Last Friday night I attended a sold out Phosphorescent show at the Tractor Tavern. I’ve been a fan for at least five years, but I had only seen them once previously, last year at the Crocodile. I left that show feeling a little ambivalent about the band, but at the Tractor the other night my faith was restored.
Seattle’s Betsy Olson opened things up. With Sera Cahoone on drums, she played a powerful blast of traditional blues. Her riffs were enchanting and her voice was well suited to the spirits of the songs. About three songs from the end of her set she announced she was going to “get a little honky tonk”, and that influenced the rest of the set, ending with a Bonnie Raitt song.
Next up, Brooklyn’s Family Band took the stage in near complete darkness. If you can imagine a more post-rock influenced Cowboy Junkies on Xanax then you start to get the picture. It’s rare that I close my eyes when I’m at a show, but I did here, and the sound that washed over me was very powerful. This was moody stuff, but the chemistry of vocalist Kim Krans, and guitarist Jonny Ollsin removed most of the tension, and they played with effortless beauty.
After they left, Phosphorescent started to set up. I snuck a peak at the setlist, saw they were opening with “Dead Heart”, and my heart filled with joy. I even did a little dance. The interesting thing was that they completely changed the arrangement of the song. What on record is a heart crushing dirge was turned into a rollicking bluesy rock number. Phosphorescent is no longer the band I initially fell in love with. What began as singer Matthew Houck’s solo project has turned into a five piece Willie Nelson approved country band.
I’m not the biggest fan of their later music, but I think it sounds much better live than on record. After ”Dead Heart”, they played “Nothing Was Stolen” from last year’s Here’s To Taking It Easy. The crowd knew all the words, and it turned into a nice little sing along.
The band played a well rounded set of older and newer songs, closing the main set with “At Death, A Proclamation.” For the encore, Houck played three songs solo, including what seemed to be the crowd pleaser of the night “wolves”. The band came back for “Joe Tex, These Taming Blues”, and ended the night with the nine minute “Los Angeles”. It was loud, full of aching vocals (“I didn’t come to Los Angeles just to die”) and haunting guitar solos. It was the perfect closer.
Phosphorescent has become an incredible live band. It’s rare that a band this good in the studio transcends their recorded music, but at the Tractor they did. Go see them next time they’re in town, you won’t regret it.