I was first introduced to the New York electro-rock duo Phantogram about two months ago. They were featured in a SPIN magazine article about prominent guy/girl bands, and I learned that they, Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter, have been friends (nothing more; please don’t ask) since the ninth grade, settle artistic differences via arm wrestling and are not accustomed to playing for small crowds. Which made me wonder what Carter must have been thinking as he peeked out from the black curtain that serves as ‘back stage’ at the Basement around 8:30, to find only a handful of indie kids populating the pit area in front of the stage.
I didn’t get a chance to ask him, but things turned out all right.
Opening the show was an Ohio home-bred named Josiah Wolf and his lone partner Liz Hodson. A boy and a girl, just like Phantogram. And that’s where the similarities ended.
Hodson dressed vintage, sang beautifully and played bass, while Wolf, who also sang, simultaneously played drums and guitar, coming up just a harmonica, trumpet, accordion and several symbols short of matching the incomparable Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.
It was an admirable effort that missed the mark. There’s a reason why most people don’t play guitar and drums at the same time and the band’s timing and tightness suffered. Wolf and Hodson definitely made more noise than you might expect from two people, but not as much as you’d hope for.
By the time Phantogram took the stage my concern about Carter’s dislike of empty rooms was all but forgotten. The room was tightly, but not uncomfortably, packed, with a disproportionately high number of faux-hawks, facial hair and flannel filling the space.
Tim Oakley, on loan from The Mathematicians, played drums. From the first thump of his mighty kick drum, his presence and intensity brought a palpable energy to the band’s traditionally synthetic beats, and Carter and Barthel followed suit.
Like a chocolate covered pretzel, Barthel was both salty and sweet, rocking her Mac Book and synth with attitude and politely admonishing the crowd to “Be patient,” whenever audience members (possibly just one zealot) called out which songs to play next. Not to be confused with salty, Barthel was also sultry and captivating, and leaves an indelible impression from three feet away.
Carter, too, was on point; directing the band, dancing and serving up infectious guitar riffs like a sushi chef at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Oh, and he sings well, too.
It’s hard to imagine the band’s set, which culminated with “When I’m Small,” could have been tighter or better received. They played only one song during the encore, but perhaps it’s because they were, in the true spirit of DIY, needed to garrison the merch table.
The evening was also a triumph for minimalism. Why do with four what you can do exceedingly better with two? In short, Phantogram rocked my face off.
Phantogram w/ Josiah Wolf