On Friday July 30th, SPIRITUALIZED played their classic album Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space in it’s entirety at the legendary Radio City Music Hall in New York City. I wasn’t there. By the next morning, I had finally accepted that fact and reluctantly headed off to the much less exciting activity of pouring high grade espresso drinks for the people. I had imagined that, through one ridiculous miracle or another, I would make it out to New York City in time, but the world often has its own mangled vision for your life. How does that joke go, again? “How do you make God laugh? Make a Plan.” As fate would have it, I wound up meeting someone who lives in the Big Apple that day and getting the opportunity to catch a performance by a band that I’d been meaning to check out for quite some time.
It was Saturday and I was in Seattle, pulling shots from a 3 group Synesso. I meet a lot of customers who have recently relocated or are simply visiting from out of state, especially since Summer hit. This is why I wasn’t surprised when a man with a plaid shirt and burly mustache told me that he’d been a barista for 6years in New York, while he asked some questions about the coffee and the machine. After inquiring about if he’d just moved here, I learned that he was just visiting shortly. From there it was slowly unveiled that he was playing a show that night and that it was going to be held at The Crocodile. This man’s name was Jesse and he is the guitarist for a Brooklyn outfit known as PHOSPHORESCENT. He seemed interested to hear that I’ve had a good deal of communication with their publicist from DEAD OCEANS. I knew about PHOSHPHORESCENT but, admittedly, not as much as I should have. I always seemed to receive press releases or information about them with an already full plate. They had been towards the top of my list of projects to look deeper into for quite some time, but a good part of me knew that I would encounter them eventually through a more organic process. As Jesse put it, “What we [were] experiencing is the benefit of face to face communication.” A line had formed, so he wrote down my name and phone number, with an offer to put me on the guest list and to text me with a confirmation.
The name “PHOSPHORESCENT” originated simply as the moniker for a solo recording project by frontman Matthew Houck. However, after almost 3 years of touring with the current lineup, PHOSPHORESCENT now refers to the collective band as much as anything. For the 2007 album, Pride, Houck notably manned all of the instruments himself. By the time that the Willie Nelson tribute album, To Willie was released at the beginning of last year, both the pronouns “he” and “they” became equally interchangeable, in reference to the PHOSPHORESCENT name. The release was inspired by Nelson‘s own 1977 tribute to songwriter Lefty Frizell, To Lefty From Willie. Their intention to mirror Nelson‘s original concept is further demonstrated through To Willie‘s similar cover art and by PHOSPHORESCENT adopting the approach of infusing their own distinct sound into the songs that they were covering. The homage resulted in a personal invitation for the group to perform on Willie‘s XM radio channel as part of his 76th birthday celebration and later as part of Farm Aid 2009. Their latest release, Here’s to Taking it Easy, not only features the first original material for Hoeck since PRIDE, but it also strongly represents the solid group effort that is behind it.
Besides the show that the full band had set for The Crocodile that night, there was also an in-store performance scheduled for PHOSPHORESCENT the man, that afternoon. Shortly after our encounter, I took my lunch break and passed Jesse, who was standing outside of the record store where the in-store was scheduled to take place. I went next store to put in an order at a sandwich shop and then went over to speak with him as I waited. He told me that he made a call and that my name should be on the guest list without any issue. Jesse had a bandana hanging out of his back pocket, so I told him about how my friend Cindy Wonderful (Scream Club) once explained to me about the gay “flagging code“. I told him to be careful, because he might be sending out the message that he likes to have men shit on his chest. He responded by letting me know that it just meant that he was “in a dangerous gang.” I walked back into the sandwich joint just in time to hear them call out my name, but when I grabbed my food, I heard a frustrated grumble from a woman behind me. She was sitting with a man at a table and when I approached her she asked, “You’re Chris, too?” To which I responded, “Looks like I’m ‘Chris One’, because I’m the one with the sandwich.” They didn’t seem amused and the man looked away from me irritatedly. Later that night, I realized that the guy was PHOSPHORESCENT drummer, Chris Marine.
We did get into the show that night, without any issues from the will call. The opener was J. Tillman (aka: Josh Tillman/aka: the drummer for Fleet Foxes). Tillman is a fairly prolific local artist, releasing half a dozen full-length albums since 2005, not to mention a couple of EPs and the work that he has produced as a member of Fleet Foxes. With all of his accomplishments, this would be only the first time that I had ever seen him perform; save the time he sat in as an additional percussionist at last year’s Dungen show.
