I am standing in the balcony, looking up at a TV screen. This section reeks of booze. Two rows down, a gaggle of women bob to the pre-programmed beats. Further down, on the bottom half of a two-tiered stage, the man with the guitar and a Braves baseball cap shouts “Atlanta!”, and another group of women behind us scream “JOSH CARTER, EEEEE!”
None of this makes sense to me. Two weeks prior to tonight, I’d never even heard of Phantogram, let alone this swarthy, bearded Carter fellow who plays safe, stadium-grade riffs and has all the appeal of a Starbucks barista (i.e. NONE). Yet here we are, above a packed floor among highly excitable ladies and fairly static men, listening to multi-tracked electro-pop hits synched with a full battery of flashing lights. Am I missing something here? Or does this set bank on a liturgy of gimmicks, employed to meet the high-rolling gig-goer’s expectations of what a “rock” show should be?
I didn’t come here for Phantogram. A PR rep tapped me the other week because she knew I was into the Veldt, the reformed shoegaze outfit from Raleigh, NC that would open the show. My partner (fellow Immersive writer, Gabriel Savage) had no clue who they were — as I’d expected, for even in the ’90s their heady blend of hazy guitars and mega soul never quite blew up in the States. (David Sitek took notes, though, and a decade later TV On The Radio DID blow up.) I wasn’t hip to the Veldt myself until last year, when they reunited and dropped a beguiling EP — their first in 15 years, produced by another nearly forgotten dreampop legend A.R. Kane — which, ever so slowly, dragged me under into sweet oblivion.
Tonight, as I drive to the Tabernacle, I can’t help but wonder how the Veldt — who formed 18 years before Carter and Sarah Barthel conceived Phantogram, likely when both were still toddlers — have landed now in the support slot. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Why did the Veldt die on the vine, when their peers in the UK (like Lush and the Cocteau Twins) flourished?
Fast-forward an hour: we’re now on the left-hand side of the balcony, at Savage’s request (I lobbied for the right-of-center, recalling my editor’s advice — but eh, sometimes men want the final say when they’re with women, and sometimes you let them, to avoid conflict). The Veldt, turns out, are now five strong, when once they were four, but Danny Chavez still holds down the fuzz with a double-necked guitar, and Daniel Chavez still bleeds his heart out on the mic, stomping and swaying in restless spurts. The drummer looks younger, but he’s tight; I suspect he cut his teeth on funk, the way he slaps the fatback on the snare.
Given the massive talent on the skins, the Veldt choose some odd numbers for their short set. They eschew “Soul in a Jar” and their other brisk romps for either the denser, more clearly shoegaze songs from Afrodisiac, or for ones with hip-hop click tracks that I don’t recognize. And while the former come off GREAT – oh my god, “Heather” swallowed me whole — the latter sound disjointed, with the tinny beats dwarfed in the huge theater. I’m also sad that the Veldt stick mostly with old material; they don’t even mention the new EP until we’re five songs in, and when they do air “Sanctified,” Chavez kills it.
Nevertheless, the Veldt play and chat with us on a level that I recognize. “We’ll be at the bar later if you wanna hang with us,” Chavez says, like we’re just in the neighborhood pub. And if the gig had ended right there, I would’ve taken ’em up on that offer. But alas, now the REAL assignment begins. Below us, the crowd swells; more people file into the balcony. And one of the stage lights flares into our face, and Savage and I agree to shift to (who’d have thunk it!) a section just right of center.
Now, prior to the show, Savage told me in the lobby that Phantogram were definitely a “thing” back in his middle school days. Weeks would pass, he said, where he heard “When I’m Small” every day. Me, I skimmed Eyelid Movies earlier that week, the duo’s debut from 2009 — and I’ll admit that I liked it, if only because of the passing resemblance to trip-hop. Neither of us, though, had delved too far into Phantogram’s most recent LP, when they streamlined their nebulous electro-pop for a wider audience.
