Gig Review: Phoenix @ Festival Hall, 5th March

“Wow, you know all the words. It’s like being back in Paris” – Thomas Mars

I went to Festival Hall last night expecting a suave and sophisticated show from the French pop maestros (a belief which was only solidified when the guitarist appeared on stage wearing a neck scarf). What I got was an energetic, fun, dance-filled and at times purely insane performance that I will not forget for a long time.

All photos here we taken by me (whilst jumping up and down and dancing like a crazy person so forgive the crappy quality). Please do not reproduce them without first asking permission.

We arrived at the venue with 15 minutes left until doors, determined as we were to get a spot on the barrier. This was partly because it would be super-fun anyway, but mostly because I had heard about the band inviting audience members up onto the stage for a crazy dancing finale in Brisbane, and on the off chance that they decided to do the same thing, I definitely wanted to be one of the lucky ones up on the stage.

There was already a small queue, and as soon as doors opened at about 7.10pm there was a mad rush to get those valuable spots on the barrier. We managed to secure spots right on the barrier and to the right side of the stage, which we were thrilled with. There was an unspoken agreement among those at the barrier to just sit down behind the uncomfortable metal barrier and not stand up directly on it, meaning that the first 45 minutes of the wait were spent in relative comfort

As the openers neared appearing, however, one person decided it was time to stand up directly on the barrier, and naturally there was instantly a mad rush among everyone else as we stood up and scrambled to get as close to center as possible. We were still definitely further to one side than preferable, but we had a spot right on the barrier which was absolutely incredible, given the masses of people that were now assembling behind us.

Openers Miami Horror appeared without much fuss and played a set that offered very little apart from finishing with Sometimes. Enough said.

Then it was time for the wait until Phoenix. Miami Horror had been given a very lengthy 45 minute set, and we were left with only 15 minutes until Phoenix’s scheduled arrival, however we all knew this wasn’t likely to happen. Sure enough there was a efficient but lengthy stage setup process going on, and it was here that I was so glad we had managed to secure a barrier spot, because it provided some support from the rush of people from behind.

And there was now a huge amount of people streaming into Festival Hall and trying desperately to get the best spots. General Admission for the show had sold out, and looking behind I saw an impressive sea of people, making it all the more special to be at the barrier.

After what seemed like an age but was actually only half an hour, the roadies left the stage, the lights dimmed, and the crowd lost their mind. The PA system played a strange backing track that clearly was going to herald the arrival of Phoenix, and the sound around the venue was just incredible to comprehend. Smoke filled the stage, and then…. Phoenix appeared.

And, they opened with a little song called Lisztomania. Wow. It was probably the best opening song I have ever heard at a gig. The atmosphere was just incredible as the entire ground floor crowd screamed at the top of our voices “So sentimental, not sentimental no! Romantic not disgusting yet” along with frontman Thomas Mars, the first words of the set, while performing some kind of crazy combination between moshing and dancing. What a way to start a set. That chorus got every single person moving, and everybody of course knew all the words. Meanwhile the music coming from the stage was just immense- we had three speaker stacks right near us, and it was just a massive sound. I won’t forget screaming “From the mess to the masses” along with thousands of other people anytime soon.

Following Lisztomania was never going to be easy, but after a brief hello from Thomas, the band launched into one song perfectly capable of doing so, Long Distance Call. It kept the atmosphere on a high, and meant that Phoenix was officially the quickest I’ve ever seen it take to warm up the crowd. Despite an average set from Miami Horror and a protracted wait in the stuffy environment of Festival Hall, every single person was already absolutely loving every second. “It’s never been like that, it’s never been like that, it’s never been like that,” repeated the crowd, and Thomas singing “Long time no see” certainly resonated with many in the crowd. He wasted no time in jumping into the crowd either, launching himself into the front few rows, and singing half of the song surrounded by (and getting indecently groped by) the adoring fans.

My memory of song order is a bit off, and no setlist has emerged yet, but I believe up next was the sublime Fences, which saw moshing abate and dancing take over, at least temporarily. Lasso was definitely one of the many highlight of the night, as the entire crowd sung the first verse so loudly that Thomas couldn’t be heard at all: “Where would you go? Not long ago, I’ve been thinking out loud. Was it suddenly don’t you know? Don’t do it but you do it, what you do to me”. For such rapidfire lyrics it was very impressive, and Thomas seemed to agree, saying after the song “Wow, you know all the words. It’s like being back in Paris” to the delight of the crowd (“You’re so much better than Sydney” didn’t hurt either, I love how quick touring bands are to catch onto this rivalry).

