For some reason, alternative country’s brightest stars don’t tend to stick with the genre for very long. The idea of a career based on “four chords and the truth” just doesn’t seem to be a reality anymore. Whether it’s Ryan Adams and his late-career Grateful Dead worship or the ambitious studio wizardry of songwriters like Neko Case and Jeff Tweedy, at some point the Telecasters and pedal steel have to go.
That’s why it wasn’t surprising that Phosphorescent’s show at Metro (its biggest Chicago show yet) was way more Pitchfork than Farm Aid.
It was clear from the very beginning that things were going to be different this time around. The tour’s support is Indians, a one-man project whose official bio cryptically reads, “Indians are from Copenhagen. Indians look forward to meeting you.” A few years ago it would have seemed ridiculous to have an act like Indians (who sounded like an even more European Porcelain Raft) opening a Phosphorescent show, but anything goes in Matthew Houck’s post-Muchacho career.
Naturally, Phosphorescent’s set was mostly made up of songs from the new album. Not only was Muchacho lauded by critics, but it introduced one of the most promising active American songwriters to a brand new audience. Recent favorites like “The Quotidian Beasts” and “Terror in the Canyons” were slightly jammy, showing off the current lineup’s cohesiveness. The band’s biggest hit so far, the soulful “Song for Zula” was followed up by the quasi-disco romp of “Ride On/Right On” in a one-two punch that pleased newer fans who were lukewarm towards the quieter songs from older albums. There was actually dancing as Houck yelped like a wounded dog, while the band plodded along with uncharacteristically fuzzy synth lines and cheesy, wah-wah guitars.
That’s when things got a bit tense. Houck is clearly (and understandably) worn out from touring. A few songs in, he took time to give a lengthy apology for vocal issues that were never that noticeable at all. (He vaguely explained that it was due to “bad behavior.”) He was even more erratic during the encore, when he stopped in the middle of a striking solo performance of “Muchacho’s Tune” and slapped himself across the cheek before complaining about a piece of hair in his face and fruit flies onstage. A few minutes after resuming the song, he abruptly stopped again, because his vocals were too loud in the monitors. Third time’s a charm, right?
The rest of the encore went off without a hitch, especially his cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Storms Never Last” and a powerful, nearly eight-minute-long take on “Wolves” from his 2007 breakthrough, Pride.
“Wolves” descended into a noisy, dramatic ending where Houck took loops of his guitar, vocals, and even some howling to create a wall of sound that would make the guys in Wilco beam with pride. Things got even louder when the band returned to the stage for an explosive “Not Right, You Know” before the house lights came on and the band was already en route to the next city.
So what comes next? Does Houck return to the studio and keep breaking new ground? Does he finally take a well-deserved break from touring and recording? Will this lineup stick around for a little while? A few years ago he made it sound like he was thinking about pulling the plug on writing and performing as Phosphorescent, but that was before the critical, commercial, and artistic success of Muchacho. After this cliffhanger of a show, I guess fans will just have to wait and see.