Concert Reviews

Phoenix with Albert Hammond Jr. at Sound Academy

Photographs by Neil Van.

Phoenix are a band that know how to pull off a live show. I can say that definitively. Whether it’s a festival setting (including their last Toronto date, then headlining Grove Festival in 2013) or in their own stand-alone show at a smaller venue, they command their stage and their crowd with a big, approachable sound.

It’s a set packed with pop hooks and familiar choruses begging for a sing along. The French band are buoyant with energy when put in front of a crowd – and the audience responds to them in kind.

Stopping by Toronto’s Sound Academy on Tuesday night, it was a bit of a strange venue selection for the four-piece (who perform live with two additional members/percussionists: Robin Coudert and Thomas Hedlund.) Strange, given their status as festival headliners just a year back, then topping the bill for major festivals such as Coachella, Primavera, Lollapalooza, and Outside Lands.

Granted – back then, their headlining status seemed a bit premature. Yes, they found huge success with their fourth album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, and singles like “1901” and “Lisztomania,” but follow-up record Bankrupt! seemed to come and go without much commotion. But then you went and saw them at a festival with vocalist Thomas Mars probably crawling into the crowd and the band inspiring those “arms in the air, everyone and everything is wonderful” type of moments, and it all made sense. They’re a band that know what they’re doing and do it best in front of a crowd.

So maybe they consciously decided to forego the larger Echo Beach stage in favour of the more intimate Sound Academy: proof that they don’t just need open air, sun stroke, and a pretty backdrop for you to appreciate their pop sensibilities. And so it was at the Sound Academy that they delivered their triumphant knock-out of a set, reminding the lucky (and extremely sold out) crowd that this is a band you should make a point of seeing every time they’re in town.

Opener Albert Hammond Jr. was a bit less convincing in his efforts, The Strokes guitarist struggling with his vocals and – in an effort to seem cool and detached – ultimately coming off as rather forgettable. His casual stage show works when he’s headlining, since people come to see him. As an opener, however, he’s lost amongst the anticipation: just another mediocre garage rock act.

It was also pretty obvious that vocals don’t come easily for Hammond Jr. Joined by four other instrumentalists (making for three guitarists on stage,) it pretty much got to the point where I was wishing they were just an instrumental band. I’m not suggesting an instrumental band fronted by, say, Julian Casablancas but… Having seen The Strokes at Governors Ball just a few short days before, I can’t imagine the AHJ project will ever get remotely close to that apex.

But with the mention of an apex, I’ll inevitably return to talking about Phoenix – a band that knows how to reach and sustain them, taking the audience along for the energetic ride.

They came out with Bankrupt!’s lead off single, “Entertainment,” quickly dropping in the massively popular “Lisztomania” just three songs in. Even with Mars’ audio problems on stage – wildly gesturing to his amps as he called a roadie over to fix them part-way through – the band sounded strong, accompanied by a big light show and a ginormous video screen to boot. Mars himself is a fantastic frontman, perching on amps and singing to the crowd, rather than just at them. Equally endearing was the band counting down to some of their numbers in French. Lesson learned: it just sounds better when you go “un, deux, trois” rather than “one, two, three.”

Much of 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was warmly received, “Girlfriend” and “Armistice” playing well. Bankrupt! also found success in a crowd happy to dance along – “Trying to Be Cool” earning cheers for its familiarity.

Interesting was the percussion – something that took centre stage for much of the night, propelling the band forward. Given the two drummers provide the band much of their energy, it’s interesting they’re not “official” members. Nevertheless, their contributions were appreciated on tracks like“Run Run Run,” from 2004’s Alphabetical the song making a surprisingly natural transition between EDM and 80’s sounding electronics.

“Chloroform” was another standout and about as French pop as you could hope for with its bouncy instrumentals. It soon warped into more darker electronics, however, with Mars delivering a sinister edge on vocals and bassist Deck d’Arcy giving it that necessary rumble.

Guitars were also a big part of the Phoenix appeal on Tuesday night, with Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai trading off meandering, near-discordant lines before the surfy “Consolation Prizes,” a single from 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That. They followed it up with Bankrupt!’s “S.O.S. in Bel Air,” which did surprisingly well – Mars even telling the crowd: “Usually people don’t care about that last song. That’s the best reaction we’ve gotten so far. Thank you.”

“1901” was, of course, the big hit of the night as people sang back a chorus of “hey-hey-heys” as the main portion of Phoenix’s set came to a close. They returned for an encore – Mars and Mazzalai coming back for an acoustic, intimate take on “Countdown.” For the number, Mars got into the crowd again, singing with the front row. It’s probably not something they can pull off at festivals, but for a club show it was a very welcome moment that was equal parts humanizing and earnest.

The pair were joined again by the rest of the band for the disco romps of “If I Ever Feel Better” and “Funky Squaredance” (from 2000 debut United) – both worth comparisons to Chromeo and Daft Punk, complete with vocoder.

Phoenix ended their set with “Rome,” coming slightly unhinged on the bridge between Mars and Mazzalai, but thankfully bringing it all back together by song’s end. Crowd surfing by Mars was inevitable as he jumped in for the finale of an instrumental “Entertainment” to bookend the set. He swam a good distance out to the middle of the crowd before rising to stand on what I can only assume were some strong people’s shoulders/hands (or maybe just well placed boxes?) to gaze out at the jubilant people surrounding him. A simple “thank you, goodnight” was all Mars needed to say before heading back to the stage for one last instrumental go-through.

Walking away from the show, it was hard to feel anything less than impressed. Phoenix isn’t a band to leave you disappointed – and just when you thought they’d given it their all, they found more to remind you that they’re really very good at this. Really. In my books, they can headline as many festivals as they want to.

About author

Former Music Editor & Concert Photographer at Live in Limbo. Sarah was born in Toronto. She's worked at some places that you've heard of (like NXNE) and some that you haven't. She is an Academy Delegate at the JUNOs (CARAS). You can usually find Sarah at a concert, on Twitter @beets, or on Instagram @sarahrix. She also likes dogs and cheeseburgers.