Phantogram @ In The Venue 04.16 with TEEN
“GAAAAAHH!!” I scream as I step off one of the invisible steps just within the entrance of In The Venue, just like I do every time I come to this place. Nobody notices. They should really put some glow-in-the-dark tape on all these invisible stairs and ledges. TEEN are already playing. I think it’s one of the songs from the Carolina EP, possibly “Carolina.” I’m so excited. They’re so cool. I’m Hobbit-height and so is my girlfriend so we can’t see anything. We hang a left toward the rooftop bar balcony thing. It’s like a labyrinth. The bouncers and ID checkers are all so surly. They make us go a different way to the bar. We head up the stairs. A man in front of us is walking up the stairs so slowly because he’s staring at his phone the entire time. I say, “Get the fuck out of the way,” but he doesn’t hear me because TEEN are so loud and I’m glad because I would never say that to a person if I knew they could fully hear me. We walk halfway down the first balcony row to the only gap we can find. TEEN begin to play “Sticky” and I can only see one band member at a time if I try, but at least I can hear them. My girlfriend goes to buy some drinks and I keep trying to see.
TEEN sound exactly like they do on their new record, The Way And Color. I wish they were louder, though—especially the bass. The slinking bass line in “Sticky” is really cool but I can’t really hear it. These guys in front of me are just talking, not even watching the band, and I can’t see. I’m so pissed. I look down to the crowd below. Most people are just standing there, staring. At least they’re staring, but I expected people to be dancing or something. I figured a crowd of Phantogram fans would dig TEEN. Maybe they’ll come around. The guys keep talking about networking or something. The place is so packed. I’m glad so many people are watching TEEN, even if it’s just to pass the time until Phantogram comes on. When Teeny Lieberson rips into the weird guitar solo at the end of “Sticky,” people start screaming and whistling. See? They do rock! I’m glad the crowd gets it. TEEN remind me of ‘70s rock right now. Maybe it’s the guitar playing, or just a vibe. I could be full of shit. The off-kilter electronic beat of “Reconsider” starts. Sister Katherine is hitting drum trigger pads with her sticks. This beat, sister Lizzie’s clunky keyboard sounds, Boshra AlSaadi’s choppy bass melody and Teeny’s high, airy vocals make a dissonant, arrhythmic combination. I like it. It’s kind of an odd choice of songs to play at a huge show to a lethargic crowd, though. But the song turns to “rock” mode and Teeny starts wailing on her guitar and the audience starts screaming again. This crowd sure has a thing for guitars.
They begin a new song. Ah! Yes! Lizzie’s insanely low synth melody (or maybe it’s Alaadi’s bass) is obviously the start of “Tied Up Tied Down.” I’m so excited. It’s my favorite song from their new record and I jump up and down a little to get a better view and because I’m giddy. Katherine’s driving snare hit forces my head to jerk forward and back. When the beat drops and all four women sing in harmony, I say “Hell yeah,” to myself because I don’t know what else to say. I frantically look around for my girlfriend. Where is she? I hope she can see or at least hear this from wherever she is. Ah! It’s so good.
The song ends and I hope that they’ll play it again, but they play “All The Same” instead. It’s slow and sexy. It’s like space R&B. The crowd below is starting to actually dance, all sexy-like. God, the vocals on this song are all so good and Teeny’s voice kills me. I don’t hear the weird, hip-hop–style screwed vocals but that’s ok. I don’t hear the saxophone either, but that’s probably because the guy who plays sax with them didn’t come on this tour. I can see a group of teenage girls near the front taking turns leaping in different formations. Teeny sees them and smiles. Katherine lets the beat drop again—despite glances between all the girls in the band, I can’t tell if it’s an accident or just for fun. They’re obviously all having fun, though—they’re playing loose but with control, grinning as the crowd gets into the song. It’s a special moment or something. They seem to be enjoying themselves a lot more than when I saw them play at the Mohawk bar during SXSW in March. Maybe it’s because the audience is about a thousand times larger.
