You see, there are two different bands named Phoenix. One makes très cool modern disco tunes perfect for popular consumption. The other powers through flashy, pulse-pounding New Wave rock perfect for popular consumption. To the delight of all packed into the sardine tin called the Bud Light stage on Sunday night, both Phoenixes showed up in full force.
These French diplomats of rock, while no one was looking, became A Really Big Thing. Footage of the band walking up the steps backstage played on the giant ACL Fest screens flanking the crowd to the tinkling of classical music, as if we were watching heads of state enter an embassy. They might as well have been royalty after an opening triple threat of "Entertainment," "Lasso" and "Listzomania" stirred the (literally) unwashed American masses into a frenzy. The magic of Phoenix could not be denied: Young and old, male and female, dancers and standers eagerly tried to sing along to the lyrics of dance playlist staples. The operative word is tried, because as anyone knows, it is impossible to understand what heavily accented frontman Thomas Mars is singing on any given track. (It is no easier live. My notes are proof.)
Mars himself is a conundrum. Technically, he does not possess charisma of any sort. He isn't particularly expressive. He doesn't dance. His vocal cadence stays in an almost unsettlingly consistent gear. The dazzling light show and visualizations playing behind the band overshadowed him. But yet there he was, sounding studio-perfect on familiar songs like "Girlfriend" and swooping into a sea of fans' arms as a security guard held on to the back of his pants, lest he be absorbed into the swooning maw. Then again: He is European.
Mars' voice seemed to thin into the band's roar periodically. That could have been unavoidable, as guitars screamed, drums pounded furiously and synths spiraled around a growling cloud of bass. The aforementioned light displays (kudos to that production designer) seemed to timewarp Zilker Park back to Deadmau5's 2010 set. Phoenix, the rock stars. Then, where some acts might bring things down a few notches with a plaintative ballad, the band transitioned right into polished, funky groovers like "Run Run Run" and "Long Distance Call." Phoenix, the disco revivalists.
As is befitting a French dance rock band, the cool factor was effortless. "S.O.S. in Bel Air," a set highlight, played like a sweeping New Wave rock opera with an adrenaline-pumping breakdown in the bridge late in the song. In a quieter moment, Mars sang "alone, alone, alone," chalky fog wrapping around his head in the shimmer of white stage lights. Give the man credit for knowing how to create a moment. The song "Trying to Be Cool," I'm now convinced, is supposed to ironic.
As ACL is a festival, the rock stars took the wheel for the closing moments of Phoenix's set, charging through a spectacular "1901" into a delirious "Rome" before crescendoing into a typhoon of noise and strobes. Unfortunately, the sound cut out right at the fever pitch, but Phoenix didn't seem to notice — Mars was in mid-crowd surf.
When the speakers came back moments later, there were the familiar notes of "Entertainment" once again. It seemed appropriate.