It’s stirring testament to the unswerving, even uncompromising adulation that Phoenix these days command that, in spite of an enduring tube strike, the O2 Academy Brixton is positively heaving tonight. Packed tightly inside in celebration of the first of two sold out dates within the space of a week, the band’s London return signals the beginning of the end of a Bankrupt! run that began going on a year ago across town at the again, O2-affiliated Shepherd’s Bush Empire. They’ve since headlined Coachella and Primavera Sound, and enthralled multifarious other festivals closer to home including Glastonbury and Reading and Leeds, collaborating with R. Kelly and taking un petit peu de time out to teach HAIM a little French along the way. Thus if ever there were a band deserving of a victory lap this year, then that would likely be Phoenix.
Nonetheless, amidst the endless Lisztomania of last December, the insouciant French pop-rockers’ fifth studio full-length recording was, for one reason or another, largely disregarded. However, if Brixton may be a rather far cry from their native Versailles – I’m still scratching my head for comparisons some twelve hours on – then a heavy French presence suggests that, if the British press may not have gone all in on this juicy, succulent fruit of diligent labour, they’ve enough fanatics ready and willing to brave a particularly recalcitrant Victoria line in their honour. Hell, with tubes stopping off at King’s Cross en route, a day trip over from Paris isn’t completely out of the question. And the stilted conversations shared between chic French chéries and hapless Francophiles – those to preempt a truly fluid Trying To Be Cool – indicates some could well have done just that.
What is rather more questionable, however, is the reaction accredited to the evening’s opener, Entertainment. As may be anticipated, Phoenix having played the album’s lead single now however many times in this past year or so, it feels a little drained of verve and although irrepressibly effervescent, the same can also be said of Lasso. “Brixton, what’s up?” a visibly bemused Thomas Mars asks, before running through a wondrously breathless Long Distance Call. “It’s never been like that, it’s never been like that, it’s never been like that, it’s never been like that, it’s never been like that, it’s never been like that, it’s never been like that, it’s never been like that, no!” the room yodels as one, respiring for the first time, and if this early inertia comes as something of a shock to the soi-disant system, then Brixton en masse is very much up for this one.
It’s Mars who makes sure of it, dipping his toes into the front few rows on more than umpteen occasions, his casual yet mesmeric presence that around which the evening revolves. Thomas Hedlund, the most adroit of drummers, then ensures there’s ample rhythmic thunder to a gloriously rambunctious Girlfriend, dry ice descending like smoke might inside a Parisian bar after hours. Dressed in Pop In denim, Christian Mazzalai certainly looks as though he may well have enjoyed his fair share of hedonistic Marais nights. Purple hues later rain down during a quintessential rendition of Run Run Run, the 2004 single slinky, and so too sprightly as Prince’s two Electric Ballroom shows across London combined. Revised as a slippery Gallic skulk, daftly addictive synthetic bass lines snake around blasts of out-and-out funk to make for an unlikely highlight. “All the hands up!” Mars chirps, having evidently learnt his lesson from the R. Kelly school of hollow posturing, but if his onstage rhetoric could do with a little further fine-tuning, then Phoenix have already so transparently perfected a plethora of shoulder moments to show explicit signs of their newly assumed headlining stature.
The Real Thing, set against visual static and with Deck d’Arcy’s locks flailing, sounds tousled and so too roughened up, much like Mars’ seraphic haircut each and every time he enters the mêlée. Scintillating, it glints with glimpses of Blur’s eponymous long-player of ’97, before the screen beyond exhibits a bleary-eyed whizz around Paris for the obliterative blitz that is Sunskrupt! – that same glorious smudge of greater hit first heard around a year or so ago. But even this has been made that bit more meaty in the interim, Paris’ distinctive electro penchant shining through, before Mars reappears to soothe, “Love like a sunset.” However if nothing else, it’s inspired, beyond inventive revisions such as this which most cogently suggest Phoenix’ days in the sun are far from numbered. Yes, they may resemble a gaggle of gangly indie boys who somehow emerged from the noughties empowered rather than humiliated, as have been so many of their contemporaries since, Mazzalai and Laurent Brancowitz’ harmonic solos during extended codas as much an unabashed nod to the performative tropes of the decade that first spawned Love Like a Sunset parts one and two as Mars’ compulsion to submerge himself in the fray at any possible opportunity.
Described rather indecorously in the day’s Evening Standard as ‘Mr Sofia Coppola’, he’s himself developed something of an American drawl, and pulls the odd incongruous shape angular enough to scratch the grooves clean off a vinyl record. Recited as it was recorded, Consolation Prizes then serves as a kind of open invitation to trample all over those proverbial blue suede shoes, its indie disco chorus getting heels clacking and hands clapping vigorously. The ebullience abates during a tender, pared down Countdown, Mars once more taking a pew in the photo pit. “Do you remember when twenty-one years was old?” he quizzes, the whites of his eyes visible well beyond the barrier. Because although now thirty-seven himself, there’s a genuine ingenuousness to him – one which only adds to the theatricality that’s all but intrinsic to Phoenix’ live show.
It’s one slick as an Audi benefitting from Vorsprung durch Technik that’s now swish as a British automobile, yet it remains endearing as a battered Citroën. And ultimately, they’re now a rather well-oiled vehicle, the ensuing 1901 springy as hydropneumatic suspension. Of course, within the context of their back catalogue, it’s perhaps itself a tad “overrated”, yet it’s no less celebratory for that. Although it’s as they reappear for a worthy encore that Phoenix arise triumphant: Nicolas Godin materialises, profuse hero worship pervading the stalls, before sitting down at a knackered old Rhodes to pootle through a blasé, if becoming Playground Love – The Virgin Suicides’ most seductive asset that Mars penned in cahoots with Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, better known as Air, in ’99. Their encore gets that bit more stellar yet, however, as a cheeky run through Armistice preludes the colossal pièce de résistance of the piece, Rome. The very epitome of alt. pop perfection, as might a Mozartian requiem, the Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix standout is becoming that bit more, well, becoming with maturation.
However, juvenile until the last, Mars ensures all eyes finally reconvene on he and he alone as although this time incapable of making it up onto the Academy’s lofty balcony during what has now become a prerequisite reprising of Entertainment, he masterfully surfs through the stalls with childish relish. By the time he’s swam back to the stage, his jeans are hanging down around about where those of a petulant adolescent might. He’ll point skywards, as though signalling from whence Phoenix fell and indeed, impending Bankruptcy! notwithstanding, London ought rejoice in the fact that it has another opportunity to relive this most joyous of occasions a little bit later on in the month.