I’m already content with their performance as they start their last song, so whatever else they play is going to be like dessert. It’s “Breathe Low & Deep”—a song I first heard when I saw them at SXSW. It starts with a quick, clicking hi-hat beat that’s basically a hip-hop beat. I guess it’s basically a hip-hop song, but TEEN-style with trippy ‘70s rock and space jazz breakdowns punctuating it. My girlfriend arrives with gigantic beers, exasperated from being trapped in a bar line during most of their set. “It sounded great from the line, though!” she says. Teeny’s shouts of “Ha-ha-ha-ha!” between verses are so bad ass. During the breakdowns, she pokes at an MPC to trigger the saxophone parts. Rad! In Austin, a sax player joined them during this song and I’m glad they’re including it somehow. I can hear some unpleasant bloops and blips coming from somewhere that I don’t remember being part of the song. Teeny fucks around on the guitar for a while, then the band brings the song down to its bare minimum as Teeny wails away with another guitar solo and the crowd freaks out as predicted.
TEEN’s set is over and we step up to the rooftop patio area. It’s packed. It seems like the entire shoulder-to-shoulder crowd is actually several intersecting lines to the two bars. It’s very tense, but I feel great. There are a lot more people here. Oh yeah, it’s a Phantogram show—I was so glad too see TEEN that I forgot who the headliner was. We don’t recognize anybody, which is rare at shows in Salt Lake. I guess I don’t attend a lot of sold-out big-name shows like this. A guy asks to bum a couple “squares” from me and I must be the square because I don’t know what that means, so I say I don’t have any. We hear the sound check so we attempt to somehow find a spot where we’ll be able to see the show. Searching the balcony is futile, so we decide that down in back is our best bet.
I’m reminded that this is an all-ages venue when we see security guards guarding the entrance to the main floor—no booze allowed. We find a decent spot against the back wall of the booze cage next to the stage and we figure it’s as good as we’re going to do, even if we have to watch the show through a cage wall. Bad idea.
As soon as Phantogram walks onto the stage and the first song begins, some unseen floodgates open and two rivers of distraught people converge upon us as one crowd rushes from the bar and one rushes to it. Oh god. White lights from the stage flash brilliantly, illuminating the faces of the throng as they smash into each other, into us, as they push through the narrow booze corridor. I see glimpses of Sarah Barthel lurching up and down over her keyboard. I can’t tell if she’s wearing leather pants like she was during the Twilight concert in Salt Lake a couple years ago. The roiling crowd persists. Where are they going? Who are they? Eyes pierce the darkness, jaws set for confrontation, they rush to the bar line, to the bathroom, somewhere. I look at my girlfriend. Like me, she clutches her gigantic beer as if it were a life preserver, the only thing keeping us from being trampled. I quickly drink mine and shove my cup to the floor. I have to. This is survival. Phantogram sounds amazing. It’s so loud—I decide to insert my ear plugs. The white light pulses. I see that Barthel is not wearing the same leather pants, but some gold-striped pants and a leather jacket. I don’t know why I’m so preoccupied with her pants. People try to stand in the beer corridor but they are swept away by the determined current. “Let’s get the fuck outta here!” I scream to my girlfriend. She drinks the rest of her buoy and tosses it over her shoulder as the human waves crash. I look to the stage and see Barthel strip off her leather jacket as we swim to safety.