So we’re both rattled to hear Phantogram blast into their new songs, with a giant projection screen behind them and a dazzling array of synchronized lights. The band members divide themselves between the two tiers of the stage, so that Carter and singer Sarah Barthel serenade us on the bottom while the rhythm guys key in beats on the top. And, y’know, that setup looks great on the TV screens, but it emphasizes that Phantogram aren’t really a “band” as I’m used to seeing, but a performance duo with obligatory audio assistance.
Right off, I realize that their mix sounds WAY bigger and cleaner than the Veldt’s. When Carter “plays” guitar, he does so in Edge-like strokes, more to present the illusion of rocking than actually rocking. Savage and I are also both amused to hear both members attempt raps, about three songs in — which, given the chirpy hip-hop beats, seems vaguely logical, in the way that serving fried chicken at a burger joint is now logical. We have to wait six songs until either of us recognize something from Eyelid Movies — and then, curiously, the projector doesn’t bombard us with optical illusions or flying stars. Funny, that.
As the set drags on, and Barthel rises to the top tier ensconced in smoke, I try to figure out what about Phantogram (besides the tunes, a reshuffling of notes and lyrics) distinguishes them from, say, Depeche Mode or U2. They only interact with the crowd through formulaic gestures — shouting out our city, demanding us to clap or throw up our hands. What’s worse, the fans around us just eat it up, waving their lit iPhones at the obligatory “lighter moment” in the middle of the set. What do these people SEE in Phantogram that I’m not seeing? Because I know what I HEAR. And what I hear is somewhere between Portishead and Coldplay, between the Jesus and Mary Chain’s underground (which isn’t the only underground, of course, but it’s a convenient one) and pleather jackets from Urban Outfitters. Should I just be satisfied with this — a concert experience in a venue that I can share with all my friends on Snapchat, which does not move me, or shake me, or affirm my existence?
Ten songs in, after Carter and Barthel finally give us “When I’m Small” (again, unadorned by the projector, just bathed in red light), they tell us they’ve reached their favorite part of the set. And lo, here comes Big Boi onto the stage. Yes, that’s right, that Big Boi, from OutKast — to rap with Phantogram. Turns out, the three dropped an EP under the moniker of Big Grams back in 2015, and they claim a full-length is on the way; and no joke, I’m thoroughly entertained now as the three prance and swap bars on the bottom tier. Unlike the rest of the set, this feels strange and new, real flying sparks instead of pre-determined lighting. I’d be down for some more Big Grams, I note to myself.
Soon after the Big Boi cameo, Phantogram leave the stage and Savage pulls his coat on, but I’m not going anywhere. Encores these days are not earned, just inevitable, and sure enough, after some lukewarm cheering, the band returns. The projector throws up a slideshow of some home-shot videos, as Carter croons over a tepid, M83 kind of ballad; then, before the song even ends, he plugs the band’s suicide prevention fund (which, by the by, isn’t as easy to find on their webpage as Carter suggests). I won’t fault them for throwing their weight behind a worthy cause, but c’mon — do they have to flaunt it like a banner ad in the middle of a YouTube video?
When Phantogram finally tuck in for the night, Savage and I shuffle unceremoniously down with the bumbling crowd. In the back of my head, I’m thinking about the Veldt’s offer — but there are too many officers around, too many people, and particularly too many Phantogram fans for me to loiter much longer. This is not the neighborhood pub, where musician and fan can meet on the same level, and I do not belong here.
The Veldt: 7 / 10 – good, but wished they’d featured their sweet drummer more
Phantogram: 4 / 10 – uninspired, by-the-numbers production, with a few good tunes; gains points for the Big Boi cameo, loses points for the shameless charity plug
Me: 6 / 10 – all right; level-headed, fairly amiable, and my Twitter game was FIRE, but major points docked for chickening out on the Veldt
Overall: 6 / 10