The songwriter sat at the front of the stage with an acoustic guitar, offering little, if any, communication with the audience beyond his music. He wore a red plaid shirt and with his beard and long, loosely pulled-back hair, he resembled an alt.folk version of Rob Zombie. The stage was only gently lit and the stark sound of Tillman‘s guitar merged effortlessly with the deep tone of his voice. There was an intimate feeling to the set, which reminded me of a time when “singer/songwriter” didn’t hold such a negative connotation. Tillman‘s music demonstrates a directness and honesty representative of the term, before the likes of Jason Mraz, VH1, and douchebag’s using guitars to mack on chicks at campfires and frat parties got a hold of it. Those towards the bar in back end of the room continued to talk over the set but, although their chatter could become distracting between songs, Tillman never paused or allowed it to veer him off of his course. Josh set a great mood for PHOSPHORESCENT‘s heartfelt music, so it is no surprise that he was asked to support them on multiple dates of the tour. While both acts retain an incredibly earnest quality with their live sets, Tillman provides much less acknowledgment to the fact that there is even an audience watching him. Instead, it felt as if those of us in the crowd had stumbled into J. Tillman‘s bedroom or personal practice space more than it felt like an organized event at a legitimate concert venue. I wish that I was familiar enough with his work to identify some of the tracks by name, but I’m not. My guess is that at least a few of them were offerings from his upcoming Sept. 14 release Singing Ax ( co-produced by Steve Albini).
The energy was great when PHOSPHORESCENT stepped out through the backstage curtain. The members all seemed a little buzzed, but with a relaxed enthusiasm; not bumbling incoherence. From the very beginning they exuded a sense of genuine appreciation just for the opportunity to perform. Hoeck engaged the audience immediately and started the set off by making the announcement, “This is the first song from the last album.” The full ensemble is 6 members deep and they were arranged in a manner to fill every corner of the stage. The drumkit in the back was flanked by Scott Stapleton at the keys and Ricky Ray Jackson‘s pedal steel at opposing sides of the stage. The three of them formed a makeshift pen, corralling Jesse, Houck, and Jeffrey Bailey (bass) in as they meandered around in their designated areas. After playing “It’s Hard to be Humble (when you’re from Alabama)” Houck announced that they would now be playing “the second song” from Here’s to Taking it Easy and the group proceeded into “Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)”.
The entire performance felt both casual and genuine. There was a drunk, middle-aged broad in the crowd who would randomly scream out moderately obnoxious and/or erotic comments towards the stage. Before the next song she caught Houck off guard by yelling out that they would be playing “the third song” from their recent release. The front man just laughed to himself and then confirmed it, “This is the third song from the last album“. The women yelled out a slurred, “I like your style!” to which Houck responded, “I like YOUR style.” That informality is part of PHOSPHORESCENT‘s live appeal. It sounds corny as fuck, but Matthew Houck really does sing like he’s slicing himself up the belly and dumping his guts out on the stage. Whether it’s a perfectly designed sham or not, he still puts on a believably moving performance. His delivery comes with the wavering crackles of what can only be emotionally identified as an “honest” sound to his voice. The band is solid and practiced enough that the front man is able to release his hands from his acoustic, and lay back, floating his vocals over a tightly knit blanket of sound. Everyone had the chance to demonstrate their value to the collective, whether it came from a calculated opening made for the air-bending manipulation of Jackson‘s pedal steel or from Stapleton instinctually forging his own opportunities to maniacally pulverize the shit out of his keyboard. If you are already a fan of PHOSPHORESCENT‘s music, you’d be doing your self a disservice by not checking the group out live. Any connection that you may feel to the recorded material will assuredly be amplified in the concert setting. Some things just aren’t always as easy to communicate through the filter of a studio. What we were experiencing was, “the benefit of face to face communication.”
PHOSPHORESCENT is definitely a performance based act with a sound that thrives best in such an intimate live environment. They were very “present” throughout the show, unlike so many acts I’ve witnessed simply going through the motions. All of the members seem to play equal parts for each other and equal parts for the audience. They offered up plenty of new material, knocking down the first 4 songs from Here’s To Taking it Easy consecutively, while mixing in PRIDE-era tracks like “Wolves” and pulling from Willie Nelson tributes like “It’s Not Supposed to be that Way“. To start off the encore, Houck came out and performed a couple of songs by his lonesome. One of these tracks was his cover of “Can I Sleep in Your Arms” from the To Willie album. Although the song appeared on The Red Headed Stranger, it was penned by the recently deceased Hall of Fame songwriter, Hank Cochran (August 2, 1935 – July 15, 2010). Before playing the song, Houck acknowledged Cochran for his incredible talents and humbly made a “confession” that, through his rendition, he would undoubtedly not be able to do the song justice. The night ended with the rest of the band returning to accompany him for the last couple of songs.
After the show, Jesse came out into the crowd and he gave me a hug. I had only just met the guy that afternoon, but he was ridiculously considerate. Although he had gone out of his way and set everything up for us, he still told me that he felt bad for not texting me to confirm that I knew if we were on the list and that he was afraid that we might not be able to make it. It’s not like he didn’t have enough shit to deal with, being three weeks deep into a six week tour and having a show to play. That alone would be enough of a reason for me to want to support his band and, in a way, it actually bleeds over to what I feel their real appeal is as an act. Everything comes across with an incredible authenticity and appreciation. It’s clear that the members of PHOSPHORESCENT make music because they love it, but they are also creating with a focused intention of sharing it with others.
Check out this live footage from the show:
“We’ll Be There Soon”
(the 3rd song from the last album)
“It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way”
PHOSPHORESCENT is currently on tour in Europe but can be caught at…