Every once in a while, something really special comes floating into your musical headspace. Once this happens, you pretty much have to resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to snap up every record that your new infatuation releases, trace their catalogue right back to the video of the school concert they sang in when they were six and run up to strangers on the street like an escaped lunatic wielding an iPod and screaming “You have to check this band out, seriously, just listen for a minute, I have to let the world know about this”. Ok well maybe the last bit’s a step too far but I can think of worse offences than kindly informing passers-by of Phosphorescent’s existence.
Judging by the size of the crowd at a seated gathering in Whelan’s at the end of an unusually tropical bank holiday Monday, it seems that Phosphorescent are still, after five albums, largely unheard of this side of the Atlantic. The fans that they have accumulated have arrived early and are visibly salivating as they sit zealously on their stackable plastic chairs. Seated gigs in Whelans always seem a bit alien to me. The venue is great for a loud, sweaty, elbow-in-the-face kind of night but, for more intimate performances I’d rather somewhere aesthetically and acoustically suited, like the Sugar Club for example; Whelans with seats feels a bit like a concert in your school hall. Adding to the school concert vibe was support act Sam Amidon. The Vermont-born left-field folkie ambled on stage and, ignoring the microphone, proceeded to belt out a bizarre folk song, punctuated by some invisible banjo strumming. Uncomfortable silences ensued. As it turned out though, young Mr. Amidon proved that he does in fact have a voice and a flair for string instruments, once the awkward clapping had subsided and everybody just leaned back in their seats and relaxed into it.
Phosphorescent’s accomplished vocalist, Matthew Houck, has long been credited with not merely being the lead singer, but the glue that holds the band together. True, as vocalist, songwriter and founder, Phosphorescent is undeniably Houck’s vehicle but, from the moment they appear on stage together, you realise just how integral each touring member is to the group. They open with ‘A Picture of our Torn Up Praise’ from 2007s critically acclaimed album Pride. In fact, most of the songs performed tonight are taken from Pride and Phosphorescent’s latest release, To Willie, which was recorded as a tribute to Houck’s idol, Willie Nelson. The Nelson covers are played in succession and while Houck’s cracking vocals on songs such as ‘Too Sick to Pray’ and ‘It’s Not Supposed to be That Way’ are definitely his own, the underlying impression that he doesn’t want to contort these songs too much is all imposing. Essentially, there are two ways to deal with covering a song. Either you completely mangle it so as it’s undeniably your own unique take on it or you restore it with gentle and delicate respect, not wanting to deviate too much from how the original performer intended it to be heard. Houck chose to go with the latter and in doing so his adulation for Nelson shone through and breathed new life into old songs.
Dressed in worn jeans and torn t-shirts, onlookers would be forgiven for thinking that they’d stumbled across some travelling truckers’ karaoke night but it is striking how harmonious and unified this beardy, sweaty man-band from Athens, Georgia are. Upon returning to their own material, Houck and co. displayed just how adept they are as musicians by playing songs such as ‘Wolves’ and ‘Cocaine Lights’ so tight that you could bounce a coin off them. But the thing that was really infectious here was the sense of roguish camaraderie between the men on stage. Drummer Chris ‘Showtime’ Marine impressively thrashed his way through the set playing, literally, singlehandedly after a recent incident in Paris involving a knife and a beer bottle rendered his left hand bandaged and useless. Houck told the story with good-humoured relish and proceeded to give Marine a dig-out by bashing cymbals and keeping rhythm where needed.
Houck returned for two solo encore songs before bringing his band back on stage. After asking if the crowd had any requests, calls for ‘Pride’ went unfulfilled due to the drummer’s temporarily limited repertoire and as an alternative, the band finished up on ‘South (Of America)’. The perfect end to a perfect June bank holiday.