Phantogram @ Commodore Ballroom – October 9th 2016

Sarah Barthel + josh carter of Phantogram at commodore ballroom vancouver by jamie taylor

Phantogram popped by town after a couple years (at least since their own show – but they opened for Muse not long back, perhaps accounting for some of the bodies in attendance tonight). I have seen Phantogram once before, at a venue half this size. Their rise was beginning, and now they are selling out bigger rooms, and no wonder, with their crossover style of electronics-laced, dancey, brooding rock. Their later music seems to be getting moodier, whereas songs off their first big effort, Eyelid Movies, have a brighter feel. It was these songs that seemed to garner a bigger crowd response, aside from their newer big single “You Don’t Make Me High Anymore.”

Phantogram + The Range @ The Commodore Ballroom - October 9th 2016

There were four members on stage. The primary duo of singer/sometimes keyboardist/sometimes bassist Sarah Barthel and guitarist/sometimes synths/sometimes singer Josh Carter. In addition, the duo had a drummer and a bassist/synths guy lurking in the shadows behind them. The boys were all simply outfitted in jeans and t-shirts, while Barthel opted for a bell-sleeved cropped black top and shiny high-waisted short shorts with a bit of strapping caging in her midriff, all sparkling with clasps, straps and zippers. Despite this flashy bondage-light outfit, and her bright blonde black-dipped hair thrashing about, one still gets the impression the band members weren’t meant to be the biggest visual standout here. The whole show was overall moodily lit, and can we just talk about the visuals here for a bit?! For me, the beautifully choreographed visuals were a total highlight, and it took me a while to get the full effect. It was meant to be viewed from head-on. It really lost the impact if you watched from an angle and seemed to only serve to obscure them. The stage began fronted by a sheer black screen, with the band boys all in place at their instruments behind this. All we saw of Barthel were silhouetted larger-than-life flashes where strobes hidden behind another semi-sheer screen at the back of the band projected her shape onto it as she sang. It was chaotic. She appeared shortly, a firestorm of stomping, whirling limbs. It was hard not to watch her. Projected visuals from the back of the room played on and through the screen over The front of the stage, and lights and additional visuals played across the screen behind them, lending a wonderful multi-dimensional experience to the show. This was perhaps most apparent during the song “Turning Into Stone,” when a warp-drive journey through a starscape was projected on the screens, which changed pace along with the tempo of the song. The front screen was not in place the whole show, but did come back into play a couple times. Even cooler was a song where Barthel was placed in a cape, barely lit, up on a platform in the middle of the stage. Flames flickered on the screen behind her, and she was lightly backlit in bright blue. And the Cape smoked! From the shoulders. It looked like she was smoldering, and the blue light played on the smoke boiling off of her. Super cool (even if a little reminiscent of the Dread Pirate Roberts/Andre-the-Giant-in-wheelbarrow scene from Princess Bride).

Phantogram + The Range @ The Commodore Ballroom - October 9th 2016

Now I really dig this band on record, and the last time I saw them live… however despite the mega cool visuals and Barthel’s onstage fury, I found the show a combination of grating and flat a lot of the time. Barthel and Carter share vocals, and both have the ability to inject their vocal performance with edginess or softness as required, but in this particular body-shaking-bass live setting, the voices often seemed disconnected from the semi-industrial sounds of particularly their newer songs. I think Barthel’s dreamy lilt and trill from Eyelid Movies is better suited to her vocal abilities than the harder singing and wails she employs more often now. The harder tone she brings out in newer songs just seems scratchy and weak somehow. Interestingly, the oohs at the start of an older song “When I’m Small” were a track – Barthel was busy whipping her hair around behind a small synth while that vocal was broadcast. It just seems they lost a bit of the recorded polish this time, whch can be a little disorienting for such a slick, electronic-based group. Hard to know if the audience felt the same. They cheered for every song, but as mentioned, moreso for the older material, and the bobbing of the heads on the dance floor indicated those songs were also easier or more pleasant to dance to. It was a chatty crowd though. During times the music quieted down, all you could hear was the din of conversations from all over the room.

Phantogram + The Range @ The Commodore Ballroom - October 9th 2016

Either way, folks got their dance on at this gig, and when the band left the stage after the main set, to a droning noise and following a slightly clumsy duet at the end of a heavy version of “Futuristic Casket,” the audience stomped madly with an increasing tempo as if they were at a hockey game. I half expected to hear a ba-ba-da-da-da-daaaaaa horn and everyone to yell CHARGE! They slowly came back out, and it took me a moment to realize the visuals being shown were not in error. It looked like a projector malfunction with pixelated bands flickering across a blue screen, but soon they grew to old home movies as Carter sang “Barking Dog” quietly. The audience’s talking nearly drowned him out. They ended strong with “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” and the audience just roiled with glee as they recognized the intro to this big single. They danced furiously (still talking though) as Phantogram blasted through this last song before leaving for a final time.

Sarah Barthel of Phantogram last night at The Commodore Ballroom

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