Oslo audiences have a reputation as being a bit reticent, not to mention tall (seriously, if you’re loftier than two metres you should stand to the goddamn side). I’ve been to a couple of gigs in this town recently – and heard of a few others – where the crowd have applauded about as enthusiastically as spectators at a mixed doubles match on an outer court at Wimbledon, despite the bands concerned putting in great shows. Phosphorescent encounter no such restraint at Vulkan Arena.
The audience greet the dimming of the lights with glee as the house music makes way for the piped opening track from last year’s excellent album Muchacho, “Sun Arise (An Invocation, An Introduction)”, and the band take the stage at its conclusion. They launch into the sombre “A New Anhedonia” – a song about a bleak period in the life of founder and singer-songwriter Matthew Houck – but live it exceeds the version on the same album. They take it back to 2007’s Pride – the album that first gained Houck international attention – with “A Picture of Our Torn Up Praise”, one of his most complete meditations on the complexities of maintaining a relationship.
Houck is a musical magpie – he’s not afraid to lift phrases or melodic turns from the songs that shaped his muse – but he and his exceptional band are able to take them new places and make them their own. “Song for Zula” shows his confidence in his craft. Not many songwriters would have the audacity to turn the lyrics from “Ring of Fire” into something other – “Some say love is a burning thing/That it makes a fiery ring/Oh but I know love as a fading thing/Just as fickle as a feather in a stream” – but this is, after all, a man who wears his own band’s shirt on stage. Don’t let the humble Southern US stage talk fool you.
The whooping, hollering, almost funk-infused “Ride On/Right On” gets a great reaction from the crowd before the band leave the stage. Houck returns for a solo segment, the highlight of which is “Wolves” – a lilting ode to fear of the world at large that starts soft but ends with the singer looping his vocals through an effects pedal, each repetition and harmony building on the last, him and the audience adding layers until it becomes a cacophony. Talk about a show-stopper.
The best of country music is never far from the Phosphorescent mix – Houck’s partner, keyboardist and backing vocalist Jo Schornikow joins him for a lovely version of the late, great Vern “the Voice” Gosdin‘s “Any Old Miracle”, much as they recently performed it for Esquire magazine with their infant daughter (still too young to contribute musically, but surely it’s only a matter of time).
The full band return for the epic, sweeping “At Death, A Proclamation” from Pride, a percussive, eerily uplifting ode that rises and swells like a dangerous sea. Bless the good ship Phosphorescent and all who sail on her. Credit, too, to the people behind Vulkan Arena – it was my first visit to this great venue and I hope to make many more.
(all photos by Don Simon)