As the opening chords of “Lisztomania” tingle in the air, a shout of recognition ripples through the audience. This, four songs in, is the track they had been waiting for. Suddenly, “How sentimental! / How sentimental / No!” bellows out into the night as the crowd screams the opening lyrics in unison. Before I’m even fully aware of what I’m doing, I find myself sloppily shouting out of tune, my hands manically raised above my head. Beside me are two bros, clutching 24oz cans of Miller Lite, their baseball caps slights skewed from jumping up and down so much, their hair limp and matted with sweat, their armpit hair threatening to poke me as they wave their arms in the air. Their eyes are wide, deliriously happy, and probably also a little bit strung out. When the band launches into “Long Distance Call,” the stage lights up in an explosion of red and white lights as the chorus reaches its crescendo, and the bros and I begin jumping up and down together, yelling, reaching up into the sky and, for half a second, actually finding some unison.
Phoenix’ setlist isn’t fresh, their sound isn’t new; they mostly stick to well-trodden tracks that Phoenix fans have basically memorized. I think they might have even kept some of the same video installations that they used the last time I saw them, in Berlin in 2013. And yet, their performance is electrifying, visceral, an expression of joy. Watching Phoenix play is like coming home after a long day and wrapping yourself up in your favorite boxy pullover, worn so many times, soft and faded from all the washes.
Phoenix has a new album coming out in just a couple of days, but Mars and his bandmates Christian Mazzalai, Deck D’Arcy, and Laurent Brancowitz aren’t too stuck on promoting it tonight. They do play some new tracks from the forthcoming Ti Amo, including new song “Fior di Latte,” which Mars announces with goofy grin as he sweeps his long lanky hair out of his face and clutches the mic with two hands, looking out eagerly into the crowd. The angsty 14-year-old in me swoons. Phoenix made us wait four years for a new album and the chances of that challenging the 2009’s sublime Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix are slim.
Tonight, that doesn’t matter. Their set is the perfect mixture of unabashed pop-rock joy with tinges of tender young heartbreak and just the right amount of melancholia folded in to take the edge off. They’re fun, and they don’t take themselves too seriously. But they’re also earnest about what they’re trying to share with a crowd of strangers who come together to croon the words to “Armistice” out into the night, hands raised in adoration and a shared acknowledgement that a song can make you both pleasantly melancholy and incredibly happy because you know there’s something beautiful in feeling just this particular way, on this particular night. They make you feel thrillingly young and softly old. Phoenix aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel; they just want to take you out for a ride.
Live, they’ve perfected the art of pairing their songs with mesmerizing video and light installations, cued up perfectly. On the screen behind the band, flowing bright yellow and white stripes give way to the band’s name, shining brightly in kitschy colors, only to then be replaced by a map of star constellations during “Sunskrupt!” Brancowitz leans into the synthesizer, expanding the beat. Their synth-heavy pop-rock sound is never overbearing; it stays light and fresh, teasing just above the surface. At this show, a slanted mirror is placed above the stage so the crowd can look at the top of Mars’ shaggy head as the spotlight bathes his features and his silly floral-print shirt in white light. The mirror is part of the band’s attempt to make this show feel both magnifying yet intimate, even though this is all taking place in a huge field in the middle of Randall’s Island, with the Manhattan skyline glittering in the distance. Seeing these guys from above, as they move around the stage, makes them appear oddly unguarded and vulnerable.
Mars in particular is a surprisingly magnetic presence, with a charming smile framed by his floppy long hair. In fact, on this particular man, in this particular crowd, getting lost in the hypnotic chanting of “Rome”, that stupid hair just works. During the more mellow instrumental break, Mars suddenly just lays down on the stage, his angular body prostrate on the floor, as if he just needs a quick break. He looks up into the mirror above, curiously studying his reflection as his bandmates play on, unbothered, as if this is the most natural thing in the world and it happens all the time. Just Thomas being Thomas. It’s this looseness, this feeling of being unencumbered by expectations and prone to little spontaneous outbursts that give Phoenix’s performances this intimate feeling, as if you’ve somehow just stumbled into a private show given in a tiny venue in the small hours of the morning.
As the set nears its end and red strobe lights dance up and down the stage, Mars looks out into the crowd as we stretch out our hands and make high-pitched sounds at him. Everyone is coming down from the high of “1901”, and the band slowly starts the opening chords for “Ti Amo di Piu.” It’s a song from their new album, and people calm down, listening intently but not yet familiar with the lyrics. Suddenly Mars climbs down from the stage, towards his audience. Without a moment’s hesitation he stretches out his arms and legs, and the crowd embraces him. He floats there. Hands hold him up, his skinny legs point up into the air, and he is laughing, and the crowd laughs too, because crowd surfing is really such a cliché, but the look of excitement and joy on Mars’ face is so honest that in that moment crowd surfing seemed like the purest gesture of affection a band can give their fans. It is beautiful, it is addictively joyful, and it feels like coming home again after a very long day.
Luisa Rollenhagen like totally saw Phoenix in Berlin in 2013. Follow her on Twitter.
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