Phantogram / Mounties Vogue Theatre, Vancouver BC, December 14
Published Dec 15, 2014There seemed to be a bit of tension in the air for Mounties on the last night of a mini-Canadian tour with Phantogram, in support of the Canadian super-group's 2014 Polaris Music Prize long-listed album, Thrash Rock Legacy. Hawksley Workman was in rare form, taking most of the banter opportunities, during which he covered a range of topics from the homecoming aspect for the rest of the band, himself being the lone Easterner, to their gratitude for local airplay support from the Peak, backwards dissing the other stations. He howled, made up chants, hugged himself for Christmas, and referred to himself as Don Knotts when introducing the band.
On the whole, with Workman on drums, Parker Bossley on bass, Cary Pratt on percussion, Ryan Dahle (Limblifter) on guitar and Steve Bays (Hot Hot Heat) on keys and lead vocals, their sound was a little uneven at first, but they had it dialled in by the time they hit "If This Dance Catches On." Workman proposed skipping this song, but Bays strongly disagreed, saying "no" many times. A couple tracks later, during "Headphones," Workman's kit melted down, so he abandoned it, wandered out to the front of the stage where Bays was performing, and started singing into his mic, then took it from his hands and sang lead himself. When Workman returned to his kit, having been reassembled by a stage tech, Bays wandered off the stage with the mic and through the crowd all the way to the sound guy at the back of the room, leading Dahle to ask if he was still alive out there. Bays was a big presence, doing that lost-in-the-woods, power of conviction walk across the stage as he sang, and tipping his keyboard to the side to accentuate his play. He's the natural frontman for this group, but given Workman's antics, it felt like a power struggle for the spotlight.
Contrastingly, the set from New York's Phantogram was an oasis of smooth, a thing of beauty from start to finish. Taking the stage to a stuttering processed child's voice, they hit the ground running with "Nothing but Trouble" from their breakout 2014 album Voices, and never looked back. With drummer Chris Carhart and guitarist Nicholas Shelestak triggering MIDI on risers behind them, the core duo of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter worked their magic up front, Carter playing guitar and Barthel adding a bit of keys. Their set had an effervescent flow and stadium-sized presentation.
Barthel was particularly mesmerizing. Dressed in graphic painted jeans and a vest that had strikingly similar lines to her sharp shoulder length haircut — plus a single bejewelled glove — she had a soulful, haunting pop voice, sweet but not too showy, and she embodied the songs with her head-bangs, hand gestures and introverted jumps and kicks.
She invited the crowd to put their hands up for "Black Out Days." She sang in her own little spotlight at first, but when the chorus kicked in, she scissored her raised arms — a move matched by the banks of lights circling the stage as they split into two groups of four — then sang the outro backlit with only her piano accompaniment, all of which magnified the drama. During "Bill Murray," Barthel put on a dress covered in little mirrors, and stood on something tall at the back of the stage. It was dimly lit at first, but when two spotlights hit her, she swayed slowly like a sombre disco ball. The lights only hinted off her at first, but stayed on after the next chorus, doubled in number, then triggered around her in sequence as she sang, the crowd figuratively and literally basking in her light. These were just two breathtaking moments in a set full of them.
Carter sang a few tracks too, in addition to his guitar duties, but he had a voice like a poor man's Trent Reznor. Wearing a plain shirt and baseball cap, he didn't have quite the same high fashion edge, nor her compelling delivery, but his beats are sick and Barthel thankfully sings the majority of their songs, so the odd indulgence was easily absorbed. There was also a nice moment at the end of "I Don't Blame You" when Barthel played bass and Carter guitar, side by side.
With Carter triggering cut-up vocal samples on a MIDI controller tilted so the crowd could see its coloured buttons, the crowd ate up their faithful rendition of Peak playlist favourite "Fall In Love." There was hardly a motionless body in the room at that point, moving all the way up the aisles and across the floor. The crowd loudly sang "When I'm Small" and fiercely clapped out "Howling at the Moon," later stomping en masse for the encore. Barthel acknowledged the surging crowd before "Mouthful of Diamonds," saying Vancouver always brings it.
Finishing with "Celebrating Nothing," Barthel serenaded the crowd and made erratic hype gestures. Extending the outro, partnered with just a hint of Carter's guitar, she sang and played piano, repeating the poignant phrase "I'm gonna die" while fans screamed adoration — an epic crescendo. After it was done, Barthel flashed the peace sign, Shelestak threw picks into the crowd, and Carhart gave high fives to the front row, while the weird processed voice from the beginning glitched out, giving the whole set a brilliant symmetry.