Phantogram: A Shiny Obect of Substance

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You’re getting away with something when you see a band in a venue they’ve largely outgrown. You’re stepping back in time, and, whether once again or for the first time, you’re momentarily an early adopter of an artistic movement destined for bigger things. Such is the case this evening as Phantogram plays a venue less than half the size of the others on their tour.

The larger of two rooms within The OC’s Observatory is packed for the opener, Deep Sea Diver. The multi-level room provides both the feeling of an intimate (hot) club with the viewing angles of a mini-amphitheater. And so, 550+ people made the Sunday night pilgrimage to see one of the hotter acts (musically and, well, physically) to recently transition from the blogosphere to the mainstream.

A range of ethnicities from Generations X, Y, and those pesky Millenials are in a boisterous mood, keeping their weekend going and eagerly awaiting the arrival of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter to the somewhat small, wholly smoke-filled stage.

They emerge as a four-piece, dressed all in black save Barthel’s white chemise and gold jewelry (including an undergarment peeking out through translucent white fabric). It’s less than a minute before she’s rocking out, her Pantene-commercial-ready hair flailing in the smoky light, casting shadows both forwards and back.

“Running From the Cops” makes an early appearance — appropriately, since the venue is definitely breaking fire marshal’s code. It’s a  filthy beat, the closest they come to the darkness of bands like Crystal Castles. Carter sings from darkness, literally and metaphorically.

Strobes and synth disorient and reorient as Barthel moves away from her station and assumes the mantle of frontwoman. It’s the last night of their tour, and she doesn’t want to go out on a low note: “Let’s have some fucking fun.”

The first single off of their most recent EP — “Black Out Days” — is certainly that, even as it perpetuates  thematic darkness. People immediately get it, dancing and clapping and moving collectively in a Pavlovian response.

More cheers of awareness greet the opening sample of “Turning Into Stone,” a track where Carter shows increased assertiveness in his vocal delivery, providing a welcome contrast to Barthel’s ethereal vocals. “Take me for a ride,” he sings…we’re on one, and it’s a thriller. The track features that sort of moment where the audience thinks it’s over, but then it takes off again with a fulsome build that ends in a place reminiscent of M83‘s expansive soundscapes.

Which serves as a perfect moment to talk about “Bad Dreams.” The song is remixed, significantly, rendering it a completely different composition. A couple of moments raise questions; moments where the mic was held far from Barthel’s mouth with no perceptible change in the vocal volume would seem to indicate that they’re tracking her vocals in tandem with her live ones.

No matter, because they move onto an impossibly sexy track (“Don’t Move”) made even more so by Barthel’s breathy, echo-laden delivery. The audience claps along in the interlude, ignoring the song’s title as they collectively sway, lost in their own singular solitude.

It’s steamy; at least 3 people around each and every one of us is are making direct physical contact at any given moment. We’re all in this together, much like Sarah and her anatomically correct stretch pants. As noted…it’s steamy.

Josh is standing solo, up front and bathed in the only light left on stage, the improbable guy with a guitar and a mic. What’s going on? Lights reveal that the rest of the band hasn’t left us; Sarah has moved towards the back and added a black reflective top that doubles as a disco ball as she turns gently along with the music. She has become our source of light, a moon if not the sun.

It’s clearly meant to be a signature moment, and it’s clearly unforgettable. Which raises a problem within the performance, which is not over: following it up. Their solution: playing one of their best songs. Sarah strides and shimmies and shakes and struts to “When I’m Small,” a crowd-pleasing track of relatively late vintage that is aging well and now receiving the accompaniment of a wonderfully minimalist, geometric light show.

The penetrating beats of “Howling At The Moon” make it one of those tracks that succeed live on an much higher level than in the studio version. It’s as primal as anything Ted Nugent has ever done, but, it’s done 21st century style and without any carcasses littering the stage. It’s a standout performance, the type that can forever alter perceptions of a track.

The pulsing opening to “The Day You Died” is the perfect next move. It causes chills in the midst of our steam bath as Barthel takes the front of the stage and reaches high, vocally and physically. Truly, it is an ascendant moment, the type a band leaves on stage as they repair backstage for a respite.

They return with big smiles and water bottles, Carter a bit more circumspect than his partner, who is reduced to giggles at the prospect of pure adulation. They thank their crew, wholeheartedly, and launch into a stirring edition of “Mouthful of Diamonds.”

It’s time for a victory lap, and we get that as the band begins “Celebrating Nothing.”

Give me a reason to stay alive,” Sarah coos as she again stretches towards the sky. She has combined these moments of pure sex appeal with aural inter-titles throughout the show, soliloquies where she drops enough F-bombs to lead you to think she’s the type of glamour girl who might also want to watch a football game with you and your friends. But then, the encore concludes and the band takes one last valedictory, thanking everyone for making their tour special. As they turn to leave, Carter gives Barthel the sort of familiar double-tap on the rump that brings those football-watching fantasies to an end, reminding us all that the rock stars on stage remain just that, celestial beings that the audience only relates to from a proper distance. For most people, simple observing the heavens is more than enough. For others, at least there’s Instagram.


(The photos below are from an earlier show Phantogram performed in late October)

All Photos | Katherine Gaines
9:30 Club, October 20, 2014, Washington, DC

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Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.