Out And About: alt-J and Phantogram Rise To The Occasion At Madison Square Garden
    • WEDNESDAY, APRIL 01, 2015

    • Posted by: Don Saas

    All Photos: Mark Brown

    When I saw Arcade Fire play a nearly sold out set at Pittsburgh's Consol Center (home of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team), it was almost disorienting seeing a band that started out playing house shows in Montreal and tiny venues like New York's Mercury Lounge suddenly now filling up major arenas. But that happens every now and then. The indie acts you love that you can remember catching at venues with less than 200 people suddenly explode and are selling tens of thousands of tickets on nationwide tours. If you'd asked me three years ago when An Awesome Wave had first dropped if alt-J would be headlining Madison Square Garden in 2015, I'd have been skeptical. But their set Monday night with Phantogram put any of those skepticisms to bed.

    Even more than alt-J -- who won the Mercury Prize which helped shoot them to superstardom -- it was immensely strange to see Phantogram playing in one of the most legendary venues in America. Phantogram is the definition of dorm room stoner pop/rock. Their psychedelic beats and swirling arrangements are the perfect music to [drug reference redacted] to. And while I love Phantogram and could have seen them burning the evening down with a late night festival set, it still boggled my mind that they were playing MADISON SQUARE GARDEN. You know... the place where Billy Joel recently played a months long residency and that also hosted two Wrestlemanias.

    It boggled my mind because I'm an idiot. Although Phantogram is firmly planted in the worlds of acid-tinged pop/rock, there have always been elements of dance and hip-hop to their music as well, and although the venue didn't become properly full until closer to alt-J's headlining set, Phantogram turned MSG into a hippie meets hipster dance party. Sarah Barthel is absolutely magnetic on stage, and she controlled the space on stage with the energetic precision of the best punk frontmen. It's strange hearing her breathy speaking voice when she sings with such volume and power on her records and especially live.

    Whether it was classic tracks like "Mouthful of Diamonds" or "When I'm Small" or newer numbers like "Fall In Love," Phantogram controlled the audience from the beginning of their set to the end. And it was perfect proof that even if you start out servicing a niche section of the music world, you can expand to the biggest stages in the world and kick said stage's ass if you translate the passion and excitement of your music with zealous fervor. Phantogram excelled on all fronts.

    alt-J's set was more difficult to immediately fall in love with but no less satisfying. Showmanship is not part of the alt-J repertoire -- beyond their intricate and hypnotic light show. In fact, they barely move on stage at all. They play their music with a surgical precision that doesn't allow much room for improvisation or "jamming." There isn't much in the way of dramatic emoting. If a band has ever simply let their songs speak for themselves, it was alt-J.

    And while you may have been disappointed if you're looking for real energy in your live performances, it's difficult to fault the show alt-J put on -- particularly if the rapturous adulation of the tens of thousands in attendance that night were any indication. If the crowd was dancing during Phantogram, they were raving during alt-J. For many in attendance, the alien electronic beats and the unique vocals of Joe Newman became a nearly religious experience. Between myself and our company's founder -- who was at the show in a different section than me -- we saw quite a few couples who looked primed to go home and engage in some good old-fashioned baby-making because alt-J left them so energized and keyed up.

    There's such exactness to the music of alt-J that a more traditionally showy performance wouldn't have fit. alt-J is a band with a distinct sound that almost no other bands have captured in similar terms, and the tightness of their music is as key as its often otherworldly nature. It's hard to imagine that anyone left that show disappointed. We know we'll be back to see alt-J & Phantogram the next time they're in town.

    If you're a fan of alt-J, you can't miss the session we shot with the group in conjunction with KEXP Seattle. Check it out below as well as the rest of the pictures from their set.

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