Shortly after Phoenix released their 2004 sophomore effort Alphabetical, the band played Vancouver's now demolished Richard's on Richards. The venue was barely half full, the soundman didn't give a shit, and the band were repeatedly choked out by the smoke machine as they chuckled through a haphazard set that left many in the audience making an early exit. That was then, this is now.
In 2013, the French pop princes have effectively reached the top of the indie-rock totem pole, topping high-profile festival bills, playing late-night TV biggies and making cameos in Hollywood films. It also finds them playing luxurious and rather massive venues like Queen Elizabeth Theatre, which is where they chose to kickstart their latest tour in support of their highly anticipated fifth album Bankrupt!
But all that well-deserved fame has hardly gone to Phoenix's head, as they hand-picked the ever-genuine Mac DeMarco to open their show, despite how strange that might come across on paper. Armed with a three-piece band, the Montreal-based Vancouver/Edmonton expat brought the charm tenfold, showing off an increasingly fetching voice that's added a few coats of velvet, as well as grit.
Following a selection of tracks from his 2 LP and the preceding Rock and Roll Nightclub, it all led up a lengthy jam sesh that frankensteined the tender "Still Together" with Rammstein's "Du Hast," Sir Paul's "Blackbird" and a marble-mouthed cover of "Taking Care of Business," throwing in a few burps and stage-strewn sex poses along the way to amp up the gag factor all that much more.
One of the worst things to happen to Vancouver music: losing Mac DeMarco.
While Bankrupt! still isn't due out for weeks yet, that hardly mattered, as Phoenix put the album on full display the whole night through. Entering a fogged-out, backlit stage to deliver the set opener "Entertainment," the six-piece used the song's angsty, anthemic tone to set the mood for what would become a night that showed Phoenix's increasing love for both driving synth-led pop, as well as stick-to-your-gut rock. And of course, the hooks were abundant no matter where they went.
Switching back and forth between cuts from Bankrupt! and their big 2009 breakthrough Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (with "Long Distance Call" thrown in for good measure), it quickly became apparent that the band have a lot of great things in store with their new record. Bankrupt! stand-outs like "S.O.S. in Bel Air," "Trying to Be Cool" and "Bourgeois" projected a more electronic feel from the group, and one that even came with a bit of a sinister undertone — or at least by Phoenix standards.
And this was all reflected in the stage show, which came equipped with plenty of neon lights, lasers, strobes and at one point a bit of visual trickery where band were projected in real time behind themselves in a series of ever-shrinking cubes. Some more natural images like a mountain scene and Euro palace-scape worked into the mix, but for the most part, it showed Phoenix embracing a chillier, more futuristic aesthetic, even though, at heart, it was still a somewhat meat-and-potatoes rock-concert setup.
Of course, the band brought their pop charms as well, and their willingness to give the fans the hits they wanted, delivering a pile of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix favourites like "Lisztomania," "Fences" and "Lasso," as frontman Thomas Mars careened into the audience, sang his heart out into a raised microphone and gave his rock moves a full workout. Well, except for the stellar "Love Is a Sunset/Bankruptcy!" instrumental mashup, which found him lying onstage with his back pressed against a monitor before cutting off a defending bass rumble to gently sing the song home.
After ending on a movement-inducing "1901," Mars and guitarist Christian Mazzalai came back for the encore as a duo, giving the crowd the night's most tender moment via a stripped-down and spine-tingling "Countdown (Sick for the Big Sun)" before the full band emerged to knock out another Bankrupt! highlight, "Don't."
Sorry, Phoenix didn't play "Too Young," but what the crowd got instead was ultimately more moving, as Mars encouraged some 50 or so front-rowers to flood the stage as the band got behind a moving "Rome." It was a touching sight, giving that rare glimpse of human connectedness that's so often removed from shows hosted in such colossal venues. It was the perfect icing on the cake, with Phoenix then bringing it all full circle with the "Hong Kong Garden"-inspired riffs of a reprised "Entertainment."
"We had 1,000 dreams about tonight, and we had 1,000 nightmares about tonight," Mars told the crowd mid-set. "You tell me what it's going to be."