Phantogram, Teen Warehouse Live April 25, 2014
In the past few years, a ton of great synth-pop has come to market, but let's be honest: not all bands perform equally. In concert, Phantogram shows how possible it is for electro-based artists to create an impeccably executed performance that upholds their recording quality while infusing their live show with something altogether unique.
Friday night at Warehouse Live, the sound was mixed so well that it could have been a record, but enough distinctive elements were present that it was immediately evident why Phantogram is equally compelling live.
But first, the opening band, Brooklyn-based Teen, was just...weird. And not in the esoteric, eclectic way, but the "we are trying way too hard" way. Their sound is like one of those people whose facial features are individually attractive, but oddly mismatched when put together as a group; there was way too much going on. Attempting to isolate and appreciate the extreme variety of noises they produced proved frustrating, and nothing came together in any concrete way despite the relatively responsive crowd.
But Phantogram came on at 10:25 and immediately put their openers right out of mind. As a front woman, Sarah Barthel is commanding and genuine. She is an energetic performer, but didn't seem like she had to try to perform at all. No doubt she could sing with as much feeling in a studio space, a garage, a festival or in her car. It didn't seem at all forced, rather incredibly organic; Barthel really feels the music she presents.
Her voice is unique, breathy and ethereal, but tough at the same time. Compared to other female singers who sit so comfortably in the falsetto pocket, Barthel's soprano is rife with strength. But when her partner Josh Carter took to the microphone, he was equally impressive. Typically in a duo like this, there's only one singer. With Phantogram, fans get two leads who can both command the crowd.
The first song that pretty much the entire crowd seemed like it knew was the fifth, "Black Out Days" from their brand-new LP Voices. It's easy to get into the track; like most Phantogram songs, it seems like it would lend itself equally to cleaning your house, conversation or getting it on. Few synth-pop groups can boast that kind of versatility.
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A few tracks later, "Bad Dreams" again showcased Barthel's impressive depth. At moments like this, the crowd's energy seemed to perfectly mirror hers: consistent energy that sustained its way throughout the show without ever seeming overindulgent. Even when Barthel screams, it never sounds shrill, but rather like a beautiful, synthy bird.
During "Never Going Home," Barthel requested the crowd to hold up their lighters ("I know some of you still carry lighters...because you smoke weed") but explained that otherwise cell phones were okay. The next big reaction came from the group's current radio track, "Fall In Love," the kind of song that has the capability to take its listener to an otherwordly location, and did just that Friday.
As the show continued, we also learned that "Howling at the Moon" is apparently about Texas, which made the Houston fans even more into the set. By this time, Barthel was going hard with her performance, but it still seemed totally natural all the way through the roar that greeted the last song of the regular set, 2009's "When I'm Small."
All around me, the crowd talked about how great the lighting was throughout the show, but if you are short you are screwed. At times, the top lights were complete perfection, but the back-lighting was a bit too strobe-y simply because they were directly at eye level for most of the show. But during "When I'm Small," the bottom half of the stage finally came into view, and it turned out that Barthel rocks Beetlejuice pants way better than Robin Thicke could ever hope to.
Personal Bias: What's great about Phantogram is that they don't make you choose between their recordings and their live show.
The Crowd: Super-eclectic mix of Houstonians. Some people were dressed to the nines; other people looked like they hadn't showered in a week. I love it when this happens. Commingle, people!
Overheard In the Crowd: "Maybe it sounds better on their album?" -- My friend Mark, sincerely trying to give Teen a compliment
Random Notebook Dump: Warehouse Live is very challenging for short people. If the floor were even slightly slanted, it would be extremely helpful. But because that will likely never happen, it would be really awesome if they could raise the stage a bit.
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