Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter of Phantogram (Timothy Saccenti)
Last night was all about Phantogram. The great thing about seeing them was that 48 hours ago I had no idea they were even playing. So imagine my surprise as I stroll up to the Fox Theater and wait in a borderline ridiculous line under the bright lights of a “PHANTOGRAM–SOLD OUT” marquee, which didn’t surprise me at all.
Phantogram is a band I have wanted to see since their first album Eyelid Movies (*SPOILER ALERT: They played “Mouthful of Diamonds”) came out. So no matter what, it was going to be a great evening. I came for a show, and Phantogram delivered, with the help of an amazing opening act.
The first band, Tobacco (a.k.a Tobaxxo/a.k.a. Thomas Fec) kicked off the night with his blend of haunting, atmospheric, analog electronic music fit for a David Lynch movie. Fec, is also known as the frontman for Black Moth Super Rainbow, an experimental psychedelic band with a penchant for keyboards and vocoders.
Although much of Tobacco’s music is reminiscent of ’80s-driven, droned-out synth-pop like Gardens & Villas and Com Truise, elements of BMSR’s sound overlap into Fec’s solo effort, giving it a hauntingly danceable feel. His set was enticing while being contrary of the clean and polished electronic music you hear on the radio. Trading Auto-Tune and 808s with raw and fuzzy beats and a blanket of warm synths.
Tobacco’s music is paired with trippy visuals, whether it’s album art or in videos (like the video for “Streaker, directed by Eric Wareheim of Tim & Eric). The live show lacked the nightmare-inducing creepiness of the video, but was still able to hold the audience’s attention.
Fec was joined onstage by his Black Moth bandmate the Seven Fields of Aphelion (Maureen Boyle), who helped with keyboard duties. Their set was Aphex Twin mixed with Sleigh Bells with a minimal stage setup (that didn’t do justice to their music video persona) but still managed to keep the audience engaged and psyched. But despite how memorable the opening act attempted to be, the night was all about Phantogram.
As the lights dimmed and flashed, a hauntingly repetitive voice crept through the speakers, and anticipation in the tightly packed venue grew. After a few minutes, the crowd got exactly what they had been waiting for – the delicious fusion of synthpop, rock and electronic that is Phantogram.
The New York duo of vocalist Sarah Barthel and guitarist Josh Carter leave so much to the imagination, mainly because the band has made a career of remaining on the fringes of commercial success. Although their debut album, Eyelid Movies, introduced fans to their organic blend of electronic pop and propelled the group to the top of many bloggers’ “Best of” lists because of its catchy and dance-oriented songs, the band’s latest and greatest commercial success, Voices, proved to be the soundtrack of the night.
The band immediately jumped into the opening track “Nothing But Trouble,” and the crowd in turn erupted into cheers as Barthel, with tambourine in hand, commanded the stage with her blithe, haunting voice. Carter and Barthel, the brains behind Phantogram, were joined onstage by a drummer and keyboardist to help round out their live sound. Although the band didn’t have much in the way of stage presence, Barthel made up for it dancing, flipping her hair and moving her body along with the music all without missing a note and jamming on her keyboard.
The crowd responded in kind, as almost every girl in the crowd was dancing and singing along with every word. The light show was incredible, from the colorful beams of light that swirled and shot out through the crowd to the moment when Barthel donned a sparkling, light-reflective robe to sing “Bill Murray.” The visual aspect was well done – of course that’s to be expected from a band whose name is taken from an optical illusion.
The thing that stood out the most was the incredible similarities between Phantogram’s live sounds to their album. It’s a rarity that a band can capture the feel of their studio work without losing their energy on stage. Everything was well balanced in the mix as well, the volumes weren’t overblown, and both the backing electronics and live instruments complimented each other very well.
Their set was just a little over an hour, which felt surprisingly short, but the band packed each moment with cuts from their latest album like “Black Out Days” and “Howling at the Moon,” as well as older gems “When I’m Small” and “Running from the Cops.” The song selection definitely catered to both new fans and longtime followers alike.
Their hit single, “Fall In Love,” was buried pretty deep into their setlist, but as soon as the band had begun the first few chords, the audience erupted into a swarm of dancing. It was like a second wind for the audience and brought the level of energy from vivacious to frenzied.
They ended their set with “Mouthful of Diamonds,” which is the band’s most well-known song and probably the reason why everyone in Pomona was in attendance. It was clearly the song that audience had been waiting to hear all night as every person in the crowd, male and female alike, was singing every lyric with the same level of passion as Barthel.
The band came out for a two-part encore of “Celebrating Nothing,” one of the last songs from their latest album. It was an incredible performance from both Carter and Barthel and the backing band.
“Voices” is a powerful and appropriately titled album for a young band that have seemingly found theirs. The duo has achieved commercial success without sacrificing the sound that gained them critical praise. “Voices,” available now via Republic Records, is already a serious contender for album of the year; last night’s performance solidified that title.
Phantogram also performs a sold-out show tonight at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.