Thomas gave our side of the stage a bit of loving, walking over to us and onto the speaker stack in front of us to sing a verse and chorus. It was amazing being just a meter away from him, and the energy in our area lifted even further. For the most part however it was left to guitarist Christian Mazzalai to entertain our section, and he did a magnificent job, making constant eye contact with people near him, and seeming to really enjoy when we were getting into it, with a cheeky smile crossing his face whenever we were going particularily crazy.

The double hit of Girlfriend and Armistice was certainly one to savour. For once, there was no problem with a band playing mostly new material- Phoenix could have played every single song off ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’ and I would have been thrilled, for it is just such a good album. Girlfriend was rocked up a bit live, and that pre-chorus guitar riff is so incredibly catchy, leading up to the whole crowd chanting “Well well well well well and I know you well, girlfriend”. Likewise Armistice was amazing: “When the lights are coming out, and I come down in your room” was sung by Festival Hall with delight.

After Armistice I muttered to my friend “Surely not Love Like A Sunset“, thinking that three songs in a row from WAP was too much to hope for. However sure enough, the next sound we heard was that unmistakable opening three notes of Love Like A Sunset, and I remember just going crazy because I knew that it would be amazing live. And it really was. I thought that the studio version built magnificently, but it was nothing compared to the live version. The song was divided into three separate sections, and each one built up the tension and atmosphere just incredibly, until that final release of guitar chords which saw Thomas rise to his feet (he had been lying down for the rest of the song), and join the crowd in singing loudly “Here comes, a visible horizon”. The final line of “Love like a sunset” was sung by every person in Festival Hall bar none, and it was a moment of beauty after such a long build up.

It was time for some older Phoenix songs, and Napoleon Says got the party started, and immediately the crowd was back into that crazy combination of moshing and dancing. It was awesome to hear everybody give their best impression of Thomas’ very sexual ‘Huh’ in the song. “Napoleon says to take off your coat, take off your long-johns too” we all sung and screamed. I think the song might have been extended slightly live, and that moment of just bellowing “Riding in a trench coat” before the guitar riff broke out was amazing.

Consolation Prizes was just as enjoyable, and the atmosphere on the floor really was something to behold, as Thomas engaged the crowd through a combination of banter, singing while standing on speaker stacks, and simply jumping into their midst. “Did you get older doing nothing today?” questioned the crowd, and it almost seemed like we responded to our own question with the emphatic screaming of “THE CONSOLATION PRIZES!”.

Too Young provided the crowd with a blast from the bast, being Phoenix’s first hit. It hasn’t lost anything when performed live, either, with the lyrics “Everybody’s dancing” certainly being true in this case. Too Young was wonderful, and tipped the scales towards dancing and away from moshing, which was a nice temporary reprieve.

The security at the venue seemed pretty cool, but it was annoying that instead of handing out water they asked punters to open their mouths and just poured water down their throats from a water bottle. Aside from being rather demeaning the security also had really bad aim, meaning that every effort to get a bit of hydration inevitably ended in being drenched with water rather than actually swallowing any. So it was that, right from the first song to the last, I was absolutely drenched in a combination of sweat and water, but yet was not very hydrated at all.

Not that I really cared, of course.

“Thank you so, so so, so much,” said Thomas, “It is amazing to see so many people come out to see us, and we really appreciate it”. And it really seemed like they did. They announced that their next song, Rome, would be their last, about an hour into their set. It was just awesome, as Thomas encouraged the crowd to chant with him “Rom rome rome rome rome” impossibly loudly and quickly. I know I for one had to take a breath about 4 times while Thomas, who must have a serious pair of lungs, just carried on with the chanting. It was an amazing moment, whenever I can scream and not hear my own voice is a special moment at a gig for me. The song also gave Thomas another reason to jump into the crowd.

Rome wasn’t in fact the last song of Phoenix’s main set, as the band broke into the very odd Funky Squaredance, which really stood out from the rest of the set- perhaps even the band thought of it as more of an outro and less a song. It was still cool however, and the band departed at the song’s end to an absolutely rapturous onslaught of wild sounds from the venue.

