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Phoenix Returns to New York for Majestic Apollo Show: Concert Review

Phoenix Apollo live 2013 L
Paul Familetti

The Bottom Line

The beloved French band delivers a magnificent set at the legendary Harlem venue to an intimate crowd.

Venue

Apollo Theater
New York City
(Monday, May 13)

When Phoenix released their sublime fourth album, the mischievously-titled Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, in 2009, things started to go a little crazy for the French four-piece. That release not only went gold in the States, but it also won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album the following January. When they played Madison Square Garden in New York that October, they were joined onstage by fellow Frenchmen Daft Punk. At Coachella this year, R&B crooner R. Kelly graced them with his presence. And on Monday night at Harlem's iconic Apollo Theatre, there were no such gimmicks -- nor did the band need them.

Save for a secret gig at the start of April, that Madison Square Garden show was the last time they played New York -- to a sold-out crowd of 18,000 or so people. This, then, was a rather more intimate affair, as the Apollo holds less than a tenth of that number.

A few weeks after the release of their long-awaited fifth album, Bankrupt!, and augmented to a six-piece for the evening, the result was a gig that was as captivating as it was energizing. More than that, it was an incredibly personal performance. Halfway through third song “Lisztomania” -- one of the finest cuts from their breakthrough album -- vocalist Thomas Mars hopped offstage and climbed into the audience. While the rest of the band continued on with slick conviction, Mars weaved his way through a sea of bodies noticeably shocked that the singer was right there. Mars, too, seemed somewhat in awe of his surroundings -- while the Apollo is far from a huge venue, it’s certainly a magnificent one.

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Indeed, the electro-rock/synth-pop band’s performance, as well as their effortlessly cool demeanor, matched the splendor of their surroundings every step of the way. Smoke, spotlights, strobes and a digitized backdrop created specific set pieces for each song, turning them into unique, mind-blowing audio-visual sensations that totally consumed the room.

Each song, from the impossibly catchy harmonies of opener “Entertainment”, through the charming grace of “The Real Thing” and old favorite “Long Distance Call” to the energetic zest of “Armistice” and the upbeat dance grooves of “SOS In Bel Air” totally consumed the room. The band didn’t just play these songs, but they ensured that the room became these songs, and that the songs became the room. There was no escape from the power -- not that anybody wanted to escape. But beyond that, it was also a performance of invention and innovation. “Sunskrupt!” combined “Bankrupt!” and both parts of “Love Like A Sunset," while “Too Young” and “Girlfriend” morphed into one song with a perfect precision.

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Interestingly, although the majority of the night was full of fun, feverish energy, the highlight came in the form of something much quieter and contemplative. After ending the main set with a sublime, high-octane and raucous version of “1901”, Mars returned with guitarist Christian Mazzalai for a sparse, stripped down version of “Countdown”. Beautiful, melancholy and haunting in equal measure, Mars sat on the edge of the stage while he sang, the weight of the world hanging heavy on every word that left his mouth.

But there was no time to get wrapped up in the quiet sadness of the moment -- as soon as the song was done, the rest of the band returned to the stage and  immediately launched into the frenzied, climatic one-two punch of “Don’t” and then “Rome."  After a brief thank you, the reprise of “Entertainment” filled the room and Mars was back in the crowd again, up close and personal for one final farewell. The look of awe and incredulity on his face as he climbed across the seats and stared up at those on the balcony above him said it all -- a truly majestic, memorable night by a group very much at the top of their game, it was clearly just as special for the band as it was for everybody watching.

Set List:

Entertainment
Lasso
Lisztomania
Long Distance Call
The Real Thing
S.O.S. In Bel Air
Fences
Sunskrupt!
Too Young+Girlfriend
Trying To Be Cool
Drakkar Noir
Chloroform
Armistice
1901
Countdown
Don’t
Rome

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