"Hey, I'm gonna lift my girl up for a couple of songs. Just for three of them. Is that all right?"
A bearded man asks me this as the tech crew onstage finishes setting up for Phoenix's set. When he says his girl, I'm assuming he's talking about his girlfriend. But before I could respond to his question, he points down at a pint-sized child wearing green skull headphones and I couldn't help but laugh. "Of course, dude."
Not everyone is as enchanted with the tiny Phoenix fan and her pops as I am. A teen girl behind me mutters "he should lift me up, I'm small" as the dad hoists his kiddo onto his shoulders. The teen whispers to her friends, "It's not like she can hear them anyway," and they walk away in a moody huff. I'm left mystified by the whole exchange. Is this some new level of teen girl sarcasm that I'm too old to comprehend, or is she really envious of a toddler getting a preshow piggyback ride?
It's not the first time I felt incomprehension sweep over me. When The Lemon Twigs opened the show at The Marquee tonight, I spent half their set enjoying their retro stylings and the other half of the set wondering if I was being punked.
"They look like the guys from The Mighty Boosh!" a clever wag shouted as The Lemon Twigs took the stage.
He was dead-on: The Lemon Twigs looked like they had sprung fully formed from the mind of Vince Noir. They were a quartet of snazzy dressers: a bassist in a leather jacket, a keyboardist in a bright blue satin jacket who wore a kerchief round his neck that wouldn't look out of place on Fred from the Scooby gang, a drummer with bluish hair and punky threads, and a lead singer/guitarist in a salmon-colored coat. The guitarist and drummer were the core of The Lemon Twigs: the D'Addario brothers Brian and Michael.
The Lemon Twigs played a set that sounded like a mash-up of Sparks, Queen, and a dozen That '70s Show music compilations. Not only was their music defiantly retro, so was their stage presence. One of the brothers would snap his fingers on the mic, beaming a beatific smile like he was a Tiger Beat poster boy, while the other D'Addario behind the drums channeled his inner Tommy Lee and twirled and spun his drumsticks around with hair metal abandon.
Halfway through the set, the brothers switched places as the punky one emerged from behind the drums. Their chops were impressive. Both could shred riffs and pound out beats with relish. But the set took a weird turn with the punky brother, who peppered his performance with David Lee Roth-style leaps, tons of kicks, and a sneering punky attitude that seemed at odds with their sound. He also forgot (or pretended to forget) their set list, asking after each tune what the next one was supposed to be.
On the one hand, it was cool to watch such young dudes come into their own and live out their rock 'n' roll fantasies. But it was also a little strange, like watching performance art that's trying a little too hard. Were all the kicks and leaps and Tommy Lee stick work sincere, or some kind of put-on? Was it just awkward playacting? Whatever was happening onstage, it was adorable — like watching a Teletubby audition to be the frontman for a Replacements cover band.
As The Lemon Twigs ended their set, the rest of the crowd started filtering into The Marquee. I was blown away by both the size of the crowd and their level of enthusiasm. People were pumped to see Phoenix. It surprised me. I knew they were a popular band, but I had no idea they were this popular.
I quickly saw why they were so beloved when they started their set. Aside from a glowing heart on their drum kit and a small piano set on a riser next to the drums, their stage setup was relatively bare. They had an excellent light show, bathing the band in purple and red and occasionally spraying neon rainbows and strobe effects on them throughout their set. They didn't need much in the way of stage dressing, though.
Those French cats played their asses off.
Phoenix is one of those bands who are so good live that they make you want to go back and re-evaluate their records. They played with precision and passion, barreling through a set that mixed together songs from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Bankrupt!, and their latest, Ti Amo.
You know how you can tell when a band knows they're good? When they aren't afraid to play their biggest hits early on in the set.
Most bands would hold off on playing a song like "Lisztomania" for the encore, but not Phoenix. It was the fourth song they played. And the crowd went ballistic for it. They sang the chorus so loud that singer Thomas Mars didn't even try to vocalize those parts. He just beamed with pleasure, aiming the mic at the crowd as they bellowed the lyrics like they were singing along to "Wonderwall" or "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
And that's when it hit me, as the crowd broke out into wild applause after "Lisztomania" finished (clapping so hard you could have sworn that the set itself had just ended): For most of the people in this room, "Lisztomania" is their "Teen Spirit," their "Hey Jude."
Phoenix are one of those bands that are easy to underrate. They haven't released an epoch-defining record that made critics cream their jeans, nor do they have any tortured backstories or scandals to make them big public figures. They're like Spoon — one of those bands you forget about until they put out yet another super-tight, fun album. Phoenix possess that most unsexy of rock 'n' roll virtues: consistency.
Listening to them play older numbers like "Girlfriend," "Trying To Be Cool," "Entertainment," and "S.O.S. In Bel Air" at The Marquee was a stark reminder of how strong that catalog of songs is. While the audience sang along to many of the songs off of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and Bankrupt!, they were a bit more muted during Ti Amo tunes like "J-Boy" and "Lovelife."
It wasn't that the songs didn't sound fantastic live; they truly did.
The more Eurotrashy, glammy sound Phoenix has embraced on Ti Amo sounds fantastic pumping out of huge club speakers. It's just that the lyrics themselves aren't as easy to sing along to, due to Mars employing a polyglot of different Romance languages in the new songs. They were songs you could dance your ass off to, and people did. But you couldn't chant along to them the way you could to "1901."
That's okay, though. It's for the best that Phoenix recorded an album that swirls English, French, and Italian together into a karaoke singer's worst nightmare. After blowing out your lungs singing along to "Lisztomania," it's nice to have an excuse to catch your breath and dance to a song about gelato instead.
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Last Night: Phoenix and The Lemon Twigs at The Marquee in Tempe
The Crowd: A packed house, full of lots and lots of young 'uns, surprisingly enough. And their parents. It felt like being at a high school pep rally with a bunch of supremely tanked chaperones in attendance.
Guy 1: "Have you heard their new one?"
Guy 2: "No. Is it any good?
Guy 1: "Yeah — it's like a concept album about gelato."
Guy 2: "Gelato?"
Guy 1: "Yeah."
Guy 2: "... That is the whitest thing I've ever heard in my life."
Random Notebook Dump: I love it when people rudely shove their way in front of me in the middle of a show because it gives me an excuse to cut a guilt-free fart in public. Take Sting's advice next time, you pushy twerps: Don't stand so close to me.