I was more than a tad excited when I saw that Phoenix was not only coming through Portland, but that they would be playing a relatively small venue, the McMenamins Crystal Ballroom. It’s a venue I have always wanted to visit, but sadly I had never gotten around to it (actually, I once had tickets to see Elliott Smith there, but he cancelled the show to go into rehab and the rest is history on that one). While it’s true that I love anything associated with McMenamins, I was mostly interested in the Crystal Ballroom’s fully restored dance floor built on ball bearings, which gave rise to that “Dance on Air” slogan. Really, if there is any band I want to dance on air with, it’s Phoenix, and it never struck me as a likely combo. After all, Phoenix is a popular band: they’ve won a Grammy, they are set to headline Coachella in a few weeks, and they belong to the list of bands that you would only really get the chance to see at a big summer festival. Seeing them at a small club is something special; seeing them with air dancing is positively titillating. Hell, even the line to get in was strangely enjoyable – it was an atypical 75 degrees out and there wasn’t a scalper in sight. It was a ticketless event, so admission required nothing more than the credit card I paid with, cutting down on scalping and reselling issues.
Once inside, the venue did not disappoint; it was clean, it was pretty, and the art was distinctly McMenamins. With smiles on our faces, my wife and I grabbed drinks and settled in for Mac DeMarco’s set. I wasn’t exactly familiar with him, but I had read some favorable reviews on Pitchfork (which could mean literally anything at this point), and I was pretty disappointed by my preliminary listen on Spotify. Mac had an uphill battle to win me over, and things didn’t look to be getting off to a good start when he opened with one of the songs I had disregarded online, ‘Cooking Up Something Good.’ But it turns out that Mac belongs to the rare group of musicians who suffer from a case of recordings-just-don’t-do-me-justice. His music is much better live, and his banter (delivered in a distinctly Canadian accent) is surprisingly charming. Particularly endearing was the end of the set, when they launched into some impromptu covers, including tracks from Limp Bizkit, Metallica, and Duran Duran. He certainly overturned my doubts, and he provided an excellent backdrop for a few pre-show drinks.
After 45 minutes of downtime, a raging battle of words between two strangers in front of us, and a few slow claps, Phoenix took the stage. They launched straight into ‘Entertainment,’ the newest single off their upcoming album Bankrupt!, which proved an excellent kick-starter for the crowd. And just when everyone was nice and warmed up, they launched into ‘Liztomania,’ which got the ball bearing dance floor bouncing all over the place. It wasn’t quite like dancing on air, but it was certainly a unique and enjoyable experience. They followed up with ‘Long Distance Call,’ the only song of their older material to be played that night.
With three tracks down, singer Thomas Mars got on the mic to chat with the crowd. He seemed incredibly happy to be playing to a crowded room – like, genuine fuzzy-feeling elation. They haven’t played a show in two years and it’s obvious that they love being on stage. They also seemed really excited to be playing new songs for a crowd. It’s always tough for a band to play cuts off a new album, let alone the 11 they would turn out that night, but they came across as far more excited than nervous, with Mars declaring, “We’re just so excited to be playing these new songs that we’ll just play the whole album.” The songs ranged from good to great, and despite their unfamiliarity, they drew a warm reception from the crowd. Obviously I would need more time with the record before drawing any hard conclusions, but preliminary intel suggests that the boys from France have cooked up something special.
It wasn’t all new though, and they rewarded the crowd by playing favorites throughout, including an instrumental piece that was a combination of ‘Love Like A Sunset Part 1’ and the new instrumental song ‘Bankrupt!.’ They also put forth a fantastic effort in ‘Love Like A Sunset Part 2,’ which saw guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai smiling so hard it must have hurt. They ended the set with crowd favorites ‘Lasso’ and ‘1901,’ which truly put the dance floor to the test while Mars boarded the back of a security guard and got out for some up-close time with the crowd.
When the band left the stage it was to massive applause. The crowd chanted emphatically for a few minutes before erupting as Phoenix returned to play a stripped down version of ‘Countdown.’ The alternative version consisted of Mars on vocals and Mazzalai playing clean tones on his guitar. It was a moving rendition to be sure, and fit for an encore, but I couldn’t help but feel a certain twinge of sadness seeing my favorite of their songs played in such a different way. Don’t get me wrong, it was excellent, but if they had stripped down ‘Girlfriend’ or ‘Fences’ and done a full band version of ‘Countdown,’ I wouldn’t have complained. They followed with another new track, ‘Don’t’ (which by my count means that they played their upcoming album in its entirety, which is pretty cool), before ending the night with ‘Rome’ and another reprised version of ‘Bankrupt!’ while Mars got way out in the crowd, popping out of the barrier right next to my wife and I. He took photos with people, smiled, and just took in the atmosphere before crowd surfing back to the stage to wrap the night up.
The house lights went up, the crowd dissipated, and we went off into the warm night. The only people who smiled harder than the band that night were myself and my wife. The night had blisteringly high expectations, but Phoenix managed to rise above and beyond them.
Long Distance Call
The Real Thing
S.O.S. in Bel Aire
Love Like A Sunset Part 1 (short version)
Love Like A Sunset Part 2
Trying To Be Cool
Countdown (stripped down)
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