Saturday show preview: Phosphorescent, a full grown man
Folks who saw the Bon Iver show at the Echo nearly a year ago would have been smart to arrive early enough to catch the opening act. They would have seen a lanky, bearded blond man with a guitar, a delay pedal and a backing band who played a barnstorming set of country-tinged tunes that blew the doors right off the place. “Hello, Los Angeles,” a looping voice intoned over the PA like a warning siren. “We’re Phosphorescent.”
This Saturday, Matthew Houck, the master builder behind Phosphorescent, returns to L.A. as the headliner with a repertoire of songs taken from the Willie Nelson catalog. Phosphorescent’s fourth full-length, "To Willie," is an 11-song love letter to the Texas-born country singer that was inspired by Nelson’s own tribute album to Lefty Frizzell, "To Lefty From Willie."
The songs aren't of the “On the Road Again” or “Crazy” variety. Instead, Houck combs the catalog, with “Can I Sleep in Your Arms” from "Red Headed Stranger," the philosophical “Walkin’ ” and the self-explanatory, last-call shanty “The Party’s Over.”
“Since I was really young, these were songs that have meant so much to me,” Houck says. “There’s a personal, distinct meaning behind every song.”
Houck is speaking from a diner in Rapid City. He and his four bandmates have just spent the day in their Econoline van, negotiating the black ice of the South Dakota freeways. They’re on their way to their next show at the Nectar Lounge in Seattle. Phosphorescent will play a live show nearly everyday in March. Then, in May, they will do it all over again in Europe, tallying nearly 50 shows total in what Houck refers to as a small tour. “You can do a lot of touring in 60 days,” Houck laughs. Last year, he spent 10 months playing shows to support his 2007 album "Pride."
Houck could easily say that he’s spent the last 10 years touring, in one form or another. After a brief foray into college in the late '90s, Houck, who grew up in northern Alabama, started moving around, busking and singing at coffeeshops or bars. He lived in college towns such as Auburn and Athens, Ga., and, for awhile, performed under the moniker Fillup Shack. In 2003, he released his first album, "A Hundred Times or More," under the name Phosphorescent. Two years later, "Aw Come Aw Wry" saw the addition of a full backing band and a horn section.
It wasn’t until the release of "Pride" that Phosphorescent’s music really stepped into new territory. With Houck photographed bare-chested on the cover, the songs inside were equally stripped of ornamentation, favoring the direct approach of guitar and Houck’s warbling, high-pitched vocals.
Houck made almost every sound on the record himself (with the exception of some backing vocals), creating a late-night reverie in a dimly lighted room that mines 40 minutes of doubt, despair and excited terror.
“Mama, there’s wolves in the house,” Houck sings on “Wolves,” a track that recalls author Denis Johnson’s novella "Train Dreams." Johnson writes: “When Grainier heard the wolves at dusk, he laid his head back and howled for all he was worth, because it did him good. It flushed out something heavy that tended to collect in his heart, and after an evening’s program with his choir of British Columbian wolves he felt warm and buoyant.”
Houck is a fan of Johnson’s, and he counts "Resuscitation of a Hanged Man" as one of his favorite books, though he didn't discover "Train Dreams" until after "Pride" was released.
On “Cocaine Lights,” the languid and brittle penultimate track from "Pride," Houck sings, “In the darkness, in the cocaine lights/ I will miss you, more than ever/ And to color my eyes into rose/ Is to ask of my beaten bones/ To be less of meat and stone/ And more of feather.” It’s not hard to imagine a man peering over the edge of some kind of cliff, calculating the distance of the fall.
But even the darkest nights eventually lighten into daylight. "To Willie" presents an ambling afternoon of songs that cover a two-lane highway of emotions: too many parties, too many broken hearts.
Houck is not averse to après-show indulgence, and on “Reasons to Quit,” the album’s opening track, he channels both himself and Willie when he sings, “the coke and booze don’t do me like before.”
It’s anyone’s guess as to how Nelson’s songs will end up translating onstage. Songs like “Wolves” and “Cocaine Lights” that creep along on LP often end up more raucous, with a cocky bounce to their step. The full weight of a four-piece backing band turns his solitary songs into a joyous group effort. Think Bob Dylan’s rapid-fire re-working of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” on the 1975 "Rolling Thunder Revue."
Justin Gage, editor of L.A.-based music blog Aquarium Drunkard since 2005, and sponsor of Phosphorescent's show Saturday, agrees that this approach can provide surprising results. “I actually prefer that kind of approach,” he says. “Live shows shouldn’t have to always be blueprints of what’s on the studio album.”
As for Nelson himself, what does he think about Phosphorescent’s tribute?
“Right now, I really don’t know,” Houck laughs. “He hasn’t called me.”
It’s pretty easy to imagine some early morning in the near future. A phone rings and there’s a pause and the voice on the other end of the line says, with a slight drawl, “Hello sir, this is Willie Nelson.”
-- George Ducker
Phosphorescent with Viva Voce, the Donkeys and Rafter at the Regent Theater, 405 S. Main St. 8 p.m. Saturday. $10, tickets at littleradio.com.
Photo by Amanda Yates