Sunday, 6 June 2010

an evening at the ICA

it's always fascinating, for me at least, to see a songwriter with a band. the endless questions like, how do they write together? do they write together or is that one man responsible for everyone's every move? and which comes first, the song on the record or the song being blasted down into your eardrums at 115dB?

welcome to the ICA. well, not right now but recently. Wednesday night in fact, when i cashed in the ticket given to me by my parents on my 29th birthday to go and watch Matthew Houck's Phosphorescent, famed (in my head at least) for gentle heartbullying country/blues/folk.

but that's deceptive. what that description above doesn't tell you is that your country-blues-folk will be served to you on a platter of psych-rock, elongated with the musical rolling pin that is guitar solos, garnished with the permission of a rather serious-looking curly haired guy from Atlanta. this spindly creature, Houck himself, will wander from centre stage at any opportunity but not forward to bask in any glow, but backwards or sideways to let the band do the work.

i guess for anyone who knows me well the question is simple: you hate drawn-out wig-outs. why the fuck are you there?

simple. Matthew Houck has a voice which, for some reason, i regard to be the perfect voice for the style of music he plays; it breaks, it warps, it sounds out of control but it can't be because he hits the same notes in the same places every time. it's a perfect example of order from chaos, that happens to hit its peak at the most important part of any band: the vocals.

so why the band? in the encore it's clear that a lone Houck can deliver a stunning song himself, as first Pride star 'Wolves' and then Here's To Taking It Easy also-ran 'Heaven, Sittin Down' are given solo treatment, the former taken from its original ukulele-laced slow-burning arrangement, and the latter given new purpose away from its full band country hopalong style, both gleaming in the stage spotlights that night, the lack of any other interference a clear benefit.

but i guess a counter argument can be made, as those two highlights make up only two of the four heart-in-mouth moments at tonight's ICA show (the ICA, incidentally, is a beautiful theatre and venue, albeit one i sadly have little time to explore). a big fan of willie nelson, Houck and band punch out Nelson's 'It's Not Supposed To Be That Way' (released on their Nelson tribute album To Willie) and recent-album highlight 'The Mermaid Parade' to great effect, the main man looking decidedly more relaxed at both these points, taking the microphone from its stand, lead draped over his shoulders, roaming to the front of the stage for once to bask in the sheer heartbreak that, for the Willie Nelson cover at least, just isn't present on the record, and that second verse in 'The Mermaid Parade' gets me at the best of times but tonight it makes for a lump in the throat.

I guess then whatever Houck does, there's always potential for the magic touch. I'll be honest, tonight wasn't the greatest gig ever witnessed by humanity which, given my short attention span isn't surprising when you're dealing with songs forcibly extended to six, seven, eight plus minutes, but Phosphorescent are a band who are more relevant now than at any previous point in its existence, you should check out 'Wolves' and 'The Mermaid Parade' on iTunes and get the free mp3 from KEXP below (more on them soon).

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