Phoenix + The Vegan Leather @ Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow, 26/03/18

photos + words by josh adams (@jxshadams)

Phoenix are in the somewhat unenviable position of being a Big Band Who Make Big Records And Play Big Concerts whilst bafflingly not being a household name. If one takes a brief glance at their coveted list of accolades, it reads like a checklist for a modern rock group to be a dominating world force: hit singles, top 40 albums, sold out shows at Madison Square Garden and headlining appearances at Primavera and Coachella. So it was puzzling to most, if not all, in attendance as to why this seemingly unstoppable powerhouse of pop could barely fill three quarters of Glasgow’s iconic Barrowlands. This, coupled with rumours that frontman Thomas Mars‘ voice had been strained with illness, led to a sense of anticipation and worry, with the Barras crowd eager to see if the French quartet could pull it out of the proverbial bag.

First up, though, came support from the ever-reliable Vegan Leather. The Paisley dance-rock group, elegantly dressed and bursting with tunes, took to the stage with a modest sized crowd and ended with almost everyone who had bought a ticket bouncing up and down to their epic, fiery closer, This House (minus one bald man who looked like he’d stumbled in expecting a Wolftones gig). In between, they fused disco, pop, rock, house and new wave like their lives depended on it with recent singles such as I Take American, Shake It and Eyes, never giving the Glasgow crowd a moment to catch their breath, despite the costume changes. Nothing but praise has been heaped upon the band, and there’s a good reason for it – check them out now if you haven’t already, before they hit the big time.

With the Barrowlands considerably warmed up, Phoenix capitalised on the liveliness built up and came on stage shortly after to Prince’s ‘Controversy‘, offering a taste of the playful grooves the band would prove they had mastered on stage throughout the night. Stripped of their elaborate lights-and-mirrors show, it was down to their sheer stage presence, and, most crucially, the songs to do the talking, and boy, did they deliver. Kicking things off with last year’s lead single, J-Boy, its twinkling synthesisers, airy melodies and stomping beats recalling the best of 80s pop and hip hop, the four piece, bolstered by long-time touring drummer Thomas Hedlund and an auxiliary keyboard player, seemed to burst into technicolour before the audience’s very eyes in their stereotypical oh-so-nonchalant French cool. From there, came an opening salvo of Phoenix’s brightest and best songs: Lasso, Entertainment, Listzomania, and Trying To Be Cool all rolled off with effortless ease, almost stunning the crowd into stillness – it was disconcerting to see a Glasgow crowd as calm as they were during this part of the set.

However, with such an astonishing start to a gig, naturally came a dip in energy levels with some deeper cuts from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and latest LP, Ti Amo. Just when you thought the crowd’s patience was beginning to wain with the instrumental medley of Sunskrupt! though, the band roared into life once more with the title track from Ti Amo, and began dishing out their groovier anthems once more, this time with a less dazzled crowd backing them every dance move of the way.  It should be admired at this point the versatility of Phoenix’s instrumentalists, who regularly swapped between two or more instruments mid-song without breaking a sweat or ruining the flow of a song or a set – it was clear to see this was a group refined and rehearsed, but also having fun as they jumped around with grins on their faces.

After leaving the stage with Rome, Mars and guitarist Christian Mazzalai returned to the stage as a duo to perform stripped down versions of Countdown and Goodbye Soleil, with a hushed intimacy made all the more fragile by Mars’s insistence on sitting right in front of the barrier, staring right into the eyes of the crowd. Despite his humble admissions that his voice wasn’t up to its usual standard, nobody in the Barrowlands could have told you he was having an off-night at all – he was in complete control of his vocal chords, with no bum notes or tickley coughs in sight. By this point, the Francs had completely won over the audience, and had the support they previously did not have to indulge themselves in a few more deep cuts, and a rallying rendition of Happy Birthday to bassist Deck D’Arcy.

All good things must come to an end though, and Phoenix went out in style with the buzzing bass and chiming guitars of their calling card 1901 ringing out through the venue sending the crowd into overdrive, voices singing in unison and bodies dancing the night out. But the real surprise came when we all thought it was over, but the band clearly weren’t ready to leave – a reprise of Ti Amo that steadily kept growing and growing, threatening to burst into its disco-punk climax at any moment, as Mars clambered over the audience to the sound desk and back again, downing pints as he went. Before he could rejoin his bandmates though, he was dropped right in front of me, and a huge mosh pit opened up around him, ready to swallow him whole. Mars turned back to the stage, shrugged his shoulders with a smile on his face, and the rest of the band let rip as the Barrowland crowd rushed him, dancing as we went. A surreal end to an amazing night, proving that Phoenix have more fight left in them than we might have thought.

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