We all knew the show wasn’t over yet, partly because Phoenix’s encores this tour have become a thing of legend, but mostly because 1901 hadn’t been played yet.

Sure enough Thomas and Christian reappeared on stage in short order, and what followed was a very special slower version of Everything Is Everything was only vocals and a lead guitar. It was beautiful, as the crowd swayed and chanted along with Thomas “Everything, is everything. The more I talk about, the less I do control”. The two conversed for a while, perhaps about whether or not to perform a cover, and it gave the good impression of a casual gig, despite being in front of thousands of people. Whatever their conversation entailed, it led to a magnificent cover of Air’s Playground Love, and the welcoming back to the stage of the rest of the band members, greeted with suitably loud applause and sounds of affection.

Then, to the delight of a few people behind me who had been requesting it for the entire show, the band played If I Ever Feel Better. Even if it’s a long way off from my favourite Phoenix track, it was pretty cool live, and served as a good warmup for what was about to come.

With a heartfelt goodbye to the crowd out of the way, it was time for Phoenix’s last song. And every single person knew what was about to come. The moment those massive synth beats of 1901 began, Festival Hall just exploded into a frenzy of moshing and dancing, which apparently was no longer a mutually exclusive decision. I remember jumping up and down, as high as I possibly could, supporting myself on the barrier, singing loudly, and waving my arms at the same time. “COUNTING ALL DIFFERENT IDEAS, DRIFTING AWAY” we screamed, and it is hard to imagine a more emphatic or joyous sound than that one.

The song was extended by a good few minutes live, and you can never have too much 1901 goodness. It was amazing. The energy on the floor managed to stay at a fever pitch throughout the entire song, especially when Thomas ran down on the floor directly behind the barrier, and I managed to high-five him and ruffle his hair in an affectionate kind of way. He ran to the side of the floor area, right up to the seating area, to give those there a bit of love, and boy did they appreciate it. It was a sign of his sheer presence that he managed to keep the floor chanting “Falling, falling, falling” along with him, even when he wasn’t in front of us.

After an age giving some love to the seating folks he ran back directly in front of us across the barrier, and I managed to pat Thomas on the back in a “job well done” kind of way, and immediately noticed that he was even more sweaty than myself. And, with one final, dominating synth beat, the concert was finished. The band left the stage to absolutely resounding applause; a massive love-struck sound.

It had been a phenomenal, ridiculously good performance. The stage presence of Phoenix had been just amazing, and as musicians they are a true force to be reckoned with. Their live sound was as infectious and skilful as their studio sound, but it was somehow just bigger. It was the perfect transition from studio to stadium. Thomas in particular was an amazing frontman, and I enjoyed all the love that Christian showed our area of the crowd. We had some serious eye contact going on. Indeed the interaction with the crowd was exemplary from all the band members, right down to jumping right into the masses.

The only disappointment was the lack of stage dancing at the end of the show. Phoenix may have decided it was a one off this tour, or they may have not been allowed to have audience members come up on the stage due to the venue security. Either way though it was definitely disappointing because getting up on that stage with Phoenix would have been a once in a lifetime opportunity. The Brisbane stage-dancing is already a thing of Australian music legend. However I am still overwhelmingly glad that I came to the venue so early and secured a spot on the barrier- it was my first huge gig on the barrier, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

It was a flawless setlist. Every song from WAP was played except for one, and this was just perfect. Add to this the fact that they played pretty much all their older hits I love, and you have a concert with no downtime at all. When you see an international band you want a lot of huge hits, and that was exactly what we got. The crowd’s improvised mix between moshing and dancing was thoroughly enjoyable to be a part of, and our view of the stage from right on the barrier was phenomenal.

The rest of 2010 has a lot to live up to in terms of live music- seeing Franz Ferdinand and Phoenix within three days was just an extraordinary experience.

Phoenix were so sophisticated that it seemed almost beneath them when they clapped along to their own song to get the crowd started. But I had always known they were going to be slick and polished, what I was surprised at was their sheer energy, and their willingness to attempt insane interaction with the crowd. Their faultless and massive live sound didn’t hurt either. They were the perfect example of a live band.

Phoenix were simply supreme, and, for one night, they owned Festival Hall and everybody inside it.

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