Phosphorescent at Turf Club, 4/12/13
Photo By Steve Cohen
With Strand Of Oaks
Turf Club, St. Paul
April 12, 2013
Early on in 2013, Phosphorescent's glorious new album, Muchacho, has been mentioned by many as being one of the young year's best records. Friday night at the sold-out Turf Club, it was the first chance for Twin Cities music fans to find out if these new songs held any water in a live setting, as Phos' mastermind Matthew Houck brought a cracking five-piece backing band along with him, helping him transform his impassioned but occasionally fragile studio work into an 85-minute live performance that emphatically proved that Houck is currently at the top of his game, even when confronted with bizarre sound issues during the encore.
Opening the night was Philadelphia's Strand Of Oaks, lead by Timothy Showalter, who was joined by drummer Chris Ward from Pattern is Movement. Their 40-minute opening set not only made them a bunch of new fans in the crowd, but also perfectly set the mood for the headliners, as both frontmen deliver percipient lyrics that only add to the raw emotions of their spirited songs. Most of their ten-song set was drawn from 2012's Dark Shores, with the simmering title-track serving as the strong set opener. Showalter clearly felt comfortable in front of the supportive St. Paul crowd, mentioning early on "it feels so good to be back here tonight."
"Satellite Moon" and "Maureen's" both soared, with Showalter's deft guitar work and world-weary vocals driving the songs forward atop Ward's insistent beats. It was so endearing to see Ward, who didn't even have a microphone in front of him, consistently singing along with Showalter, lost in the sentiment of the songs. "Daniel's Blues" was a poignant ode to killing John Belushi's drug dealer, and kept the strong start going. But it was a stunning take on "Spacestations" which proved to be the shows highlight, with Showalter introducing it succinctly, "We just drove across the country for the past three days, and it feels really good to be here playing for you tonight. This song is about space." And indeed, it was heavenly.
Photo By Steve Cohen
"Last time I was at the Turf Club I was on a bunch of cold medicine -- tonight I'm just really drunk. Not really drunk, but -- it's just good not to be in the van. Did I say that already?" Showalter admitted later in the set, furthering his connection with a crowd who was drinking right along with him. A tender version of "Two Kids" soon followed, and led smoothly into a showstopping solo take on "Sleeping Pills" by Showalter. "Sterling" had a definite Neil Young vibe to it, with Tim even name-checking "Crazy Horse" in the lyrics to drive the influence home. "Bonfire" appropriately enough brought the set to a fiery, explosive end, with Showalter wailing away on guitar and holding it triumphantly above his head as the performance came to a dynamic end with the crowd roaring their well-earned approval.
The Turf was well and truly packed by the time Phosphorescent came out to an ovation that caught Houck off guard a bit. "St. Paul -- how y'all doing? It's a pleasure to be here, though it's brighter than shit up here. Can we get things darker on stage, set the mood right?" And as the lights dimmed, the band launched into the expansive set opener, "Terror In the Canyons (The Wounded Master)," which definitely set the mood right in the swelling club. Houck was joined by two keyboardists (Scott Stapleton and Jo Schornikow), drummer Christopher Marine, percussionist David Torch, and bassist Jeffrey Bailey, who all added their own distinct flourishes to Houck's vibrant material throughout the entire uplifting set.
A keys-laden version "The Quotidian Beasts" kept the start of the set soaring, with Houck's weathered vocals breaking ever so slightly as the emotions of the track overtook him. "A New Anhedonia" kept the focus squarely on the new Muchacho material, before Matthew dug into his stellar back catalog for an emphatic take on "A Picture of Torn Up Praise," with Houck standing on the edge of the stage, gesturing assertively like a Southern preacher while adding impact to his already penetrating lyrics. Houck then put his guitar down so he could focus entirely on the deeply moving lyrics to "Song for Zula," with Stapleton and Schornikow's lilting keys carrying the song ever higher (though the live version was missing Bobby Hawk's fiddle which forms the heart of the melody on the studio version). It was a stirring moment, with Houck (along with most of the audience) having to catch his breath a bit after the song.
Photos By Steve Cohen
But rather than wallow in those sentimental themes, Houck kicked things into high gear with a rollicking take on "Ride On/Right On," which got the crowd dancing and got the band rocking. That energy carried over into a resonant version of "Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)," that had everyone, including Houck, feeling the positive Friday night vibes. "This is way better than the last time we were in town," Houck exclaimed warmly. "This is an old song someone requested we play tonight." And with that, the band launched into a lively take on "Joe Tex, These Taming Blues," from 2005's Aw Come Aw Wry. It was a richer reworked version with the full band behind Houck, and they all breathed an exhilarating new life into the classic track.
The main set then came to a close with another Muchacho standout, "Down to Go," which was carried by Houck's plaintive, searching vocals as well as his dynamic guitar work, as he shredded for one of the few times during the set. After a brief encore break, Houck returned to the stage alone, and that is when things got a bit weird. He opened with a gorgeous solo version of "Wolves," but there was a strange feedback which sounded like a radio/TV broadcast coming through in the speakers and the monitor. Houck actually stopped the song to address the issue, asking us if we heard it too (we clearly did), before trying to proceed. But it obviously flustered him a bit as he repeated a few lines of the song to settle himself, before looping his vocals and guitar at the end as the song became awash in textured layers.
Photos By Steve Cohen
"There's Gremlins in the house tonight," Houck joked a bit, before asking us, "Are they at least nice jams from the radio station coming through?" A tender, solo take on Randy Newman's "Days of Heaven" followed, but the hushed emotions of the song were ruined by the continued feedback from the speakers, which the house couldn't find a fix for (despite Houck asking if there was anything he personally could do to make it stop) as it unfortunately continued throughout the rest of the set. "How about this band, God damn it!" Houck exclaimed as he brought his group back out again. "I guarantee that we can play louder than that radio."
And indeed, the set closed with two especially boisterous takes on "At Death, A Proclamation" and "Los Angeles," as the band drown out any lingering frustration from the sound issues and raucously ended the show. Those sound problems would have derailed the set of a less-seasoned performer, but Houck and company just used it as fuel to their collective fire, as they brought the night triumphantly to a close. "Thank you for being here on this snowy evening," Houck said passionately as they left the stage to a rousing ovation, with the crowd appreciative of Phosphorescent for truly heating things up in St. Paul on a frigid April night.
Personal Bias: The last time I saw Phosphorescent was nearly three years ago at a sparsely attended show at the Cedar with J. Tillman. It's gratifying to see Matthew and company (and Strand of Oaks for that matter) get the local recognition they deserve with a sold-out show.
The Crowd: A packed, well-lubricated house all waiting to hear Muchacho come to life.
Overheard In The Crowd: There may have been a few angry demands from the crowd for the Turf Club's sound guy to get their shit together during the encore.
Random Notebook Dump: It's interesting that Phosphorescent drove three days from Seattle for this show, just as they did in 2010 when they played the Cedar. Both times, Matthew made mention of how nice it was to be playing music again instead of being trapped in the van.
Terror In The Canyons (The Wounded Master)
The Quotidian Beasts
A New Anhedonia
A Picture Of Torn Up Praise
Song For Zula
Ride On/Right On
Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)
Joe Tex, These Taming Blues
Down To Go
Days Of Heaven (Randy Newman)(Encore)
At Death, A Proclamation (Encore)
Los Angeles (Encore)
Strand Of Oaks' Setlist:
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.