Phantogram w/ Josiah Wolf @ Kilby 10.18

Posted October 27, 2010 in
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Photo: Doran Gild

Walking up to Kilby Court on Monday night, I saw a crowd standing outside the door.  When I got closer, I realized it was the line to get in.  The show sold out, seemingly because both Josiah Wolf and Phantogram were a big draw, even though the two bands touring together made no musical sense.

Half the audience crowded toward the stage to hear Josiah Wolf while the other half lingered toward the back or congregated outside talking.  Josiah Wolf is the drummer of the band Why?, his solo project resembling the more folky, poppy end of Why?’s sound without the rapping.  One other band member, Liz Hodson, joined him onstage, handling bass, xylophone and lead vocals on a few tunes.  Wolf himself played guitar and drums, often looping his guitar parts so he could drum with his hands as well as using the kick drum and hi-hat pedals while he was playing guitar.  It was impressive to hear a full band sound coming from just two people; I kept trying to peer over the crowd to find a hidden third member.  Hodson’s cool soprano suited Wolf’s vocals, which recalled the singer’s of the Weakerthans.  Hodson shined on the jazz standard “All of Me,” as well as one of the highlights of the set, a slow, moody version of James Taylor’s “Something in the Way She Moves.”  While the band was obviously capable and entertaining, Josiah Wolf failed to leave much of a lasting impression.  Their stage presence was limited to playing their music, and their songs were largely hook-less, though the occasional time signature or key change added a little flavor.

By the time Phantogram came on, the audience was ready.  A cheer went up when the lights went down, and another louder cheer went up when they came back after taking a break from setting up their own instruments.  The packed venue started bobbing their heads in unison as they opened the show.  With the house lights completely off, they projected images onto a white sheet covering Kilby’s trademark green panels.  Such a stage show can be hokey or gimmicky, but the mix of colorful, abstract images along with a strobe light managed to up the cool factor of the performance.  It served as an energetic complement to the wistful, hip hop-infused vibe of the band.  It was pretty vital to the experience that this show was packed, as their dramatic, ambitious set-up would have come across as silly if they were playing to the usual sparse Kilby crowd. 

The show didn’t go off without a technical hitch.  The live drummer was off from the drum machine for a few seconds a couple of times, and for some reason the great vocal mix at the beginning of the show devolved to barely audible.  Personally I wished there were more songs where both of them sing, as not only does guitarist Josh Carter have a good voice, his voice blended well with lead singer/keyboardist Sarah Barthel’s. 

“Mouthful of Diamonds” was the highlight, as the crowd started cheering at the first recognizable keyboard squeal and then after the song for an extended moment.  The group debuted a new song, “Make a Fist,” which started with the live drummer confidently pounding out a 5/4 rhythm on his toms.  The song also incorporated a rare discordant guitar part, a contrast to the sleek, euphonic sound of the rest of the set.  It went over well; if this song is an indicator of the future, they are sure to not be a mere one-album wonder.

The onstage banter was minimal throughout the show, except for Carter’s plea for the crowd to put away their cameras and cellphones and enjoy being together and experiencing something real.  When he started, I was worried that this interlude was headed toward a diatribe against Twitter, but he managed to make his point without being obnoxious.

Their last song was the trip-hoppy “When I’m Small,” which had everyone in the place dancing.  Literally everyone was moving to it; I checked.  They walked offstage while a brief “Phant-o-gram” chant went up.  The band refused an encore; I didn’t hear why, but at the word that they were done for the night, people started filing out.  Complete with good looks, the duo is primed to be rock stars; it’s likely that those in attendance will one day brag “I saw Phantogram at Kilby” as they sell out larger venues. 

Photo: Doran Gild