I first heard about Phosphorescent playing at Bing Concert Hall when I found one of those square cardstock handouts on the ground, the kind that usually advertises some symphony or something and instantly become trash. I kept this one though, so that the sleepily sexy album cover for his latest album Muchacho would remind me of all the bus rides to work that his music had accompanied this summer.
It’s a beautiful album, airy and comfortable without losing the moaning sadness of most of his music.
As the event drew nearer, however, I started to dread it. This was a Stanford show, of course, which meant a small, distracted crowd that would inevitably piss the performer off. And I really didn’t know what to make of it being in Bing. I had only been to the squeaky-clean concert hall a couple of times before, and it had made me kind of anxious. When the day arrived and I walked into the theater, my friend’s first comment was that he felt like he was about to be reprimanded. Then, of course, we were. In a more condescending, infuriating manner than I could have imagined. A friend of mine attempted to step over a seat into the next row. Standard procedure. But before he got there, he was stopped by an usher who had been staring at us since we walked in. “Tonight, we get to be adults,” she said. There it was, the pretentiousness and stuffiness of the whole goddamn thing out in the open.
My irrational negativity took hold. I scoffed as the bumbling director-of-something-or-other choked out an insincere introduction about how this show was for the students, by the students. Gimme a break. I could only think that if we felt out of place here, in the cushy theater seats surrounded by people that just looked like nervous clappers, one could only imagine how Matthew Houck, the man behind Phosphorescent, must have felt. But there he was, striding out onto stage with his piano player following, eyes moving around the room, a beer in his hand.
Through the first few songs of the concert, all of my fears were beginning to come true. I would say 65% of the crowd had no idea what they were getting into and, at least in my head, many sat back and sniffed when the microphones picked up the first of his withering, caterwaul vocals. Oh god, the microphones. For the first part of the concert, every song ended (and sometimes began) with a pleading call for the proper levels. When he wasn’t talking to the sound engineer, he took the time to look around the theater and comment that this place was a lot different than the grimy rock and roll bars they were used to playing. He got a few laughs, but at that point everyone was uncomfortable. The only way I could think to respond was by leading the polite applause that followed each song, sometimes even whooping when my square-ass self felt up for it.
But after a while, everyone settled in. The crowd’s prior knowledge didn’t matter, since this was not the Phosphorescent that one hears on the albums anyway. Instead of having 7 people on stage as he normally does, there were two. The most obvious effect of this new lineup was the prominent role his voice was forced to play. Instead of nestling in with the other sounds as it does on the albums, it was featured boldly. He might not have a helluva lot of range or technical prowess, but he squeezes every drop of gritty emotion out like an old rag. He’s also tricky. For instance, throughout the show he would let out the slightest hum through closed lips to add subtle support to the piano and guitar. He reached his peak, however, when he began looping his voice to form a one-man chorus whining about “the wolves in the house.” This was late in the show and the effect was an impressive wall of a single voice that blew everyone back.
Houck said at one point during the show that he appreciated the opportunity to strip down these songs and see if there’s something there. What we found was serious songwriting chops and a knack for lyrics dripping with love-torn anguish. The man in the songs is usually a disappointment to himself and a destructive force for his lovers, an old country/folk trope. What I realized, however, was that instead of being lost in the fractured indie sub-genres of the Pitchfork era as most of his recorded work is destined to be, this concert put on display the deep traditions his music is informed and inspired by. This was most obviously heard in the John Prine and Willie Nelson covers he played. These were artists my parents recommended to me; hard-living folk singers whose lyrics told stories that cut like a Bowie knife. Maybe, I thought, I had been putting too much emphasis on the shimmering, new-age listenability of tracks like “Song for Zula” when a large part of the reason I loved Muchacho were the same old reasons my Dad loves Prine.
I flipped through one of the brochures they handed to us (a 15 page playbill type brochure, not some flyer that a tired-looking street team guy shoves into your hand when you stumble out of the club. This was a classy affair, all right). I saw that one of the next bands playing at Bing was the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. What a strange phenomenon, I thought. Old white people in pompous venues are some of the only reasons that New Orleans Jazz is relevant outside of Louisiana. I imagine the promoters as, like, grandpa versions of Diplo. It made me realize, though, that what freaked me out about this Phosphorescent show was that I was participating in the calcification process of the folk, singer-songwriter tradition he comes from. Honestly, the legends are dying along with the genre. This is not meant to be an overly morbid, cynical statement. Genres, sounds and instruments go out of style, sometimes for a while and sometimes forever. But, these kinds of institutions and these kinds of shows allow performers to emphasize the parts of their music that might not be on the cutting edge of the latest trend. This doesn’t mean I had a revelatory experience and I’m now too mature for RiFF RAFF’s album release party/concert that’s coming up in the next month or so. I still think that a lot of aspects of Bing Concert Hall and the way this show was put on were pompous bullshit. On the other hand, the unique setting allowed Phosphorescent to conduct a beautiful exploration of the devastatingly sad, folk sound that lies at the core of his music.
To explore Phosphorescent’s music, check out the website.