Founded in Versailles by Thomas Mars, Deck D’Arcy, Christian Mazzalai, and his brother Laurent Brancowitz, the French band Phoenix has now been active for 23 years. Guitarist Brancowitz joined Phoenix after leaving the group Darlin’, which he had formed with Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel Homem-Christo, who would later become the legendary electronic duo Daft Punk. Phoenix’s most successful album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009), was co-produced by the late electronic music producer Philippe Zdar (who died falling from the balcony of his 3rd floor apartment in Paris in 2019). It is therefore not surprising that Phoenix incorporates quite a lot of electronic sounds into its more mainstream indie pop/rock music. The band is now on tour in Europe to promote their new album Alpha Zulu. The Ancienne Belgique calls Phoenix quite accurately “polished,” I would specify by adding “flawless” to the qualities of their show.
I arrive just in time for the opening act to start, the British brothers Loral and Ronnel, who call themselves Sons of Raphael. I had listened to their album Full Throated Messianic Homage (2021), a refreshing postmodern piece of psychedelic pop/rock, in advance and was looking forward to their performance. The two brothers, curly Ronnel and straight-haired Loral rock an eccentric 60’s look and have great presence on stage. But when they start playing Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, a musically complex track from their 2021 album, I get a nudge from a 17-year old guy next to me, asking if I also think this is bad. I assure him their music sounds great on Spotify, but agree that someone seriously messed up the sound check – the vocals are too low and all we can hear is the electric guitar, which roars unharmoniously through the half-empty venue of the AB. It’s a pity, Sons of Raphael, your promising studio music does not deserve this kind of live performance.
Regardless of the quality of the opening show, I do believe the audience is warmed up and excited to be wowed by Phoenix. When the curtains go up, uncovering the five musicians in a Versailles palace-like setting (displayed on multiple screens that surround the stage), one can feel the fanatic atmosphere that prevails among the crowd. The screens quickly switch to displaying blinding diamonds, overwhelming our senses in combination with the catchy indie/pop notes of Lisztomania (Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, 2009).
Lead singer Thomas Mars comes to the fore, peers into the audience, seeming as if he wished to greet each individual in the crowd, and immediately establishes a connection by simply smiling. While singing Girlfriend (Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, 2009), he adds another layer of popstar-average human bonding by lowering himself to the level of two young women who are standing in the front, and seductively looking them straight into the eyes. It seems clear that, as Thomas said, the Ancienne Belgique is the Phoenix’s favourite venue in Belgium – they all look like they’re having a blast tonight. Guitar player Christian Mazzalai does a little chicken dance and Deck D’Arcy plays the bass as if in a trance.
Yet I was most amazed by lead guitar player Laurent Brancowitz’s performance of Love Like a Sunset, Pts. I and II (Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, 2009). The 49-year old seemingly quiet and collected member of the band has an ability to raise the audience’s perceptions into new heights with his wavy guitar solo and dance moves. The visuals show a progressive zoom out of planet Earth, skyrocketing us light-years away into another galaxy. My senses are so stimulated that I’m feeling a bit dizzy. At the end of the instrumental climax of the song, the two brothers come to the fore and play a soft lullaby that soothes, and charms us even more.
The impact of their show is enhanced by the amazing visuals on stage, which are visible even to the people sitting at the very back of the AB. From one moment to the other, we move from driving through a highway tunnel at high speed listening to Armistice (Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, 2009) to floating around in a misty grey sky on the more electronic track Winter Solstice (Alpha Zulu, 2022). Even the drums are transparent, so as to avoid blocking the audience’s sight of the screens in the back of the stage. I believe this focus on the visuals makes the people sitting in the back feel as involved with the performance as those standing in the pit.
Indeed, when Phoenix starts playing one of their biggest successes, If I Ever Feel Better (Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, 2009), I turn to look at the crowd and see that even the people furthest away from the stage are standing with their hands raised. At one point, Thomas Mars retreats to the back and kneels besides a figure that suddenly appeared on stage. The person is wearing a Venetian mask and a triangular hat and is just standing there, nodding to the rhythm of the music. We’re all a bit puzzled, but with hindsight I believe this was a tribute to the band’s late friend Philippe Zdar. Their album would probably not have been such a success without the genius of this French electronic music producer. I guess they wanted to show that Zdar was still present on stage and in their hearts. Funny was that the figure reappeared (and must have scared more than one) in the crowd during the encore.
So, yes. Thomas – with his beautiful soft and boyish voice – and the rest of the band are a flawless and polished bunch of showmen. The lead singer finishes the concert by crowdsurfing on an instrumental reprise of Identical (Alpha Zulu, 2022). He even gracefully mounts the first balcony of the Ancienne Belgique, pulled up by emotional people from the crowd, all with such grace and simplicity that I can only stand there in awe. The band definitely aimed at an experience that would be spectacular to both the eyes and the ears. Thanks for a wonderful and energizing night, Phoenix!
Setlist: Lisztomania, Entertainment, Lasso, Too Young / Girlfriend, J-Boy, Alpha Zulu, Ti amo, After Midnight, Armistice, Love Like a Sunset Part I, Love Like a Sunset Part II, Lovelife, Artefact, Tonight, Rome, Winter Solstice, Identical, Long Distance Call, If I Ever Feel Better / Funky Squaredance, Encore: Telefono / Fior di latte, Trying to Be Cool / Drakkar Noir, 1901, Identical (Reprise).
The rest of the EU concerts are sold out, but they’ll be back on our continent for the SanSan Festival in Spain on April 6-9th. Other EU dates next year can be found on their site https://wearephoenix.com/tour/.