We climb over one of the nearly invisible and totally unnecessary ledges in our path and we’ve made it. In the back of the venue the crowd gently crashes on the shore, lapping at the … Why am I thinking in water metaphors? Maybe I have to pee. In the restroom, a man is slumped over one of the urinals, peeing no-hands style using his head against the wall as support. This is madness. Now, in the solace of the back of the club, we hear the glitchy sounds of “As Far As I Can See” and I’m glad to hear a familiar song from Eyelid Movies. I’ve heard their new album, Voices, but not nearly as many times. Again, I notice just how good Phantogram sounds. Barthel and Josh Carter roam around the stage and a dozen spotlights surrounding the stage converge on only Barthel following her around. That’s weird. I see one of the backing band members punching an MPC—apparently they are actually playing everything live, even the electronic beats. Cool. The lighting design is so insane—I can’t remember the last time I went to such a heavily produced show. This must be expensive. We’re standing on a fake planter box ledge thing, above the fray. The band begins a new song and the crowd ahead is flopping around uncontrollably. Here in the back, where it’s roomier, everyone is dancing. A lone man is pseudo-breakdancing. A girl tries to moonwalk and fails but people still shout, “Woo!” Barthel is really cutting loose—she’s dancing around, her black hair flailing. She keeps doing that dance move she always does where she shakes her shoulders up and down while swinging her hair left and right. It’s weird to see the band acting like this after seeing TEEN play. TEEN was a band playing a show on a stage—this is a spectacle. It’s like watching KISS or something. I’m engulfed in a multimedia experience. I’m wrapped in a Phantogram blanket and it feels good. Something about it all seems contrived, though. “I don’t think she’s actually singing,” my girlfriend shouts. I shrug it off—she has a personal vendetta against Barthel for some reason. I think it’s one of those “I was a fan since you were dorky college students and now you’re sellouts” things. I get it, but I’d take the rock star path if it were offered to me, too. I try to find clues to back up my girlfriend’s claim. It sure seems like Barthel and Carter are singing. Barthel swings her arms up and down alternately as the yellow spotlights mimic her arm movements.
The next song is a slower, moodier one. Carter takes lead vocal duties. While singing something about love, Carter makes a cheesy fist-on-heart gesture when he says the phrase, “My heart.” My girlfriend laughs and yells, “Did you see that shit?” It feels very cinematic in an early 2000s emo pop kind of way. The lighting is super good, though. There is a large concentration of lesbian couples here in the back of the audience and most are dancing closely with each other. People are making out; groping is prevalent. Hundreds of people are waving lighters, and I see them gradually go out as people burn their thumbs. During the next song, I finally notice it—the thing my girlfriend was talking about. Although I can hear Barthel actively singing, there is an obvious backing vocal track playing. I had heard her singing continue long after she pulled the microphone away but I figured it was some effect from a sound designer. There’s a backing vocal track, though—it’s not a loop or a delay effect. Maybe I’m wrong. Hmm. I don’t know what this means, or if it matters.
“Howling At The Moon” starts and I forget about any lip-synching conspiracy theories because it’s my favorite song from Phantogram’s new record and it sounds amazing. The weird click-clack-clang beat that sounds like it was made with bells and wooden sticks forces my head forward and back, just like when TEEN was playing. God, this song is so cool. Barthel’s vocals are wild and so different from anything on Eyelid Movies. I’m going to buy Voices as soon as I can. They sound like The Knife during this song. Everyone is at the peak of excitement, including the band. This show is awesome. I hope they play this song again as soon as it’s over. They play their last song, another one from Voices. They say “Thank you” and take a 30 second break offstage before an obvious encore. The audience’s screaming is louder than the actual show. It’s making my ear feel weird even with earplugs in. In a burst of light, “Mouthful of Diamonds” starts and the crowd noise intensifies. Phantogram is so skilled at what they do and the audience is freaking out. I’m impressed. The stage production is so well put together. I wonder what it would be like if TEEN had this kind of backing? I can’t imagine what it would be like, though.
We’re standing right by the merch area and my girlfriend browses the TEEN apparel that Lizzy Lieberson is selling and comes back with a shirt. I yell in her ear that I’m going to get one, too. “You’re going to fall in love with her—be careful,” she says back. I go over and pick out a shirt. I introduce myself and try to act like a music journalist and not a spastic nerd or fan. I word-vomit praise for the The Way And Color and everything else. Lizzy is gracious and I give her my card, safely exiting without falling in love. Phantogram plays the last note of the last song and my girlfriend grabs my arm, saying, “Let’s get the fuck outta here!” We dash to the exit.
“FAAAACK!” I scream as I trip over the exact same invisible stair I tripped over when we arrived. I recuperate instantly and we escape outside. Walking down 600 West to our car, we discuss the last few hours and come to a couple agreements: Phantogram is awesome but a little over the top, and TEEN is, like, the coolest new band right now.