Last Saturday the amazingly talented and scruffy Mathew Houck and his band Phosphorescent descended on Seattle for a single performance at the world-famous Crocodile Cafe. I guess it’s not actually the Crocodile “Cafe” anymore — that place had a tiny stage and a pesky pole smack dab in the center of the floor. The new Crocodile has (quickly deteriorating) tiled bathrooms, floating pizzas and a stage that can actually house a decent sized band. Cafe or no café, the joint is still world-famous.
One minute I’m sitting in Kirkland mowing down on a Giberson secret recipe cheeseburger, the next I’m brawling the Belltown parking gods, about to run out of gas, burst a bladder (three Coronas) and miss the onset of a show I’d looked forward to for months. I know, Mom — I should’ve peed before I left the BBQ, but seriously what is the deal with parking in Belltown? It’s always a chore, but apparently there was some sort of evening marathon THROUGH BELLTOWN (wonderful idea) that required the cordoning off of every spot in the hood. Eventually, we parked in a lot. It was $10. Here is where I stop complaining and get happy — after all, we made it!
Obviously, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Certainly nothing like having $40K worth of vintage guitars and amplifiers stolen from your van on day one of a nationwide tour — which is exactly what happened to Phosphorescent back in early July. Thankfully, NYPD Blue succeeded in finding the gear within a week — sending a much relieved and newly rejuvenated band westward in support of their latest LP, Here’s to Taking It Easy.
And so take it easy we did, double-fisting right off the bat as Los Angeles band Group Love took the stage to an enthusiastic and multiplying crowd. Even without knowing their back-story, you might guess that these kids met on an island of hippy artists subsisting on raw vegetables and happy shakes(extra happy, please). Group Love’s upbeat positivity made for an interesting juxtaposition when second gun, Seattle’s own J. Tillman took the stage. Sitting alone quietly playing his acoustic guitar, Tillman wound his pensive songs around the room in search of his audience. Some of us were indeed listening, but from where I stood, a great majority of Tillman’s wandering compositions were lost in various clouds of offstage banter. Tillman of course went from song to somber song with the stoney confidence of a seasoned solo opener. Having never before seen the man play, I couldn’t help but feel a bit gypped — luckily, he is one of ours and eventually I’ll see him again.
At long last, the stage was set for Phosphorescent. It’s funny — when I see a band for the first time my expectations are almost always low. Maybe it’s the old-man pessimist in me or trauma from previous letdowns (PTSD — post traumatic standing disorder — noticeable after age 30 — something to look forward to, kids) that keeps me skeptical of new performers. Either way, despite my deep love of Mathew Houck’s recorded material and various in-studios, I found myself unsure of what to expect from a full-blown touring Phosphorescent. As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. After what felt like an hour of waiting, the country boys from Brooklyn poured out on the stage to a rabble-rousing applause. Houck’s enthusiasm for the event was palpable. Warming with “the first track from the last album” (“It’s Hard To Be Humble (When Yr From Alabama”)), and continuing with “the second track from the last album” (“Nothing Stolen”), the band quickly assumed total control of their audience. It was a beautiful thing. Suddenly, no one cared about the merch table or smoking a cigarette. All eyes were on the band. No one cared about the bar or getting laid. That is, except for one distinctly intoxicated female from the audience who wanted to let us all know she’d “had the BEST SEX OF HER LIFE to [Phosphorescent’s] music!” After a moment considering the merits of country-tinged booty-wax, the band got back to the task at hand, moving through “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way” from their Willie Nelson tribute album as well as some slightly older gems from Pride, including a considerably fuller sounding “Wolves,” and “A Picture of Our Torn Up Praise.”
Somewhere along the line Houck played a couple of songs on his own, one of which was a tear-pulling rendition of Hank Cochran’s “Can I Sleep In Your Arms.” In a eulogy of sorts to a man who influenced an entire genre of music, Houck humbly declared himself unworthy of delivering the song unto our ears on this evening.
The talents of Phosphorescent the band can not be overstated: Like Will Oldham’s early singles as Palace Music, Houck’s songs bubble and brood on your turntable, yearning for boisterous accompaniment. Guitarist Jesse Anderson Ainslie, pianist Scott Stapleton and pedal-steeler Ricky Ray Jackson turn the understated and elegant into the unexpected and astounding. While “Mermaid Parade” was already a favorite, Stapleton’s raw piano playing added fresh emotion to Houck’s lovesick narrative. I’ve undoubtedly listened to “Los Angeles,” the final track on Here’s To Taking It Easy, twenty plus times, but never before did it feel like this. Playing off of each other beautifully, Ainslie and Jackson’s guitars shoved Houck to the edge of the stage with undulating waves of measured intensity, creating a uniquely tactile music experience. When you close your eyes, can you hear the music on all sides of you? Does it split your lip one second and grab your ass the next? Last Saturday, Phosphorescent did just that to me. As I walked out of the Crocodile and back into beautiful Belltown, I felt battered — but loved.
Not to diminish the recording process but goddamn, your stereo just can’t do this.