Thursday, June 25, 2009

Concert Review: Phoenix at the Record Bar

Posted By on Thu, Jun 25, 2009 at 9:47 AM

If you are between the ages of 18 and 35 and live in Kansas City and have a MySpace page, Facebook profile and Twitter account and you weren't at the Record Bar last night (or, as I write this, with ringing skull, earlier tonight), well, chances are about half your extended network was.

Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars
  • Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars

As the hours counted down to Wednesday's free MySpace Secret Show at the Record Bar featuring Brooklyn's Amazing Baby and, headlining, Phoenix -- the third-most-famous band from Versailles, France -- I was privvy to much trepidation on the part of my peers who were considering attending. Everyone wanted to go, yet few felt they had any hope of getting in, because, apparently, Phoenix is so big (112,735 MySpace friends) and the Record Bar is so small (around 200 capacity). In fact, the evening before the show, my friend Douceur* e-mailed the following, dire missive: "I'm officially going to have nightmares tonight about tomorrow. Catch me in "There Will Be Blood" Part 2 when I don't get in."

I, for one, foolishly underestimated our city's taste for French indie-pop; imagine my surprise when I arrived at the venue around 7 p.m. to find every parking space in the whole shopping center lot in front of the Record Bar filled, with a line of people stretching from the front door down all the way to the hardware store on the northern end of the strip mall. (Local high schools must've showed The Virgin Suicides in English class.) And this with freaky, greenish storm clouds threatening horrific weather rumbling overhead. About 10 times more people came than when MySpace first ventured a secret show here, two years ago.

Fortunately, both I and Monsieur Douceur did get in to the show. He succeeded by having a friend post up in line outside the venue two and a half hours early in order to grab a couple of the wristbands that were being passed out. I got in through my usual means: pretending to be a cigarette marketer.

And so, honest and fake, we all came one and all, and after the first band finished its interminable and indulgent sound check and the sky began raining pure electric fury on the ouside, the doors opened around 7:30, following a clarion call from a British-accented roadie, who instructed everyone in the bar that they'd better secure their possessions because 'e was about to let the kids in.

*In this review, all civilian names have been changed to French in order to protect the American.

Around 8:30, Amazing Baby began wailing. This group is, to varying degrees, psychedelic, glammy, postpunk and smarmy. The smarm came entirely from the lead singer, who sullied his bandmates' layered and dynamic rocking with a personality better suited for that of a bored Panera Bread cashier (no offense to my homies at Panera). Throughout most of the set, he bleated and crooned like a wannabe Bryan Ferry, which followed but never quite caught up with his band's forays into charging, percussive art rock.

click to enlarge Nice Randy Rhodes shirt, Baby man.
  • Nice Randy Rhodes shirt, Baby man.

For all their sonic pomp, the members of Amazing Baby didn't bother with appearances. Mostly longhaired and wearing shitty black T-shirts, they looked like a displaced grunge band. In fact, they would've looked more at home covering Puddle of Mudd than ripping into well written but poorly executed (on the singer's part, at least) songs like "Head Dress." At one point, the singer boy polled the audience about which was the best barbecue joint in town, and many in the crowd were foolish enough to respond. He may as well have asked us to show him our buck teeth and Toby Keith albums.

"Oklahoma Joe's?" the singer said, repeating the most popular response. He then went on to say something like, "This song is called 'Gimme Some Ribs, Bro.' It's about eating ribs." But it just didn't seem friendly. At all. This caused the following conversation to ensue between me and my friend Anouk:

Nouk: D'ou vient cette bande? (Where is this band from?)

Moi: Brooklyn. (Brooklyn.)

Anouk: Et ils se moquent de nous? (And they're mocking us?)

Moi: Je crois que oui. (I think so.)

Fuckers. But I linger too long on the bad. Baby was done by 9 p.m. -- 30 minutes after it started -- and then went and put itself in a corner.

30 minutes later, the crowd had thickened even more, and wisps of stage fog drifted up from the stage and the lights went out and intro music began playing, even though, from my vantage, there appeared to be no musical equipment on it whatsoever. It turns out that the six members of Phoenix are all about four feet tall each, with the drummer barely pushing three. I think singer Thomas Mars had to stand on a giant tortoise the entire time in order to be seen.

click to enlarge phxsm6_opt.jpg

However diminutive, these birds brought a big, bright sound, bouncing into "Listzomania," the leadoff track from their newest, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix like boisterous kids jumping on a bed after school before their parents get home. The crowd mirrored the band's enthusiasm; many had been waiting for this moment for hours. My friend Clémence turned to me and said, "This show is like seeing a perfect example of a bad band followed by a perfect example of a good band."

The joie de vivre carried through the better part of the set, through quick and airy boppers like "Long Distance Call," "Consolation Prizes," "Lasso," "Girlfriend" and, well, every song Phoenix played that was a quick, airy bopper, which is to say, most of them. With peppy tempos, plucky guitars and Mars' pleading tenor, Phoenix's songs seem geared for listening to while hitting the pavements of Montmartre on a sunny Saturday morning and half-walking, half-dancing to meet your friends at a café. In fact, the band's sound is so consistent, almost patented, that most of uptempo songs sound exactly alike. I listened to Wolfgang for the first time yesterday before the show, and the entire second half of the album sounds like variations on the same theme.

click to enlarge Guitarist Laurent "Branco" Brancowicz
  • Guitarist Laurent "Branco" Brancowicz

Live, this similarity makes for a great dance party. In fact, about halfway through the show, one of the group's jubilant, major-key hooks hit my ear at the right exact moment, and I realized what it is that makes Phoenix so move-your-body uplifting: Daft Punk! Take a song like "One More Time" or "Face to Face," add quasi-literary lyrics and guitars, and you've got pretty close to what Phoenix sounds like. Daft even has a song called "Phoenix." And, of course, both bands are from Versailles.

That other band in the trio de Versailles: Air. Phoenix showed their allegiance to their forebears by performing the moody, low key "Playground Love" from the Virgin Suicides soundtrack, which, Mars announced, the co-wrote with Air. More fun facts: Mars is dating and has had a child with Sofia Coppola; Phoenix allegedly began as the backing band for a remix of the Air song "Kelly Watch the Stars." If you go to Versailles, you'll know what to talk about with the locals. (If you can speak French.)

Breathing air was in short supply by the end of Phoenix's set, around 10:45. I had seen people whom I'd never before seen dance tearing it up furiously, particularly toward the end, when Phoenix stretched out the hot instrumentals and, at the climax, encored with new single "1901." (Note the funky way French people write the numeral "1" on the set list below.) Getting particularly groovy, in fact, was the drummer for the local band Être/Non, whose band name was half French anyway. Even Mars, apparently, had to take a breather.


For all my cigarette-merchant ennui, I did feel leaving like I, or rather, we, the city, had received a special treat: a glimpse of what it's like on weekend nights in bigger, cooler cities. Only it was better, because it was a Wednesday night and it was in Kansas City, where we like our barbecue and our brie.


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