for one more song, “Los Angeles.” The album version of the song is nearly nine minutes long. No one dared to check a watch, though, and however long they played, it ended too soon.