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Phoenix Keeps Austin Weird

French quartet wows ‘Austin City Limits’
Abby Johnston, 4:20pm, Wed. May. 8, 2013
photo by Scott Newton/KLRU
Phoenix lights up ACL Live at the Moody Theater, 5.6.13

I first saw Phoenix on the Friday of ACL Fest 2009. The Parisian quartet’s late-afternoon slot drew a massive crowd despite the early festival drag. The swelling foretold the band’s runaway success with fourth album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, which dropped that May.

That performance solidified Thomas Mars as one of my favorite frontmen. Clearly gobsmacked by the crowd’s size, he stood on top of a speaker and shook his head in disbelief. This was the largest crowd they’d ever played to, he said. Then Mars jumped off the stage and immersed himself in fans.

Four years later, the French foursome are now firmly established. Phoenix has moved beyond its anachronistic rise to fame, transforming instead into a full-fledged seat-filling outfit. At Monday’s Austin City Limits taping, Mars maintained his penchant for speaker climbing, crowd dunking, and, most importantly, grinning like a proud yet humble adolescent.

Inside ACL Live at the Moody Theater, the fab four took the stage with two extra touring members to a staggering round of applause, audience members already on their feet in a preemptive standing ovation. Soon, the Far East synth line of new single “Entertainment” whipped the venue into a frenzy.

Despite a solid start centered around material from April’s Bankrupt!, Phoenix’s fifth, the set-list ultimately gave credence to the now iconic Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. “Un, deux, trois,” counted Mars into the one-two pop punch of 2009 mega-singles “Lasso” and “Listzomania,” both epitomizing Phoenix’s brand of joie de vivre.

Afterward, new material found the band still leaning on electronics, with rhythm guitarist Laurent Brancowitz and bassist Deck D’Arcy pulling double duty on synths, along with Robin Coudert’s additionally pounding keyboard in the back. “Love Like a Sunset Part I” opened with atmospheric tinkling, as, one by one, low-registered key layers from all piled onto each other. Mars took this opportunity to lie down onstage, as if preparing for some takeoff. The band jammed on, slowly building for upwards of five minutes, but the resolve only appeared when they transitioned into “Sunset Part II,” warm major chords soothing the unrest and Mars hopping back on the mic.

After raucous closer “1901,” the band made a quick exit and returned for an encore with only Mars and lead guitarist Christian Mazzalai. The singer hopped into the middle of the crowd, just as I’d seen him do in 2009, for a stripped version of “Countdown.” This time, there was no shirt pulling or jostling, just floor full of beaming fans. In a sweet ode sent out to former bandmates and fellow Frenchmen Air, Mars continued the encore’s unplugged portion with “Playground Love.”

The others returned for a full-band version of “Don’t” and true finale “Rome,” during which Mars wound through the balconies as a dutiful and seemingly unaffected tech guy followed him with the cord.

Phoenix teased “Entertainment” again before Mars slammed down his wand. This macho antic revealed itself directly afterward when he unscrewed the metal top of the microphone and gingerly tossed it to a crowd member as drummer Thomas Hedlund jumped to the front of the stage to hand out his sticks.

That’s why I love Phoenix, because I will never buy that they’re wildly glamorous rock stars no matter how hard they try to embrace it. Mars actually summed up their humility in a brief set interlude addressing their presence on the prestigious ACL stage.

“You play where so many bands have played before,” he said. “It’s like you’re part of a tradition. Tonight is the pinnacle. We feel like we’re keeping Austin weird.”

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