Saturday night saw L.A.’s legendary Hollywood Bowl fill to capacity as 2009’s biggest breakthrough act, Phoenix—joined by fellow indie-cred crews Grizzly Bear and Girls—launched its upcoming fall tour in career-defining fanfare. Over 17,000 of L.A.’s most ironically-clad squeezed into the lavish venue to savor its standard selection of wine n’ cheese n’ tunes, an atmosphere surprisingly well-suited to the French indie rock veterans. Seated only seven rows from the stage in the haughty “pool circle,”—an enclosed section of private seating typically reserved for L.A.’s elite, or in my case, those dedicated enough to buy tickets the instant they went on sale—I felt considerably out of place. Not only did I fail to adhere to the feathered fedora, bow tie and three-piece suit dress code, but I also began to seriously question why I hadn’t picked up a $30 bottle of Chablis and a basket of grapes to enjoy during the show. Apparently, commuting to the Hollywood Bowl for just the music scene put me at odds with my neighbors, which included most of the Coppola family and a sea of other obviously recognizable faces I felt too timid to try to identify.
Taking the stage promptly at eight, San Francisco’s Girls brought its brand of sun-splashed 60’s surf pop to a thinly crowded, slightly raucous audience. This hardly seemed to matter to frontman Christopher Owens, who radiated pure humility and awe at the opportunity to perform on such an iconic stage. Hits like “Lust for Life” and “Laura” aroused some enthusiasm, but it was the majestic “Hellhole Ratrace,” with its frenetic climax of swirling guitars inlaid with white noise, that truly capped off an excellent opening set.
After an impressively short set change, Grizzly Bear emerged and immediately launched into the keyboard-and-bass flutter of “Southern Point,” the opening track from 2009’s impeccable Veckatimest. Filling the Hollywood Bowl with flawlessly arranged instrumentation and lush vocal harmonies, the Brooklyn-based foursome wasted no time at all plunging the audience into their hauntingly beautiful world of baroque psychedelia. The bass-heavy bumps of “Cheerleader” and surreal guitar wisps on “Ready, Able” continued to provide a gorgeous foundation for Ed Droste’s operatic pipes, while guitarist/vocalist Daniel Rossen held his own on the poppy shuffle of “While You Wait For The Others” and the set-closing drive of “On A Neck, On A Spit.” However, nothing in Grizzly Bear’s set could possibly compare to the surprise inclusion of “Service Bell,” an eerie lullaby from the band’s first album, Horn Of Plenty, reworked for the 2009 benefit compilation, Dark Was The Night. Not only did Ed Droste introduce the song by inviting Leslie Feist to the stage to perform it with them, but she stayed on to provide back-up vocals for the show-stopping bounce of “Two Weeks.” Unfortunately, Grizzly Bear exited the stage almost as quickly as they came on, as a meager 30-minute set time lamentably cut their show short.
Finally, cutting through the air of unbearable anticipation, France’s Phoenix triumphantly took the stage as the Hollywood Bowl erupted with enthusiasm. “It’s show time,” remarked front man Thomas Mars just as the sugary fifths of “Lisztomania”’s opening hook pierced the night like a jubilant battle call. Suddenly, everyone was on their feet as the song’s pastel tones and flares in tempo relentlessly fueled an already-fired up audience. The percussive interplay and pounding guitar-driven ferocity of “Lasso” followed, somehow overshadowing its predecessor through sheer magnitude of onstage strobe lighting. In fact, much of the visceral impact of Phoenix’s live material can be credited to an astoundingly impressive light show. Utilizing every inch of the Hollywood Bowl’s half-dome stage, the vibrantly colorful and creative lighting often overshadowed the music with breathtaking results.
Nowhere was this phenomenon more apparent than during the show’s arguable climax, “Love Like A Sunset.” Following the chilled sheen of “Fences” and the soaring guitar staccatos on “Girlfriend,” a white curtain suddenly fell over the stage, prompting surprise and some alarm amongst the audience. Splitting the confusion, “Love Like A Sunset”’s subtle opening tones kicked the show into second gear as the rumble of an engine-flavored synth swept over the Hollywood Bowl. As the song steadily added wave upon wave of swelling guitars and electronic ambiance, a glowing arch of light framed the stage in an almost heavenly aura. The song then paused for a brief comical interlude during which guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai—illuminated from behind like a pair of musical shadow puppets—traded playful guitar licks, much to the crowd’s delight.
Then the curtain dropped, and the song launched back into its gradual build-up as a massive red and black striped visualizer bathed Phoenix in a hypnotic radiance. Finally, a thunderous surge of bass literally shook the venue to make way for the song’s hopeful conclusion. “Here comes a visible horizon,” sang Mars as rich colors adorned the stage’s backdrop in the image of a rainbow. For a moment, we were spellbound—only halfway through their set and Phoenix had already captured our eager imaginations.
From then on, the show’s energy never waned, even through lesser-known cuts such as the glossy R&B stomp of Alphabetical’s “Everything Is Everything,” or the soft balladry of “Love For Granted,” the latter of which Phoenix performed as an encore from within the audience.
Returning to the stage, Phoenix closed with the one-two punch of a drastically re-interpreted “If I Ever Feel Better,” and an extended “1901.” On the former, the band abandoned the polished nu funk feel found on United, instead transforming the song into a rough electro-metalhead banger. Finally, as travelling slits of white light swept over the band amidst the syncopated trade-off of thin guitar licks and synth sweeps, “1901”’s iconic intro delivered the final punch in what already seemed like the perfect show. As the crowd wildly screamed along to the “hey hey hey” refrain, no one in attendance could have denied the absolute musical ubiquity of Phoenix’s crowning anthem. Innovative musical styles, technical mastery, and rousing theatricality: it was an unforgettable evening of indie pop bliss.