It’s been nearly four years since Phoenix toured Australia, and things weren’t boding well for them this time around if you looked at the tour on paper. A downgrade to a venue roughly a quarter of the size, and the absence of the highly anticipated and social media promised mirror set up, as well as the lukewarm response to their latest release – Ti Amo – raised questions in even the most loving fans minds. Eighteen years is a long time and it would be understandable if Phoenix had somewhat lost their touch.
When Cleopold walked on stage, it was a heckler’s comment welcoming the sound guy that raised the awareness of the Melbourne born artist’s appearance. The heckler was wrong, it was in fact Cleopold up there, and off to a mellow start. What felt like an extensive keyboard introduction started the night of live music off, and it was all good work. There was little to no stage presence, but Cleopold was dwarfed by the prior established Phoenix set up. Only the occasional member of the audience recognised the material played, although a few did comment on familiarity due to his tour with Miami Horror a number of years back. The set was a nice one, but given the number of individuals in the room there was an uncomfortably low response rate from the audience until the later part of the set. The material, especially that off Cleopold’s upcoming EP was sounding good. Towards the end of the forty-five-minute slot there were a few dance moves slipping into the room suggesting that should Cleopold manage to increase his recognition, he could be easily garnering the reaction he deserves.
All of the doubts that were had before the show could be rejected the minute the band walked on stage. They were a few minutes late and didn’t play ‘Too Young’ (a personal favourite) however, that is the only complaint to be made about the hour and a half set of honest goodness Phoenix delivered. The performance was one that paid tribute to the fans that had stuck around, those who had either spent the last eighteen years listening to the band, or had made the effort at least to dive back through their catalogue. Hearing ‘Lisztomania’ early in the set felt like a surprise given the well-known popularity of both the song and the album of origin, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, that had brought them so much fame – but it was a sign of what to come. This was a performance built to please long-term fans and show off the best of Phoenix so far, leaning almost as heavily into material from Wolfgang Amadeus as Ti Amo, the album that was in fact being toured. While the set list was stunning, it was the very way in which it was performed that showed that Phoenix are here to stay. It was arguably one of the best live shows to hit the stage in a long time, not just for the nostalgia effect of hearing hits like ‘If I ever feel better’ being smoothly mashed up with ‘Funky Square Dance’ but for the general thrill of the performance.
Stripped of their (should be iconic) mirror stage set up that was meant to be attached to this tour, Phoenix could have struggled to make the moment unique. Five albums deep, with the most recent not quite reaching the levels of popularity of prior releases, makes it challenging for the band to make the show both remain unique and appeasing. But that is exactly what they did. ‘Ti Amo’ isn’t the best song that the four piece have released, and no one would say that it is, yet it held up against the rest of the sets superseding tracks that have arguably worked harder to earn their popularity. There was a simple reason why moments like this were so good – the members on stage knew what they could and couldn’t do to make the performance work. Every element of the show featured the choreographed perfection of the latest buzz boy band combined with the absolute joy of watching a bunch of almost daggy dads getting together and live their best lives. Watching Thomas Mars flick the microphone back up with his foot only to catch it never felt novel or ostentatious, it just felt like he knew what he was doing. The smiles between Christian Mazzalai and Laurent Brancowitz, thrown across the entire width of the stage felt honest and charming. Each of these men had their own distinct style both in fashion and presence, but together it was impossible to ignore how coherently they functioned. After nineteen years together it is expected that a band knows what they are doing, but what made Phoenix’s presence so special was how organic it felt. From in the audience, you knew it was calculated, it was no coincidence that Mars had a microphone chord long enough to allow him to walk through the entire venue during the encore, but that didn’t make it any less special. Fans, no matter their age, heaved forward to touch the man, phones up in in one hand, the other outstretched, but even having said this there was a sense of respect and community in the room. Phoenix may not have pulled the biggest crowd of their lives in Australia, but they pulled a diverse and eclectic bunch who were fully committed to the experience. And the band loved it, with grins on their faces they nailed every song, and Mars expressed his love for the country. We don’t have Phoenix down under all that often, but maybe that is part of the joy. They, and their booking agents, respect that sometimes the best things are worth waiting for, and this is exactly the case.
When the band left the stage, it was predictable that an encore was coming. Foot stomping and calls for ‘1901’ filled the beautiful venue. Instead, fans were initially offered two heartfelt duets from Mars and Mazzalai, each was had the audience in the palm of the musicians’ hands. There was none of the subtle chatter that so often occurs during these moments, and even the phones started slipping away, as Mars leant over the barrier to be closer to those around him. It was such a contrast to the big moments that had been experienced earlier, and all the better for it. When the time came for ‘1901’ not a complaint could be made. It felt almost out of the blue despite the clock ticking on, and was embraced by everybody present. Jumping, smiling, and singing along was the blanket reaction to the track and it was a powerful moment to be a part of. Phoenix may not be releasing the iconic, genre defining albums that they once were, but to say that they are past their prime is dismissive not only of their rich history, but the brilliance of their commitment. This was more than just a case of talented musicians being on stage, this was years of work coming to life and all involved parties coming together for it. To dismiss Phoenix in 2018 would be dismiss the honesty of well written, and well played music for without a doubt, this is a show for the ages.