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Pop music review: Phoenix at the Hollywood Bowl

September 20, 2010 |  7:03 am
phoenix hollywood bowl
In Phoenix's video for its early single “Too Young,” the French pop-rock band worked at a fish-packing plant. It's a strange scene in itself — these guys were way too good-looking and, in the case of singer Thomas Mars, attached to one too many Coppolas (he has two children with Sofia) to be slinging crates of tuna around a pier. And the band's songs were anything but blue collar — Phoenix's creamy synthesizers and lockstep funk guitar suggested rock music as made by people who know every club doorman in town.

So it's strange to see that Phoenix, of all bands, actually has become a rock act for the working stiff in 2010. You don't sell out the Hollywood Bowl in a vicious live-music economy, as the band did Saturday night, without winning over at least a few folks who might actually hustle the docks by day.

With Phoenix's breakout album “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” the musical traits that seemed modest and stylish before took on a new air of huge possibility — the band's members sounded like they wanted to play stadiums and “Saturday Night Live,” and soon did. That sense of ambition made for a grand, career-cementing performance Saturday, one that proved indie smarts and arena-sized swagger can get along just fine.

Phoenix has written some of the most sneakily perfect songs of the 2000s — sweet-tempered, a little nostalgic and always danceable. But as the band's audiences grew, the thrills of its hooks and small musical moves escalated as well. Take a song like the opener, “Lisztomania,” built on a little tangle of muted guitar licks, gently carbonated electronics and kind of inscrutable lyrics. All fine things, these, but not necessarily the stuff of stadiums in themselves. But drop this song into a crowd of tens of thousands, and other things reveal themselves — a droll line like “I'm not easily offended / it's not hard to let it go / from a mess to the masses” becomes a pop mission statement, especially when tied to such a buoyant, huge melody.

And the band has nailed the trick of translating its music to sprawling crowds — Mars gallivants like he owns the place, and bandmates Laurent Brancowitz, Christian Mazzalai and Deck D'Arcy clearly had the night of their lives swapping guitars and synths and tossing their great haircuts along to a syncopated strut.

When an indie sensation crosses over, it's usually on the virtue of a singular sound that strikes at just the right time. For all of Phoenix's skills at arranging and producing, there's not really one thing you can pin the band down for, in the way that Arcade Fire does gang choruses or Vampire Weekend does a clean, chiming guitar.

What Phoenix has instead is one of the oldest virtues in rock — the band makes you feel sexier, suaver and more fascinating for having listened to it. At the Bowl, the neatly galloping drums of a tune such as “Girlfriend” felt like the foursome could spur you to try to find one that night. The sudden burst of keyboards on the chorus of “Lasso” hits with the joy of a crush returned.

Even the band's sleeker, midtempo tunes, such as the falsetto-happy “Fences” or the disco-dripping “If I Ever Feel Better,” never felt bogged down, instead lending the set the vibe of a well-paced club night full of crescendos and breathers, including a moment where Mars took to the middle of the crowd for a tune in French. But, of course, by the time the band wrapped up with “1901,” it was consummating the real purpose of the evening — proving that Phoenix can take a vintage synth, a clangy mod guitar and weird drum stutter and make them all seem like part of the biggest song in the world.

Openers Grizzly Bear and Girls aimed smaller, but they hit just as true. The San Francisco band Girls evokes Roy Orbison raised on woozy '90s indie rock, and singer Christopher Owens has an appealing, plainspoken woundedness. On “Lust for Life,” he catalogs the many things that might make his loneliness subside — a boyfriend, a pizza, a suntan, a father who loved him — but the song's jubilant tambourine and effortless melody hint that he might have already found the trick to getting happy.

Grizzly Bear toned down many of its woollier psychedelic leanings of late for a haunting and spectral set that played up its romantic side. The Brian Wilson-indebted “Two Weeks” played like the hit it was meant to be, and a welcome cameo from Leslie Feist made the band's pristine, vocal-centric sound all the more inviting.

-- August Brown

Photo credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times