I am usually apprehensive when seeing an electronica or electronic-based artist, at least when it’s in a concert setting. Oftentimes, such artists struggle in finding ways to make their sets sound live and not pre-recorded, if they even try to do so.
I am pleased to say that this was not the case at all for Phantogram.
The opener of the evening, however, made me a bit nervous. James Hinton, aka the Range, performed an electronic DJ set, which was cool for a little bit. Even though I could tell Hinton was mixing all the tracks live, his set was still just him turning knobs. I’m not saying that making electronic music is easy, it’s just that I stop caring about DJ sets about 10 minutes in even if I like what they’re doing.
You can imagine my relief when I saw stagehands bringing out drums and other instruments out for Phantogram’s set. When it started, it quickly became apparent that this band understood how to blend electronic elements with live instrumentation.
First of all, lead singer Sarah Barthel was a phenomenal vocalist, just belting all the choruses with all of her strength. Sometimes there was a backing vocal track, but she never used it as a crutch. Rather, she used it as a layering effect and sang with it rather than just following it.
Josh Carter, the other founding member and lead guitarist, was just as impressive. The dude was executing complex riffs and solos like it was nothing. Also, I have to give a shout out to their drummer, Chris Carhart, who acted as the backbone of the group and drummed like a machine the whole time.
Phantogram’s stage setup was sparse, but clever. It had a mostly bare stage, but used screens, projections and shadow play to create an eerie, surreal atmosphere. At the beginning of the set, a huge, semi-transparent screen was draped in front of the band almost like a movie screen and was used as a backdrop for projected images. It was neat, but the screen and the stage itself created an element of separation between the band and the audience.
I say this because a lot of Phantogram’s lyrics and Barthel’s airy, dreamy vocals evoke a sense of vulnerability that was just lost during this show. Barthel and Carter exuded power and confidence, which was awesome — it just didn’t lend itself to the emotion and insecurity prevalent in some of the songwriting.
So, naturally, I liked them most when they got heavy and angry. Songs that weren’t my favorites on the records, like “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” were my favorites of the night. They closed their set with the aforementioned track off their new album and it was everything I didn’t know I wanted it to be. Barthel, who usually sings with angelic grace, howled and screeched over heavy, distorted guitars, and it was just so satisfying.
In general, I noticed Phantogram carried much greater energy live than is present in their recorded stuff, even on bangers like “Same Old Blues.” Barthel sang everything with a new sense of intense urgency and conviction that transformed songs like “When I’m Small,” “Black Out Days” and “Cruel World.” In addition, going into the show I knew that Barthel and Carter are influenced by hip hop, but this was much more apparent live. The wordiness of the lyrics stood out in the live setting.
Overall I was greatly and pleasantly surprised, although that is not to say that I thought it would be bad. But I do hope that in the future Phantogram will be able to transfer the energy I witnessed onto their records.