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Paul Mann: Phoenix Lands in Santa Barbara

French phenoms play passionate set at the Bowl

A youthful, energetic crowd arrived early Sept. 19 for a concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl by Grammy-winning French electronic rock group Phoenix.

The early-bird fans were treated to an opening set by chillwave band Neon Indian. Chillwave is one of the latest labels for what is essentially the evolution of electronic music. Ever since John Cage began experimenting with electronic gadgets in the 1940s to create a new form of music, musicians have been transforming the synth music sound into an ever-evolving art form. At the same time, music journalists have been striving to invent new labels to describe each new wave of innovative electronic music.

Neon Indian is the brainchild of Alan Palamo. Much like Cage before him, Palamo began creating his music alone, experimenting along the way with new electronic music techniques. He creates his music using a loop-based Mac software program called Ableton Live. One of the first software sequencers designed to be used as an instrument for live performances, it truly is a whole new way to perform live electronic music.

On stage he is joined by Ronald Gierhart on lead guitar, Jason Faries on drums and Leanne Macomber on keyboards. The trio create a rich jam-band backdrop to Palomos’ eerie synth sounds. Music critics were instantly enthralled by the band’s first release, “Psychic Chasms,” and their live shows have received universal praise. The band was the perfect warmup for Phoenix, their dreamy sound sending many fans into a dancing trance.

As the sun set into the ocean and twilight fell over the Bowl, an impatient crowd began to surge toward the stage with anticipation. Phoenix finally obliged and took to the stage in an explosion of light and sound. They wasted no time enrapturing the crowd, opening with one of their biggest hits — “Listzomania.” Thousands of frenzied fans gyrated to the music and screamed their approval.

Charismatic vocalist Thomas Mars immediately engaged the audience and sang confidently in his quirky trademark voice. One of the most universally successful pop acts ever to emerge from France, partly because they sing and record interesting English lyrics, Phoenix has developed a unique sound. Like their label mates Air, the band exhibits some of the tell-tale traits so popular with French pop bands, such as strong synth tracks and overpowering bass lines. But the band also features strong English harmonies and visceral rock jams, uncharacteristic of other successful groups in the genre.

The resulting sound of Phoenix has enabled the band to create steady hits throughout a decade of music-making. Their latest album has propelled the band into an arena-filling live band, and indeed, sold out the 18,000-seat Hollywood Bowl the night before the Santa Barbara show. Phoenix is now a veteran live rock act, and in addition to the commanding presence of singer Mars, all of the core members have become consummate performers and accomplished musicians.

Guitar players Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai prance about the stage, dancing and smiling, while trading guitar riffs and meshing catchy rhythms. Bass player Deck D’Arcy lays down a mesmerizing relentless bass beat, belying his French pop roots. By the time the band played their fourth and final encore song, “1901,” the entire Santa Barbara crowd was in a dancing frenzy. The synth-drenched dance club hit is mandatory on most any contemporary DJ’s play list.

The final song brought the band’s 90-minute set full circle, with sheer excitement from the opening moment to the final closing crescendo. Vive la Phoenix!

Set List

Long Distance
Love Like a Sunset, Pt. I
Love Like a Sunset, Pt. 2
Run Run Run
If I Ever Feel Better
Funky Squaredance


Love For Granted
Les Enfants
Everything Is Everything

— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributor.

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