Review: Phosphorescent in San Francisco, 04/28/11
Matthew Houck is in an enviable position. As the principal member of Phosphorescent, he has the resources and support to take the project in just about any direction on any given night. Over the course of five full-lengths, the Huntsville, Alabama, native has expertly tread the path of ramshackle indie pop, weary gothic folk, A.M. radio country, and Laurel Canyon rock gold, with an album of Willie Nelson covers thrown in for good measure. Moreover, where he may have previously been limited by his own insularity as a musician, Houck is now joined for the first time by a full band, both in the studio and on the road.
And what a band! Phosphorescent circa 2011 is a sweet-sounding, muscular country rock machine. The last time they toured through San Francisco, in August 2010, they were supporting the recently released Here's to Taking it Easy, the band's third and rockingest album on the Dead Oceans label. They shook the intimate Bottom of the Hill to its very foundation, playing like a band determined to be heard again as if for the first time. After all, they finally had the material and tools to put on a big ol' rock show, even if the tiny stage could barely support the new largesse of their sound.
Last Thursday night, when the band returned to San Francisco for the second lap of the tour, they were set to play the much larger Independent, which boasts the best sound system in the Bay Area and hosts the type of bands that really know how to use it (e.g., TV on the Radio was scheduled to play the following two nights). Phosphorescent had recently played to thousands at Coachella, so they were presumably going to be at the top of their festival rock game.
However, over the course of the previous 48 hours, everything changed: a series of powerful F5 tornadoes had torn through Alabama and Mississippi, causing billions of dollars in damage and killing more Americans than any tornado outbreak since the 1950s. When Houck took the stage after a goofy but good-natured set by locals Little Wings, he informed the audience that he had spent the past couple days trying to reach his loved ones back home in Alabama, where electricity, phone, and cellular outages were widespread. Although he now lives in Brooklyn and had previously been based in Athens, Georgia, Houck clearly set out to align himself with his home state for the night as he kicked off with album opener "It Ain't Easy to Be Humble (When You're from Alabama)."
The first part of the set closely followed the order and tone of last summer's show, drawing exclusively from the new album and pushing even the more subdued heartbreak songs, like album highlight "Mermaid Parade," into arena rock territory. When Houck finally seemed ready to show a bit of tenderness by setting up "A Picture of Our Torn Up Praise," a theme song for the weary and downhearted from 2007's Oldhamesque Pride, the band transformed the near dirge into just another lighters-aloft boogie ballad. Despite the apparent skill of the band, the worthiness of the songs, and the dour context of the event, Phosphorescent showed little flexibility, preferring to "turn it up" like a new-century Lynyrd Skynyrd on damn near every song.
Under different circumstances, that sort of power would have surely hit the spot. But on such a sad, uncertain day and armed with songs so befitting the otherwise quiet mood, Matthew Houck would have done wonders to endear himself to the audience with a bit more emotional dexterity. By night's end, even an expert cover of Bob Dylan's "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" followed by another punched up reworking of fan favorite "Wolves" could do little to bring the show back around to where it started (and where it probably should have stayed): an Alabaman with a guitar, some country songs, and a tear in his beer.
-- Ryan Mixtape, 05/01/2011